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A Christmas Miracle

How an Angel Tree saved our first Christmas

Editor’s Note: Traditions return at holiday time to knit our pasts and present into a ­garment we wear comfortably into the future. At Bay Weekly we’ve made it a ­holiday tradition to tell you a story of how the season’s memories are ­celebrated in our extended family. This year, as Melissa Driscoll Krol takes her turn, you’ll feel your reward for any gift you’ve made under an Angel Tree.

You could say our Christmas miracle began in February 2001. Married only six months and deeply in love, my husband Jeremy and I decided on a birthday whim to start a family. We were 26, college graduates and Army soldiers. What could go wrong?
    We assumed I would have the same fertility problems my mother had so it would take us a while to conceive. We couldn’t have been more misguided. In 10 days I was pregnant. Five weeks later, we knew we were having twins. The babies were due on Thanksgiving.
    When my water broke October 10, I was more than six weeks early. On the way into the delivery room, I asked a doctor how long they’d have to stay in the hospital. At his answer — “Until their due date” — I cried so hard I hyperventilated.
    I remember the doctor telling me I had to stop shaking so he could set the epidural. Jeremy wasn’t even in the room yet. I had to hold a nurse’s hand.
    Jacek was born first, followed a minute later by Annah. The doctors and nurses showed her to us almost immediately. She was bright pink and wrapped up like a little baby Eskimo. But the room was silent.
    “Where’s Jacek?” we asked, and “Why aren’t they crying?”

Born more than a month before their due date, Jacek and Annah had to be bundled in towels to fit in their car seats.

    After what seemed like an hour, we saw him. He wasn’t as pink as Annah, and the doctors admitted he hadn’t been breathing when he was born. Fear permeated my mind and body.
    Our children’s saving grace was that they were heavy for preemies, just over four pounds each. The doctors, however, warned us that they would lose some weight. No matter their weight, they were so very, very small. Their cries weren’t even cries; they sounded like squeaks.
    We had a very scary, precarious three weeks. In the wake of 9/11, military installations were on lock-down and no family was allowed to visit us at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
    In the beginning, I believed the weeks would go smoothly. The babies just needed to gain some weight and maintain their body temperatures in an open crib so we could bring them home. That was until a phone call woke me at dawn. It was a doctor from the NICU. I clearly remember him saying, “Your son’s heart has stopped. We think he has an infection. We need to do a spinal tap.”
    I dropped the phone and let out a guttural scream from the depths of my soul. Jeremy grabbed the portable phone and yelled: “Who is this and what did you say to my wife?”
    At the hospital I signed the consent forms for my tiny little boy. When the doctors brought him back to me, the band-aid looked huge on his little back as a bruise spread around it.
    We had a difficult two days waiting for the test results. But in the end, he was fine, and his heart never stopped again.
    By Halloween both Jacek and Annah were big and healthy enough to come home.
    Even though they were still barely over four pounds, they were eating every two hours and maintaining their body temperatures. We were grateful but so unprepared for preemies. Everything from our baby shower was too big, even the pacifiers and car seats. We had no preemie clothes and had never even heard of preemie diapers.
    The hospital had sent us home with two outfits each. The babies wore those until we received a package from my mother-in-law, who had found preemie clothes in Connecticut. We finally found preemie diapers in a store in Annapolis. I tried to nurse, but the babies were too weak, so I was forced to put them on formula with tiny bottles and nipples the hospital had given us.
    Our family was doubled and our income halved after the Army discharged me due to an “unnatural birth.” We moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a small condo and quickly sold our second car.
    Still, money was going out faster than it was coming in. We were perfect candidates for the Women, Infants, and Children program, which would have provided money for the preemie formula as my children met the standard for being nutritionally at risk. But my husband and I had grown up middle class and didn’t know that WIC or food stamps were for people like us.
    At Thanksgiving both Jeremy’s family and mine came to celebrate the holiday and meet our Jacek, then up to five and half pounds, and Annah, six pounds. My mother-in-law brought more clothes and diapers. Our parents made and paid for Thanksgiving dinner. I still remember how it felt to have a full stomach.
    By December 1, both our families were gone, along with the Thanksgiving leftovers and all our money.
    We had $14 in our checkbook. We couldn’t afford milk. One bad night I opened the cupboard to make dinner, only to find a can of generic green beans and dry cereal. All our money was going to the $30 cans of preemie formula we went through every other day that was sold by only one grocery store in the area.
    Sleep was scarce, too, caught in two- or three-hour stretches between feedings.
    Christmas looked bleak. My mother’s kindness in putting up our plastic tree and decorating our house over Thanksgiving somehow made everything worse. The tree seemed to mock me, reminding me of how very, very foolish we had been in having children with no way to properly care for them.
    I was exhausted and worried, despite our gratitude at having two healthy babies home with us.
    By December 23, I was deeply depressed. I felt like a failure. At least two-month-old babies wouldn’t know they had no Christmas presents, I told myself.
    That night, my husband was late getting home. We had no cell phones — couldn’t afford them — so I could only pray he was all right.
    By 7pm, as panic was beginning, I heard Jeremy struggling up the stairs. He knocked hard. I ran to throw the door open.
    In each hand, he held a large, black trash bag bulging under the weight of its contents. “Help me,” he said.
    I grabbed a bag and pulled it inside.

Jeremy’s platoon sergeant put the young family on an Angel Tree. It was their Christmas miracle.

    “What is all this?” I asked.
    “My platoon sergeant put us on the Angel Tree at the PX. This is what people gave us,” he said.
    I was breathlessly in awe.
    “Quick!” I said as I realized Jacek and Annah were in the room watching from their bouncy seats.
    “Drag the bags to the bedroom so the babies don’t see.” I said.
    I know it sounds ridiculous to hide Christmas gifts from infants, but even now when our twins are teenagers we hide all their gifts until they are asleep Christmas Eve.
    In the bedroom, Jeremy and I opened the bags, extracting toys, books, blankets, clothes, bottles, so many things I can hardly remember them all.
    One gift I will never forget: At the bottom of the very last bag was a big beautiful box of diapers.
    “We don’t even have wrapping paper,” I told my husband through teary eyes. “What do we do?”
    He got a determined look on his face. “I’ll find some,” he promised. “I’ll check the dollar store tomorrow.”
    Two days later, at dawn on December 25, 2001, we sat with our precious infants on our laps under our now beautiful, glowing Christmas tree, slowly unwrapping each and every gift, showing them to Jacek and Annah.
    We had been blessed with a Christmas miracle.