|The Perfect Gift
Perry Bice turned off the engine but remained behind the wheel. Parked in his driveway was a wheelchair-accessible van, a huge red and gold bow spanning the windshield. Bice began to sob.
"Why is Daddy crying?" asked nine-year-old Branson. Scrambling out, the boy ignored the van; he'd spied the trampoline and the basketball goal near the newly constructed wheelchair ramp. It was still early on Christmas Day, 2001. But already the Bice family had been blessed beyond its wildest dreams, thanks to a group of volunteers in the Kansas City area - the Elves of Christmas Present.
The Bice family has seen more than its share of sorrow. In just a few short years, Perry's car engine went out, and a fire destroyed the house he shared with his wife, Kathrine, and their children. And then Perry lost his job.
But even deeper troubles were beginning. When Kathrine's mother died suddenly, tests revealed a rare condition and helped unlock a family medical mystery. Doctors finally were able to diagnose what was wrong with the Bices' youngest daughter, Rishonn: She has a related genetic disorder, mitochondrial disease, a condition that can lie dormant for years - pr end a life in weeks.
Before long, the Bices learned their oldest daughter, Chambris, also had the disease. And then Mishalya tested positive. Two other children, Branson and Talaessa, were healthy. Kathrine, it turned out, was the carrier. For months, the couple lived in a daze of grief, denial and sleepless nights as the illness racked their children's lives. Three-year-old Rishonn died soon after her diagnosis in 1999.
At times, Perry, a deeply religious man, railed at God. But neither he nor Kathrine was ever bitter. "We've found a God that cares for us tenderly," she explains.
They were grateful when, two weeks before Christmas, a man identifying himself only as the chief elf called them at their Gardner, Kansas apartment to ask if his group could bring their children some gifts. Perry and Kathrine agreed, knowing their kids would love the surprise.
What the Bices didn't know was that as soon as the sun set on Christmas Eve, an elf crew was dispatched to the little house the couple recently had struggled to buy. Although they'd closed on the property two days earlier, they weren't given a key (the Realtor was in cahoots with the elves),.
Old carpet was pulled up and hauled off. New rugs and floors were installed. Twenty-six volunteers rolled on a coat of paint. Hours later, 26 more painters put on a second coat. Eight finishing carpenters nailed in moldings and baseboards. A building crew constructed a wheelchair ramp. Gifts were wrapped, and the trampoline was set up.
A Christmas tree was decorated with twinkling lights and ornaments. An elf who is also a car dealer donated a van. Another elf donated several months of mortgage payments. Others followed suit, bringing the total to more than $17,000. Each month's payment was tied on a note that dangled from the tree's branches.
One last loving touch was nestled inside the tree - a tiny card, printed in script, courtesy of an elf who had kept his print shop open late. By 6:30 a.m., as the etchings of Christmas morning streaked pink across the sky, the gifts were finally ready.
A rookie elf, a girl about 11 years old, presented the key to the Bices later that morning. "What's this?" Perry asked. "A key? To what?" Like a little ghost, the elf smiled, softly wished them a Merry Christmas, then ran off.
It dawned on Perry that perhaps the elves had left the gifts at their new home. He and Kathrine bundled up the kids and headed over. When the family opened the door, they couldn't believe the sun-splashed walls, fresh Barber carpets and tiled floors. The lights of the tree drew them closer. Then they saw the mortgage payments and were overwhelmed.
After their tears were wiped away, Perry stood back and looked at the tree once more. That's when he noticed the tiny envelope that was perched on a branch. Inside was the last gift, a gift of three precious words: God loves you.
Bice smiled, then nodded and placed it at the very top of the tree.
Claire Miller and his crew picked up a new B-24 at California's March Field on Christmas Eve, 1943, and prepared to fly to England. But they decided to have "one more hamburger" before heading out for the distant land of fish and chips.
As the airmen sat in a local restaurant, a beautiful young waitress approached. "I understand you're going to England," she said to Miller. Then she told him that her fiancÚ, an aviation gunner like Miller, was stationed there.
The woman said she was waiting for him to provide an address so she could send him a picture of herself. "You might run into him," she told Miller hopefully. "Would you take it?"
Miller knew it was unlikely he'd ever see her fiance. But he didn't want to disappoint the woman. He took the picture and paced it in his wallet. Later he realized he hadn't even asked the man's name. Then it was on to Europe and the war.
On August 9, 1944, Miller's plane was shot down, and he was forced to parachute to an island off the coast of Holland. Captured by the Nazis, he spend the next nine months as a prisoner of war.
It was on Christmas Eve that someone told him a 19-year-old American prisoner down the hall was badly depressed and possibly suicidal. Miller decided to pay the man a visit.
To break the ice, he mentioned the POW band he'd started, with the help of the Red Cross. The young man, he learned, played the saxophone. The two began to exchange details about their families. Was hew married, the kid asked. "Yeah, since '38," responded Miller.
"Have you got her picture?" the soldier asked. So Miller reached for his wallet, and pulled out a photograph of his wife.
"She's beautiful!" the young man responded. Then he noticed that a second picture had fallen out, and an expression of wonder crossed his face. "Where did you get that?" Miller told the story of the waitress at the California hamburger stand.
"That's my fiance," the incredulous man said. Miller kept his promise to the beautiful girl back home and turned the picture over to its rightful owner.
The men stayed in touch briefly, and then went their separate ways for the remaining months of the war. Miller and his wife settled in Florida. And what became of the young man who had thought to end his life? He married the woman in the photo.
I was incredibly proud of my nine-year-old daughter, Emily. Determined to buy a mountain bike, she'd been saving her allowance all year, as well as doing small jobs around the neighborhood to earn extra money.
By Thanksgiving, she had accumulated only $49. Teasingly, I said, "You know you can have your pick from my bicycle collection."
"Thanks, Daddy. But your bikes are so old."
She was right. All my girl's bikes were 1950's models. "Vintage," yes, but not the kind a kid today would likely choose.
As Christmas approached, Emily and I went bike shopping. Still short of her goal, she picked out several less-expensive models for which she might settle. As we left one store, she noticed a Salvation Army volunteer standing next to a big red kettle, exuberantly ringing his bell. "Can we give something, Daddy?" she asked.
"Sorry, Em," I replied. "I'm out of change."
Throughout December, Emily continued to work hard. Then one day she made a startling announcement. "You know all the money I've been saving?" she said hesitatingly. "I'm going to give it to the poor people."
"That's very kind," my wife, Diane, said. "But you've been saving all year. Maybe you could give some of it." Emily shook her head.
So one cold morning before Christmas, with little fanfare, Emily handed her total savings of $58 to a grateful Salvation Army volunteer.
Moved by Emily's selflessness, I decided to donate one of my vintage bicycles to a car dealer who was collecting used bikes for poor children. As I selected a shiny model from my collection, however, it seemed as if a second bike took on a glow. Should I donate two? No, one would be enough.
But as I got to my car, I couldn't shake the feeling that I should give a second bike. I turned around.
When I later delivered the bikes, the car dealer said casually, "You're making two kids very happy, sir. Here are your tickets."
"Tickets?" I asked.
"Yes. For each bicycle donated we're giving away one chance to win a new men's 21-speed bike."
Why wasn't I surprised when that second ticket proved to be the winner? And why wasn't I surprised when the shop owner happily substituted a gorgeous girls' mountain bike for the one advertised?
Coincidence? Maybe. I like to think it was God's way of rewarding a little girl for a sacrifice beyond her years - while giving her dad a lesson in the process.
That first Christmas in Grand Central Terminal, I felt a certain eagerness. I figured I wasn't so down on my luck that I couldn't give the day a fair chance.
I'd heard rumors of benevolence on Christmases past: a Samaritan with a wont for dishing out C-notes to the poor; the season's propensity for placing this or that valuable in your path; sudden acts of kindness from the most unlikely folks. So most of us had our eyes and ears figuritively cocked for a sign that, yes, there was a Santa Claus.
But as soon as I stirred, I noticed my shoes were gone. Someone not content to wait on the hand of Providence had made a gift of them to himself. Hungry, I slap-footed my way upstairs and slipped inside an idling train. I soon found an abandoned cooler, its contents - beer, chicken, and pastry - still cold. I ate, drank and hoisted a heartfelt toast to Providence.
I even began to see my stolen shoes as a good thing. My mother was expecting me for Christmas dinner. She lived about 45 minutes north of New York City, and we had talked collect over the phone.
With my brother and father dead, our clan had been whittled down to the two of us. The thought of sitting across that lonely table sent a shiver through my bones. But worse was the prospect of showing up empty-handed.
The last thing I needed this Christmas was shame. I called collect again, told my mother I had no shoes, that there was no way I could make it.
The day unwound in loud silence. Thoughts of my mother, who had bad eyes and didn't get around too well anymore, haunted me. A different kind of shame drove me back to the phone. But no one was answering, the operator said.
I threaded my way back to the waiting room - past gift-laden travelers in thick winter coats, past eager, wide-eyed children. Sitting down on a bench, I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, my mother was standing there, a pair of my old sneakers in her hand. "Merry Christmas," she said.
The call came just before Christmas. "I've got something to tell you," Cindy White Bull Boyer's grandmother said. Boyer sensed the news was about her mother.
Memories flashed before her like snapshots in a photo album: a girl sleeping in a hospital bathroom as her mother lay motionless, eyes open but unseeing; a brother and sister embracing a limp body, their hugs unreturned; a husband and father numbing his grief with alcohol.
As Boyer hung up the phone, her husband asked, "What's wrong?" For the first time in 16 years, everything was right. "My mom's awake," Boyer said, and the tears began to fall.
Boyer was ten when it happened. A tomboy who hated the Brownies and ballet, she participated in both because that's what her mother wanted. "I was struck to her all the time," Boyer recalls, "like gum on her shoe."
The White Bulls lived on five acres of New Mexico prairie, just outside Albuquerque. Boyer's father, Mark, was a computer operator. Her mom, Patricia White Bull - called Happi because of her disposition - was a natural beauty with shiny ebony hair and a luminous smile. She was content to handcraft Native American jewelry at home, and everywhere Happi went, her children, Cindy and Jesse, three, and Floris, one, usually were in tow.
Happi's fourth child was due, and a Caesarean had been scheduled. Boyer recalled the warm June morning her mother said goodbye. "I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."
For the White Bull family, however, "tomorrow" was cruelly denied. Happi gave birth to a healthy son, Mark Jr. But during the recovery, the young mother suddenly went into cardiac arrest. Doctors were unable to revive her before brain damage occurred. Happi White Bull, age 27, lapsed into a coma-like state.
The doctors told Mark there was no hope. Still, he waited three years for some sign of change. Then, in despair, he obtained a divorce and moved his children to South Dakota, where family members helped raise them.
Happi languished in neurological limbo for a decade and a half, alive but not living. As Christmas 1999 approached, a cold and flu bug was working its way through the Las Palomas Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Dr. Elliot Marcus prescribed amantadine, a flu drug sometimes used to stimulate people with Parkinson's disease or brain injuries.
Several days later, an aide was straightening the bed sheets of one of those patients when the woman sat up and exclaimed, "Don't do that!" It was December 21 and Happi had come back to the world.
The White Bull family converged on New Mexico. "You could instantly tell there was a difference," Boyer, now 29, said. "Her face was lit up." Happi lifted her arms for a hug. When the nurses asked if she knew her visitor, she nodded, and said, "Cindy."
Perhaps the most poignant reunion of all, however, was an introduction. Mark, Jr., finally got to talk to the mother he'd never known. It was the first time he'd heard her voice.
Doctors suspect the amantadine is responsible for Happi's awakening. But when used to treat brain injuries, it's usually given soon after trauma occurs, not years later. And any return to consciousness after such a long time is extremely rare, experts say.
For the White Bull children, what brought their mother back is less important than her miraculous return.
One year, as 16-year-old Robyn Stevens pondered what to get her father for Christmas, she couldn't help thinking there seemed to be so few gift options for dads: ties, socks, a new belt. Then she remembered something her grandmother had said about the usefulness of flashlights: "You never know when you might need one."
It seemed to Robyn that she had her answer. The one she bought wasn't fancy - it was just an ordinary three-cell, garden-variety model. She thought her father would really like it, especially because it was water-proof and he spent a lot of time on the water, as part of a tugboat crew in Hancock, Maine.
When Arthur Stevens opened his present on Christmas morning, he grinned at his daughter and asked, "How did you know this was just what I needed?"
On a raw January evening, Stevens was 25 miles out to sea, aboard the tugboat Harkness. He and his friend Duane Cleaves were helping Captain Rudy Musetti bring the craft home after towing barges off the coast of southern Maine.
Around 6 p.m., the temperature began to drop drastically. With winds at 40 m.p.h., the windchill factor was minus 45 degrees. A few minutes after six, the stern began to take on water. Musetti suspected that the boat had sprung a leak. Further checking revealed that the bilge pump had frozen. By then, the tug was pitching violently in 12-foot waves, and the decks were sheer ice.
To make matters worse, the crew also had sea smoke to contend with - an impenetrable layer of fog caused by temperature differences between the ocean and air.
Captain Musetti radioed a message to the Coast Guard station at Southwest Harbor: "Mayday, mayday! We're going down."
As it happened, the Harkness was sinking just off Matincus Island, where the few families who lived there during the winter were settling down for dinner. Vance Bunker, an island resident, heard the radio conversations between the Harkness crew and the Coast Guard, and knew that the three men aboard didn't stand a chance in these conditions - the tugboat was too far out for the Coast Guard to reach them in time.
He and two other lobstermen, Rick Kohls and Paul Murray, set out in the Jan-Ellen, Bunker's 36-foot lobster boat. They weren't sure of the tug's exact location, and because of the sea smoke and the icy windshield, all they could do was forge ahead into the darkness.
Around 7 p.m., the Jan-Ellen crew heard what would be the last radio transmission from the Harkness: "We're going into the water," Captain Musetti reported.
The certainty that the three men had just drowned made Rick Kohls sick to his stomach. But then he saw a strange sight. Piercing the sea smoke was a thin beam of light. Kohls shouted to Bunker and Murray, "Look - follow that light!"
Bunker couldn't see through his windshield, but he followed Kohl's directions until they came upon something that dumbfounded them all: There, half-dead in the icy water, were three men with arms hooked together. Their clothes were frozen to a ladder that had come loose from the wreckage of the Harkness.
Shaking violently, Arthur Stevens had long since lost the ability to grasp anything. But the freezing cold had done the men an odd turn: Frozen to the back of Duane Cleaves's glove was a small, garden-variety, waterproof flashlight. And the beam of that light ws pointing straight up to the sky - a beacon for those who'd had enough faith and courage to follow it.
These stories appeared in the December 2002
issue of Reader's Digest.