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‘Christmas I Remember Best’: The healing power of peace

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The power of peace and song at Christmas helped this Utah woman get through a battle with breast cancer.

Family photo

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By Julie Awerkamp

This is the sixth of 10 winners in the Deseret News annual Christmas writing contest, “Christmas I Remember Best.”

“Are you OK? Because you kind of look like a deer in the headlights.”

I stared blankly at the well-meaning, but not-so-well-spoken doctor who had just informed me that I most likely had breast cancer.

This was supposed to have been a quick stop at her office to pick up antibiotics for what I thought was a simple infection before heading out to dinner with my husband to celebrate his birthday. I was a 33-year-old busy mother of six children between the ages of 1 and 11, and cancer was the furthest thing from my mind.

The next few days were a blur as I waited for an official diagnosis that came Dec. 13, 2011. In a seemingly cruel twist of fate, the dreaded phone call came on a day when most of my family, my husband included, were hit by one of the worst stomach bugs we’ve ever had. It was a day that will forever live in infamy in our family history. 

Life had changed in an instant. I had what would turn out to be stage 3 breast cancer, and was scheduled for surgery a few days after Christmas.

Immediately we were showered with care by wonderful family and friends. My children had a 12 days of Christmas surprise to look forward to every night, friends dropped off food, Christmas books, flowers and letters filled with kind words. I was so grateful for the distraction that the Christmas season, with all of its wonder, could provide for my children.

I had good days where I could almost forget that this Christmas was different, but then in the middle of whatever mundane task I was doing, I would be hit with waves of fear that would nearly knock me over. In those moments, all I could do was find a place to be alone (not easy in a house full of small children), listen to calming music, and breathe deeply until my heart stopped pounding and I could cope again.

In the season of peace and joy, I was feeling anything but peace and joy.

On Christmas Eve, we gathered with my extended family for our traditional family party. As part of our annual “program,” we would usually have a family talent show. I had expected the same thing this year, but my sister Holly had slyly orchestrated something completely different. She passed out battery-powered tea lights to everyone and then turned out the ceiling lights.

She said that since Christmas felt different, it didn’t seem right to proceed as usual with the silly part of the program. Instead, my family had decided to give me the gift of Christ for Christmas.

Each family took a turn to tell a story from the scriptures about Christ that had been meaningful to them during hard times in their lives, and then we sang a hymn that went along with that story. As they shared, they turned on their little tea lights.

After everyone was done, Holly told me that the lights represented the faith and prayers of each member of the family joining with mine to help see me through this trial. The tender and sacred feelings in that room were palpable and I felt the first stirrings of peace.

Christmas Day itself was on a Sunday. We went to church and I headed up on the stand to sing with the ward choir. The program was beautifully written. One of the numbers we were singing was the Mack Wilberg arrangement of “The First Noel.”

As the soprano notes soared in the middle of that beautiful song, I suddenly felt the power of its message to my very core. “It is all true.” That thought struck me with such force that I couldn’t continue singing. “It’s all true, and because of that, what I am going through is OK.”

I felt it with certainty, and stood through the rest of the song with tears streaming down my face, listening to the choir of angels around me, and knowing that no matter what happened, it would be OK.

The following year was difficult; we passed through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and recovery. However, the feeling that came on Christmas Day stayed with me and helped me get through it all with gratitude in my heart for the babe born in Bethlehem who has the power to make all things right.

Julie Awerkamp lives in American Fork.