What did you get for Christmas?
Five golden rings? Big deal.
On the 22nd day of November, my doctor gave to me — five coronary arteries.
And along with them came a deeper appreciation for the name by which Isaiah and Matthew refer to the child born of a virgin and laid in a manger: Immanuel; “God with us.”
My Christmas story actually began about Easter, with the first grass-cutting of spring. As I pushed my mower, I felt a tightness in my chest that never had been there before. Out of shape, I thought. I sat around all winter, and now I’m paying the price. It will lessen each time I cut.
Moreover, I started feeling the occasional chest twinge over the next few months and — particularly when walking up hill — a pain that radiated down my left arm.
Now, the Bible states that as I was knit together in the womb, I was “fearfully and wonderfully” made. It never says, though, that I could be called particularly bright. I ignored the warnings that God had programmed my body to give me. It was just pain. I could deal with that.
God, though, was relentless. He, of course, knew his creation better than I knew myself. He had a Plan B.
If he couldn’t get me to the doctor through pain, then vanity would have to do.
Not long before the onset of the tightness and twinges, there sprouted on my right temple a mole that grew slowly at first, then seemed to accelerate as the summer went on.
Years ago, a reader not particularly impressed with my column photo called to suggest that the image might actually drive people away from God. So all I needed on top of that was a repulsive brown protuberance that seemed to suck in both hair dye and the attention of anyone who needed to look me in the eye.
Chest pain’s one thing. Becoming a gnome is quite another.
I decided to see a doctor. And this time, my own ignorance was a blessing. I made an appointment with a family doctor. My wife asked me why I didn’t go straight to a dermatologist. I had no answer for that. It simply hadn’t crossed my mind.
In the meantime, upon learning that I had not seen a doctor in years and discovering that I had high blood pressure, my physician referred me not only to a specialist who could remove the mole, but also to a cardiologist who scheduled me for a stress test.
It turned out to be the first test I failed since 1973, when I stalled the car twice during a K-turn on the driver’s examination course.
My blood pressure skyrocketed while I was on the treadmill, and the session was halted. I returned to my family doctor, who prescribed medication to get the blood pressure under control.
A few weeks later, with the pressure down to normal range, I took the test again. The results indicated a thickening of part of the heart muscle typical of prolonged hypertension and suggested some type of blockage.
The next step was a heart catherization, whereby the cardiologist would examine the interior of the heart. It was suggested that a stent — a piece of hardware that would expand and hold open the offending artery — would be inserted at the same time.
The catherization went off as scheduled. The stent did not. The cardiologist discovered an unusual arterial configuration, and referred me to a cardiac surgeon.
That Pittsburgh specialist reviewed the video provided by the local cardiologist, and saw even more atypical vessels.
“In short,” he told me, “You are a strange man.”
I needed a team of elite heart surgeons to tell me that? I could have done nothing and gotten the same diagnosis from just about anyone in the newsroom.
But he went further. He recommended a triple bypass that, once he opened me up Nov. 22, turned into a quintuple.
In the course of all that, though, a strange thing was happening.
Remember that mole? As soon as I was placed in the hands of a cardiologist, it began to dry up and crumble. By them time the day arrived for it to be cut out, the garish growth had all but disappeared.
God finally had gotten my attention. As soon as I was under the care of the people who would deal with my heart problems, the mole disintegrated. What I had considered ugly and extraneous, I am convinced, turned out to be the personal intervention of God in my life.
That is to say, God with me.
Though Matthew calls the Christ child the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, “ God’s personal interaction with human beings did not start that night in Bethlehem nor end three decades later on a cross in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of years before, David proclaimed to God “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Likewise, Jesus advised his followers “do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid;” because when he left, God would give to them “another Counselor, to be with you forever.”
God always has desired to have a personal relationship with each man, woman and child. Isaiah notes that sometimes, “your iniquities have separated you from your God, your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.”
To those who seek him, though, God promises in Jeremiah 24:7 that “I will give them a heart to know me.”
This Christmas, he gave me one that has helped me to know him better.
(Dan Irwin is sections editor at The News.)