We huddled outside her window, bundled against the damp December wind. Pandemic protocol prevented us from entering the memory-care facility. This Christmas season, it was the best we could do for Aunt Sally.

We waited expectantly as the caretaker tucked a blanket around the frail woman and gently placed a Santa Claus hat on her head. Then she slid the window open.

My aged aunt, nearly 90, looked startled when she heard the voices outside. Then she spied her daughter’s bright face. Despite our masks, the light of recognition clicked on in Aunt Sally’s eyes.

“Oh, what a surprise!” she exclaimed, joy emanating from her soul. Methodically, she counted the people standing in the semicircle outside her window. Holding up five fingers, she confidently announced to her daughter, “There are five of you.”

“Yes, Mom, five of us today,” my cousin Laura replied. She paused. “And we have a surprise for you.” Laura reached for me, inviting me to the window. “I want you to meet someone.”

Aunt Sally looked up expectantly.

“This is Rae Ann’s son,” my cousin announced. “His name is Tim.” Aunt Sally looked confused. Laura repeated her news, then stepped back to give me room at the window. I repeated who I was. “I’m Rae Ann’s son,” I said. “She gave birth to me. You took care of her when she was pregnant with me.” Aunt Sally’s jaw dropped. She looked shocked, stunned. Then, just as quickly, her demeanor changed. And from deep inside the fog of her dementia, Aunt Sally understood who I was.

Today was the first time we had met face to face.

Aunt Sally leaned forward in her chair. With a voice fierce and loving, she said, “I love you so much.” Then she settled back in her chair.

Overwhelmed, Aunt Sally looked away for a few moments. She looked back at me, a blend of longing and sweet joy in her aged face. Then she turned to gaze at the familiar face of her daughter. Aunt Sally looked content.

Six decades earlier, Aunt Sally and her husband had taken his little sister into their home. Rae Ann, a young nurse, had just returned from a year in Europe. She was pregnant. She would not be marrying her Swiss boyfriend. He was marrying another woman. I have a Swiss brother who is two months older than I am. Mine is a convoluted history.

In 1960, this sort of thing wasn’t done in the suburbs of southeast Michigan. But my birthmom’s brother Vic and his wife Sally opened their arms and their home to her—and to me. And they would continue to pray for the baby boy Rae Ann ultimately gave up for adoption.

Even in her dementia, Aunt Sally loved to sing and pray. And so we sang with her. “Silent Night,” it was. The song holds memories for me, memories from my childhood in Africa. I had been adopted by missionaries who gave me an adventurous life. I wonder if Aunt Sally’s prayers had anything to do with that. I think so.

Aunt Sally sang all the words clearly, beaming with delight. From time to time, she would look at me and seem to wonder. All of this was too much for her. But she was happy people had come to see her.

We knew we couldn’t stay long; Aunt Sally would get too cold by the window. “Do you want to pray, Mom?” Laura asked.

Her voice clear and strong, Aunt Sally began, “God, you are so wonderful!” She kept praying, but her voice quickly faded. She struggled for something to say, and her prayer trailed off into silence. We glanced at each other, grinning. Laura looked at her mother and purposefully announced, “Amen!”

Satisfied, Aunt Sally looked up and echoed the amen. She likely didn’t even know she was the one who had been praying. That’s okay. God knew.

Laura told me how Aunt Sally prayed for everyone she knew. She’d stop and pray for the workers who took care of her if they happened to mention a personal problem. Aunt Sally loved Jesus. And she prayed.

I’ve long wondered why my life has gone the way it has. So many things seem to unfold in remarkable ways. Why did God give me great adoptive parents? Why did I get born at all? A nurse in Europe who is pregnant with a baby she can’t keep has motivation and opportunity to get rid of her child before he’s born. I think a huge part of that is because people were praying. People like Aunt Sally.

It’s clear to me that God has a plan. Of course he does! But we tend to forget that. Instead we see the pain and the problems facing us in the moment. God doesn’t live in the moment. He dwells in eternity.

Does prayer make a difference?

Yes. Yes it does.

My birth—my very existence—had been a “problem.” Aunt Sally and Uncle Vic didn’t see it that way. God didn’t either.

These days, things would have been different. My mom would surely have kept me. Maybe I would have grown up at Uncle Vic and Aunt Sally’s house. But in 1960, that wasn’t how it played out. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. My aunt and uncle honored Jesus by caring for my mother.

Aunt Sally isn’t likely to remember meeting me. But somewhere deep in her psyche is the memory of a baby boy born to her sister-in-law. A baby she had prayed for many, many times. Me.

—Tim Gustafson

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