By Jason F. Wright
While most of us are enjoying Thanksgiving week and stretching out for the sprint to Dec. 25, young Nathan Norman of Rustburg, Va., has been celebrating Christmas since September.
His journey to an early Christmas in 2012 began with a misdiagnosis on Christmas Eve, 2007. Darting eyes and seizures were attributed to benign paroxysmal vertigo of childhood, a type of migraine and vertigo disorder. He had not yet celebrated his first birthday.
Nathan's mother, Dawn, recalls their relief that test results didn't suggest anything worse. Her doctor's words still ring in her ears. "I would have hated to bring you the news on Christmas Eve that your child has a tumor."
The year ahead was a swift, steady stream of stress and seizures, but tests repeatedly came back clear and clean for anything more troubling. That would change on Jan. 14, 2009, when an MRI discovered an astrocytoma brain tumor in his fourth ventricle.
Many of us might have clung to blame and hard feelings, but the Norman family believed then and now that those dangerous emotions wouldn't have served as a life preserver. Instead, they would have become a heavy anchor in angry waters. "It's all in God's timing," Dawn said.
The family was referred to Dr. Gerald Grant at Duke University's renowned medical center. Dr. Grant's team operated immediately and found the tumor had fingered into his brain stem. Despite their best efforts, they had no choice but to leave approximately 45 percent of the tumor in place.
Post-op treatments began, and Nathan fought on with the certainty that every new day was a gift from God. He had no fear, just faith. When asked to describe her son during this difficult time, Nathan's mother chose three simple words: "faith, love, joy."
When a spinal scan in 2011 revealed the cancer had moved south, Nathan's parents explained that even though God hadn't removed the tumor, heaven was using Nathan to touch lives and inspire people. With new challenges, Nathan and his team moved on once again with no fear, just faith.
This fall, the cancer began progressing yet again, and a heavy blend of medications has presented new and extremely challenging side effects. While returning from a round of treatments at Duke on Sept. 12, Nathan leaned forward and asked, "Daddy, can we put the Christmas tree up early? The lights might make me feel better."
Nathan's father couldn't say yes fast enough.
Word of the Norman family's early Christmas spread faster than a Pinterest recipe, and soon many in their neighborhood had put up their decorations, too. One generous business even left a giant sleigh in their front yard.
To add to their prefab celebration, friends and family began sending early Christmas cards, and, after an appearance on local television station WSET, the effort snowballed into a blizzard. Nathan had barely opened the first batch when cards began drifting into his mailbox from well beyond their small town of Rustburg. It's easy to picture the excitement of this little believer as he digs into piles of cards and letters from others who've joined their long adventure to Dec. 25.
As Nathan prepares for the magic of December, his family looks to the future with remarkably clear eyes. They accept that he may not pass these calendar mile markers again. They know that this Thanksgiving could be his last and that this Christmas Eve could be their final together in this earthly life. But they forge forward with no fear, just faith.
When I asked Dawn how they communicate this blue-gray reality to their tender son, she explained that not everyone receives their healing on earth, but that all receive the ultimate healing in heaven. She added, "Nathan is not a victim. Whether God chooses to heal him on earth or in heaven, Nathan wins."
I do not know if those words brought tears to Nathan's eyes, but they did mine.
As I sat in my small office this week, I was overcome at the difficulty of reshaping such a massive, moving story into so few words in a weekly column that has firm limits and boundaries. I've found that Nathan Norman's story is much bigger than an inky newspaper page or a few digital inches on a website.
It's a story of siblings who receive too little attention from the world as they carry their own burdens into their brother's painful battle with cancer. Sarah, Matthew and Tabitha are remarkable warriors, too, with their own brave stories to tell.
It's a story of neighbors and friends who've willingly carried extra loads so that the family can seek as many memories together as possible.
It's a story of a faithful boy who will one day meet Jesus, but who doesn't need to see his face to already know he lives.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.