It was a week before Christmas and we were on our way to Ikea.
I expected the normal Ikea happenings. Marital discord, meltdowns in the candle section, checkout line promises that "we will never come here again."
But I never expected this.
Five minutes from our destination I heard something. It started as a low growl, but the sound turned quickly and undeniably wet. My head whipped around just in time to watch a cascade of vomit cover Finn's jacket, pants and carseat, landing with finality on the floor.
"Joel, he's throwing up!" I yelled in a panic, followed quickly with a forced calm, "It's okay buddy, not a big deal, just relax."
So with Aiden crying in the back over the smell, Joel driving with his head out the window, and Benjamin sleeping through it all we made our way to the closest gas station.
I hopped out and stripped Finn down to his underwear, his only un-soaked article of clothing. Pulling out the baby wipes I cleaned the mess as well as I could, wrapped him in the baby's blanket, and insisted we go "back home right now."
Unfortunately, the four lane road where this incident occurred forced us to continue on our previous path towards the Ikea, where we planned to turn around and drive our sick, cold child home.
Ikea was finally in our sights, and we searched for a place to turn around. Just as we approached the ramp to the parking garage I heard another sound, this time from the way back. I turned in time to catch the full, explosive event, this time covering Aiden in a pool of vomit.
"Aiden's throwing up," I yelled. "Pull in here now!"
The car shot quickly down the ramp, under the moving arm and into a far corner of the Ikea parking garage.
One look at Joel's queasy face and I knew I was alone on this one. I told him to take the baby and go get the piece of furniture we originally set out for. I knew it would take me some time to clean up and after all this I wasn't about to make the hour trek back home with nothing to show for it.
Unfortunately Aiden's explosion soaked him through, and in the end was left butt naked in his cold car seat. After just getting him wrapped in my coat and settled down Finn was at it again, and then again.
Finally it seemed as though the storm had passed. The boys sat huddled quietly in their car seats and Joel returned to the car with a deliriously happy baby and a quick and easy purchase (an Ikea Christmas miracle).
We loaded the car, tied the throw-up covered clothes tightly in bags, buckled up and breathed a sigh of relief to be headed home.
Joel turned the key and the engine ground and screeched, but wouldn't turn over. He switched the key back off.
"No," was all I could say.
This wasn't happening. Certainly it would start next time.
He turned the key again, longer this time. Nothing.
I thought about a friend from our church in a similar situation. In her car on the side of the road, three kids in the back, car not starting. She took the time to pray with her kids for the car to start and the next time her husband tried the engine began purring, took them all the way back home.
So I prayed. I prayed hard. I prayed by myself, with the kids, I think it's safe to say I begged for that darn car to start.
Joel turned the key again.
Nothing. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse.
"I need to get someone to jump us," Joel said, and went to the back for the cables.
Easy enough in the US where he could simply approach a fellow customer and ask for help jumping our car. But at a point in break where his shaggy beard and wild hair had him looking less-than-respectable, approaching unsuspecting shoppers with long, metal cables (as we didn't know how to say "jump our car"), and without a wife and kids in view, he may not have appeared the type people are generally eager to help.
Finally he found a woman willing to drive her car over to ours. He hooked up the cables and I kept on praying. He got back in, turned the key.... turned it, turned it, turned it, and.... nothing.
After a few more unsuccessful tries we thanked the lady for her help and watched sadly as she drove her wonderfully working car right out of the parking garage.
At this point I started to get nervous. An hour away from home, two naked children, a crying baby and a car full of stuff that just wouldn't start. I felt homesick for our two sets of parents, who would have driven hours and done anything to rescue us, I felt angry that God wasn't answering my prayers, I felt abandoned and alone.
Joel and I both are particularly bad at asking for help. We don't want to inconvenience anyone and generally tend towards taking care of ourselves. But desperate times call for desperate measures so we swallowed our pride and called our friends for help.
They heard our situation and immediately offered to come get us, a huge relief as a taxi ride with two, butt-naked, sick children and a baby sounded like a nightmare of its own.
But as we had wandered so far from home we knew we were in for a wait. So I wrapped the children tighter and shivered in my seat as Joel attempted to explain our situation to the Ikea customer service representatives, as it appeared our car would be trapped in their garage for the night.
At this point all three boys were tired, cold, and Aiden was starting to get scared. Although we assured him help was on the way he still insisted that he was "going to die" (he's not dramatic at all).
I decided some Christmas songs were in order, and the boys quickly agreed, although refusing to sing themselves. So I started with the classic Jingle Bells, but I only know one verse so it got old fast. The next song to pop in my head was "Silent Night," so with the boys staring passively out the window I started to sing. "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..."
I listened to the words I was singing, and at first I felt angry. Why couldn't I have a silent, peaceful night. Why couldn't I be in our warm house, snuggled up in our pajamas, watching a Christmas movie by the twinkling tree. Why would God answer my friends' prayers, but not mine.
Then it clicked, and I realized that the birth of Jesus I sang about, that silent, holy night, wasn't the event I always pictured. The warm, soft glow of the manger scene, the baby Jesus in a bed of silky hay, Mary in a spotless, white dress kneeling beside her tiny, sleeping child.
I have been blessed to deliver three healthy babies... but I also endured the absolute most difficult, painful, and trying hours of my life thus far doing so.
I remember playing the virgin Mary as a second grader in our church's nativity play. I was so incredibly happy when they pulled my name from that hat, and I practiced for weeks knocking calmly on the door of each inn, asking if there was any room for us, that I was going to have a baby.
Three children later I like to imagine what that was really like. I could barely handle the pain of labor in the quiet and calm of my hospital room, with doctors and nurses roaming the halls and constantly checking on me. What must it have been like to wander through the dark, pausing only to catch her breath, or to push through another excruciating contraction, and to hear time and time again, "I'm sorry, you can't come in here, we're all full."
I wonder if she felt abandoned. Or angry. I wonder if she thought, "how could this get any worse?"
And finally they landed in a manger, after what I imagine was Joseph begging for some place, any place, for his wife to have her baby. Perhaps she could feel he was coming soon.
So Mary sets about delivering a baby in a barn, which I am fairly certain looked little like the nativity scenes adorning our mantles. The place was crawling with animals and the sounds and smells that accompany those animals. I can't imagine any place comfortable and clean enough to push out a small child.
But she did. And for a moment, I'm sure, there was peace. Relief and wonder and peace. Something like I felt after each birth, only magnified at the sight of this miracle baby.
I somehow doubt that Mary had room service bringing her a warm meal immediately after all her hard work. Or even a nice, hot shower and something soft to lay on. But still, I imagine there was joy and peace. In the middle of a barn. On a night where everything went wrong.
I thought in that cold, stinky car about how I picture Christmas. A tree adorned with colorful ornaments, lit with sparkling lights. Hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies. Snuggling on the couch watching one of millions of Christmas movies. Piles of presents and overflowing stockings.
It stands in such stark contrast to the thing we celebrate at Christmas time... that crazy night when Jesus was born. A night where it must have seemed that everything went wrong, that God, somehow wasn't answering her prayers as she imagined he would.
Eventually the boys fell asleep and Joel returned. Our friend arrived, towed our car out of the garage, and drove us the rest of the way home, blasting the heat for us and buying the boys Ginger Ale to settle their stomachs. Other friends helped us figure out the best way to get our car back and fixed the next morning and gave us one of their cars to use while we waited.
It's been over two weeks since this incident. It's not quite funny yet, but also not traumatizing.
It has me thinking again, though, with the start of this new year. Everyone wishing for happiness and health and prosperity for 2014. And how some, if not most, people aren't going to get that. At least not all year long.
So in case this year is filled with more vomit and broken-down cars or things much worse or not quite so bad, I hope to look back on that night when Jesus was born. To know things don't have to go perfectly as I plan. To know that everything can go wrong and still, it will be okay.
Because perhaps, in the middle of it all, a miracle is happening.