Jennifer Sienes

I had a daughter and son born two years apart—Nicole and Christopher. Growing up, they’d bicker and fuss at each other, knowing the exact buttons to push for maximum effect. When one of them would come to me complaining about the other, I’d say, “Someday you’ll be best friends, just like your uncle and me.”

They didn’t believe me.

It was a month before Christmas. Nicole had just celebrated her eighteenth birthday and was completing her first semester of college. Christopher, closing in on sixteen, had landed a job at Denny’s restaurant. It was inspiring how excited he was to be a dishwasher given he complained about doing the same job at home. I figured it was all about the money as he had a bent toward the materialistic. He’d talk about which jobs paid the most, and how he could eventually work himself to just such a position in life. So, color me surprised when he approached me that day as I sat at the dining room table, grading my eighth-grade students’ essays.

“Hey, Mom. Can you help me figure out the perfect Christmas present for Nicole?”

Shocked as I was, it took a moment to find my voice. Was my prediction of their impending friendship finally coming to fruition? “Uh, sure. How much do you want to spend?”

He yanked out a chair and plopped into it. “I have, like, forty bucks saved up.”

“Forty dollars?” If he’d said he had a thousand, I couldn’t have been more surprised. “Where’d you get all that money?”

“My job. Remember?” He didn’t have to tack on a duh, it was implied in his tone and facial expression.

“You must’ve saved every penny.” Student wages and FICA were his enemies.

He shrugged. “I wanted to get Nicole a cool present. So, will you help?”

“Sure. I’ll think of something.” After he walked away, I tried to focus on the essays again, but I got lost in memories of the antics my brother and I used to get into. Hopefully, Nicole and Christopher were too mature for such things. A parent could only take so much—and my mom had the gray hairs to prove it.

That weekend was our town’s yearly Christmas Open House. The shops lining Main Street stayed open late while the proprietors served hot chocolate, cookies, and cider. There was the annual light parade and carolers roaming the streets. Nicole was off with a friend, so Christopher and I attended the festivities alone.

“I came up with an idea for Nicole’s Christmas present,” I told him as we walked into the Music Box. The name of the shop was self-explanatory. They carried a wide array of music boxes and musical clocks. “What’s her favorite play?”

He frowned. “I dunno.”

“Sure, you do. Think about it.”

A moment later, his eyes lit up. “Phantom of the Opera.”

I nodded. We were fortunate the store had three music boxes depicting that particular play available, but the one Christopher (and I) really liked was fifty dollars. I glanced at his crestfallen face. “Don’t look so gloomy. I’m happy to chip in the extra.”

I’d never seen my son so anxious for Christmas. He always looked forward to the holiday—even putting up the tree and coaxing us to help decorate the moment Thanksgiving had passed. But now he was the epitome of the adage It’s more blessed to give than to receive. He had Nicole’s gift wrapped and under the tree before going to bed that night.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of activity. I was hosting the school’s staff Christmas party at my house. The work to prepare for that, along with the usual classroom activities and raising two teens, kept me busy. Nicole was working two jobs and studying for college finals, and Christopher was counting the hours until his sister would be able to open the gift he’d gotten her.

Then the week before Christmas arrived, and our world shifted. It was the last day of school before Christmas break. Nicole left early that Friday morning to finish her finals. She had nearly an hour commute, so she was out of the house before I was. Mid-morning, a California Highway Patrol officer showed up at my school to inform me Nicole had been in a car accident and medic-flighted to the nearest neuro-trauma hospital ninety minutes away.

My vice-principal drove me to Christopher’s school to pick him up before we made the trek to the hospital, not knowing if Nicole would still be alive when we arrived. So entrenched in my own fear and pain, I didn’t realize how much Nicole’s accident and precarious diagnosis affected my son. He withdrew into himself during the next week as he stayed with his grandparents while I lived at the hospital and prayed Nicole would awaken from the coma.

I’ve written ad nauseum about Nicole’s story. It was in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury, I have short stories about it in anthologies and blog posts, and it was the inspiration for my novel Illusions. But I have never shared how Christopher reacted to it.

Nicole awoke from the coma on Christmas Day, because our God is so good. However, it’s also when the real work began.

“Can we postpone celebrating Christmas until Nicole comes home?” Christopher asked one morning as I was getting ready to head out to the hospital.

“Are you sure? It could be a while?”

“I don’t care,” he said. “It won’t be the same without her.” He’d spent most of his free time at home closeted away in his bedroom, playing his guitar and worrying about her.

It would be weeks before Christopher could see her, weeks before she’d walk and talk, weeks before we could all breathe a little easier. The first day Christopher was allowed to visit her at the rehabilitation hospital, she’d just found her voice again. Unfortunately, her filter was still lost.

He walked into her room, twitching with excitement. “Hey Nikki.” He bent over her wheelchair to give her a hug.

“Hey.” It seemed to take a moment for her to recognize him. “What happened to your face? Don’t you ever comb your hair?”

“Nicole!” I reprimanded her like the twelve-year-old she portrayed. Christopher’s face had broken out, probably due to his anxiety over her, and he’d been so excited to see her, he hadn’t bothered to brush his hair. Leave it to the big sister to point out his flaws.u

“It’s fine, Mom.” Christopher’s smile never wavered. “I don’t care. I’m just glad she’s okay.” He sat down in front of her and took the abuse like a man.

Christmas wasn’t celebrated until mid-February. My Son, sixteen by then, had learned the art of patience. He had to wait two months to offer Nicole the gift he’d so carefully chosen for her. I think he was more excited about her opening it than she was. He helped her take it out of its box and showed her how to wind it up.

“Lift the lid,” Christopher said.

When Nicole did so, the Phantom mask rose and spun, playing The Phantom of the Opera. Her eyes widened along with her smile. “That’s so cool.” She looked up at him with wonder. “You bought this for me?”

He shrugged. “I wanted you to have something special.”

It was a gift Nicole has cherished ever since. She made a somewhat full recovery and even found her filter—eventually. That was the year we learned the best gifts are those that don’t cost money. Family, health, and memories cannot be bought. How easy it is to take for granted the simple things in life.


Susan K. Beatty

When I am afraid…I will not be afraid

Isn’t it amazing how you can read the same Scripture dozens, if not hundreds, of times, but then suddenly it says something new, or at least speaks to you differently? And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Believer. Even after forty-eight years of being a Bible-believing, Christ follower, I am daily surprised by the Word.

One recent experience occurred while listening to a sermon on and reading Psalm 56. Verses three and four kind of came together and said, “When I am afraid…I will not be afraid.” Why? The bridge is trusting God (verses 3b and 4b). And according to verse nine, “God is on my side.”

My author tagline is “Courage at the intersection of faith and grit,” so it’s no surprise my novels and novelettes feature characters who must live out their courage. Of course, at the beginning of their stories, they aren’t sure they have any courage. They’re afraid.

In House of Courage, Marissa realizes she’s afraid, but it’s only when she listens to her father and her Father God she realizes she’s no longer afraid to allow God to be in charge. She begins to trust.

Isobel, in Isobel’s Mission of Courage, seemingly finds her courage easily concerning her breast cancer (only seems so), but when she’s confronted about her motives to help someone, she becomes afraid to admit she’s wrong, until her husband points her to God being on her side.

My novel, Faces of Courage, sees Olivia through her trials of domestic abuse and breast cancer. With prayer and guidance from her mother-in-law, she turns her fear into courage by trusting the Lord.

Carmen’s Journey of Courage follows Carmen from Orange County to Mexico City, where she must overcome her fear of confronting unforgiveness and of being bold on behalf of her aunt. She puts her trust in God.

My upcoming novels, The Fragrance of Violets, now in editing, and Relinquished, barely in the WIP (work in progress) stage, will again show strong characters starting out afraid. These women, like many of us, are stalwart and independent, but when confronted by overwhelming problems, allow fear to take over. Until, by remembering God is with us, we realize we needn’t be afraid. We trust.

Sound easy? Simple maybe, but not easy. I and each of my characters need to rely on the Lord to help find a way from “when I am afraid” to “I will not be afraid.” Read their stories and find out how these characters find their way.