“I wish I knew what had happened to Ruth’s doll,” I lamented to my children a week before Christmas.
Ruth, our adopted daughter, had so loved the brown Bitty Baby I’d bought when she’d arrived in Maine from a Ugandan children’s home, Welcome Home Ministries Africa. At the time, Ruth was 18 months old and couldn’t sit up, feed herself or speak. Having been abandoned at birth, she was staying in Topsham with friends, who’d volunteered to take care of her while she received therapy for cerebral palsy.
Our own daughter, Lydia, was just a couple of weeks older than Ruth. For her first birthday, six months before, her grandmother had bought her a popular American Girl doll with a soft cottony body and round rosy cheeks. After meeting Ruth, I knew she needed a doll too. So after failing to find a single brown doll in midcoast Maine, I’d ordered one online.
That Christmas, after Ruth’s host mother got sick, Ruth came to live with us. I sewed the girls matching dresses of velvet and tulle – holly-berry red for Ruth and holly green for Lydia. For their matching Bitty Babies, I sewed matching rompers. In the years Ruth was with us, seeing our nearly identical girls with their identical dolls brought me so much joy. Since Ruth was unable to use her hands, Lydia or I (or one of the girls’ older brothers) would dress her doll for her before tucking it under the crook of her arm as she sat in her wheelchair.
Then one winter, nearly eight years ago – Is it even possible? – we lost our sweet Ruth. She’d had a mild cold before passing away unexpectedly in her sleep. The pain of losing a child is an agony that defies description. Our one comfort was knowing that if it hurt so much, we had truly loved Ruth well. Over the years, Ruth’s doll continued to receive much of our love – first from Lydia, then from her two little brothers. How I loved watching those boys dress and rock and lug around their sister’s doll.
But somewhere between the years and children and moving from our old home in Bath to the rural countryside up the river, Ruth’s doll disappeared. I looked behind beds, in closets, in the back of our minivan but couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally I was forced to admit that Ruth’s doll was gone.
So when my 5 year old son, Ezra, walked into the kitchen one week before Christmas holding Lydia’s old Bitty Baby, it brought back the familiar pain of knowing what we had lost. Not just Ruth’s doll, of course, but of the many, many losses life brings – the greatest being the loss of those we love. And I couldn’t help wishing out loud that I still had Ruth’s doll – one small memento from her brief life to hold onto in her absence.
A few days later, I climbed into our attic and hauled down a giant bag of shepherd’s robes, angel wings and scarves for our church’s small nativity pageant. I had no idea what our youngest boys were supposed to be. One said a shepherd, the other a shepherd king. Either way, after years of having run pageants, I knew I had the boys covered. Herding them into their Sunday school classroom a few hours later, I plonked the bag on a table and began pulling out wads of fabric when my fingers wrapped around a cloth with something hard wrapped inside. As soon as I pulled it out, my mouth dropped open. There, bundled as the baby Jesus, was Ruth’s doll.
How many years had it been since I’d organized my last pageant? Three? Four? Unwinding a long strip of swaddling clothes, I clutched Ruth’s bare baby to my chest before running into the sanctuary to share the treasure I’d found. It was the best gift of Christmas, knowing that that which was lost had been found. And isn’t this God’s gift to all of us? Restoring that which has been lost or stolen or cast aside through the unreasonable, astonishing gift of his redemptive love.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Backward Easter Egg Hunt, the second book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available for preorder now. Connect at www.meadowrue.com