Grampa’s Final Gift

From my earliest memories, I could recall the echo of my late grandfather, “If you help dig someone out of their troubles, you’ll always find a place to bury your own.” He was a simple man, the salt of the earth, but he possessed a wisdom unknown to most. He spent his last moments on earth at the Rose Hawthorne Home; a health care facility for terminally ill cancer patients. I was sixteen when I began visiting him. Through the exploring eyes of a child, I quickly discovered he was not the only person to enjoy such precious knowledge.

No different from other nursing homes, the Rose Hawthorne was a safe haven for the elderly. Its suffering patients were soothed by the gentle hands of a caring staff, while the home depended on community donations of food and money. During my visits, however, I also found that there were other compassionate souls willing to give something far more valuable. They gave their time, volunteering to help in the fight against another devastating disease called loneliness. The exchange between the patients and volunteers was both touching and humbling. To my surprise, I couldn’t tell who benefited more.

Within The Rose Hawthorne, there was a peace most people could have only dreamed of. Removed from the rat race of society, the tranquil surroundings were absolutely breathtaking. Hundreds of green plants filled the ward, while a handful of birds chirped in harmony. The sun’s rays engulfed the interior of the building and the same sweet melody seemed to play over-and-over on some hidden hi-fi. Sometimes, while my grandfather snored, I listened carefully. There were always the muffled sounds of laughter.

Although torment loomed over each bed and death lurked behind every corner, I discovered a silent bliss. Each patient had reached the end of their life’s path and most were finished with the denial, the negotiating with God- the anger. There was no battling the inevitable. Instead, the snickers of a friendly card game could be overheard, or the whispers of some treasured conversations detected. Armed with decades of experience, peering into the patients’ eyes was like gazing into a history book. For those who dared to open the cover, lengthy discussions usually revealed years of hard lessons and the wisdom achieved. The teachers were old. They were sick and tired, but they had more to offer than anyone I ever met. Unfortunately, in the Western Hemisphere, the elderly were often cast aside as nuisances. Even at sixteen, I knew it was an ignorant assessment.

As the weeks progressed and my grandfather got worse, I introduced myself to many of his neighbors. Some spoke of their children and of the generations to come.  Most, however, preferred to dabble in the past. I enjoyed those talks the best. I learned so much about life at the turn of the century:

One frail woman, each winter, strapped on ice skates and commuted across the Taunton River to work every morning. Her brother, during the Great Depression, kept his family alive on a staple of potatoes. One of the quieter men boasted of the fortune he made during Prohibition, while another reveled in the memory of the hurricane of 1938.  As if he could still see it, his eyes went wide, “Many a homes were wiped out back then, but the folks in the North end came together like nothin’ I ain’t ever seen since!”

From bed-to-bed, there were endless stories of WWI and WWII. The graphic and brutal details of combat actually caused me several sleepless nights. Awestruck, I also learned that the families who remained on the home front suffered terribly in their own silent ways. Every soul shared in the war effort and the labor was considered hard, but righteous. Occasionally, even politics were brought up. The consensus was, even years ago, integrity was never considered an actual criteria for the profession.

Some spoke of the day-to-day life. There were trolleys that ran from one side of the city to the next and boys who thought nothing of stealing a free ride. There were steamboats that paddled down the river, while horses transported those with land legs.  All meals were cooked at home and children never dared disrespect an adult, while expecting to keep all their teeth. And speaking of teeth, “The dentists and medical doctors back in them days were no better than the vets that castrated bulls.”

I marveled at the raspy whispers of Lizzie Borden and her infamous axe. Many of the patients still regarded her as the Devil incarnate. Yet, when I asked, “Do you think she did it?” I received only grins for answers. History disclosed that Old Lizzie was found ‘not guilty’ for the gruesome hacking of her parents and the crime was never solved. Looking past the grins and into the eyes of those I asked, however, it was almost as if they knew the truth and weren’t talking. Then again, with a deeper look, it was as if they knew the truth about everything.

Afternoon conversations included the value of the dollar and all one could buy when, “It was worth something.” Verbal pictures were painted of men peddling their goods. Blocks of ice, vegetables, everything was bought and sold in the street. “Shoot, you could get your scissors sharpened, buy a new set of flatware or a Sunday hat without ever leaving your doorstep,” one woman bragged. Radio programs left more to the imagination than the invention of television. Most could even remember exactly where they were when the Titanic sunk or Elvis Presley gyrated his hips for the first time.

After three months, I considered each one of them a genius.

It was a cold March morning when my grandfather decided he had endured enough pain. Two days before his departure, I visited for the last time. While making my rounds, many of the patients thanked me for my time and compassion, as if they knew they would not set eyes on me again. It seemed silly. If I’d done anything, then I had already been paid back tenfold. Though there was no exchange of money, the gifts I received each visit were worth so much more. If time was all I needed to give, then it was the best investment I’d ever made.

I bid farewell to my grandfather that afternoon, never realizing that it was actually goodbye. Stepping into the brisk sunset, I had no doubt that my grandfather was right.  It was so clear. From here on, any time I was in search of answers, I needed only to visit a haven for elderly souls. Although the teachers of forgiveness and acceptance dwelled within the company of angels, they were equally happy for the company of youth and the opportunity to share their knowledge.

My grandfather’s final gift was so valuable it could have never been wrapped. He had introduced me to the greatest natural resources on earth. Each time, when I’d found one of the teachers generous enough to reveal their thoughts, I considered myself fortunate. Better yet, when I’d found another kind enough to open their heart, I considered myself blessed.

I might have lent a helping hand to some, but it was the stronger, gentler hands extended back to me that would have shocked the world.

1st Prize

After ten years of working for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, I felt the need to pass on my brutal experiences to those who needed to hear them most- troubled children. In the meantime, the time I spent trying make a difference in their lives helped to cleanse my soul. I’m still not sure who has received more.

Through the Straight Ahead Program, a Christian-based Ministry for children confined to lockup within the Department of Youth Services (or DYS), each month, I pulled into the parking lot and stared at the eerie building. The brick fortress was built in the late 1800’s. It was surrounded by concertina wire and steel fence. Black bars, mesh and grilles covered the filthy windows, while shadows moved behind them. These dark glimpses were the little people who blamed their entire existence on everyone but themselves. There were some tough cases; young boys who’d been abused and neglected in every sense of the words. Products of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, oppressive property, welfare and similar systems that didn’t foster healthy self-esteem, most could blame the world and be justified. Yet, I understood that for the nightmare they were headed to, this attitude wasn’t going to help at all. The only chance they had now was to shoulder their circumstances and start making choices toward changing their own bleak realities.

Each month, I sat in the lot and watched as the boys played a violent game of basketball. Each one cursed and acted tough, doing everything I would have done, had I been thrown into the same hellish environment. It was important to remember that. Most nights, it was the only good reason not to drive away and never look back. They were a pack of tough cases; the whole lot of them. But, they were scared and they needed help.

My lecture always started in prayer and was followed by two hours of harsh

reality. I did everything I could to paint an accurate picture of life behind the walls. I detailed rapes and murders, and did all I could to scare them into re-thinking their futures. At the same time, I also did everything I could to show them that they were still loved. When I wrapped up, there was always applause. Yet, month after month, the same faces returned to hear my same spiel. And, month after month, I gave it, hoping that I might offer something that would save them from the hell I knew they faced.

“If I can save only one,” I’d think. At the parking lot, I usually looked back. Most nights, through the grimy, barred windows, I could vaguely make out the shadows of several of the students beating the hell out of each other. “We’ll try again next month,” I always sighed, and drive away.

After two years of volunteering my time, I was seriously starting to question my impact and actually considered calling it quits. But it wasn’t to be! The mailman delivered a package that would change my heart forever.

I opened the thick envelope. Eric Ryan, the night councilor at the Howland Detention Center, D.Y.S., had hosted an essay contest. The assignment: Write one to two pages explaining how Steve Manchester’s presentation on adult incarceration has impacted your life. He sent me copies of the end results. Through surprised, misty eyes, I read one wonderful example after the next:

…My fists were clenched tight of fear from Steve’s horrific real life stories about life in state prison. He told stories about people getting raped, killed, and getting the shit kicked out of them and it made me scared to go to prison. Steve also taught us that we still have time to change our lives around…

…Steve’s stories really made me think of all the stupid things I’ve done in my life. I hate the pain I’ve put on my family and friends. I’d like to thank Steve for inspiring me to change and believe in the power of hope.

There were 26 essays altogether, and each proved another lesson in hope. I finally got to the contest winner’s touching piece. It was written by a loud-mouthed 12 year-old named Raul. There were two ink stamps on the copy. One read: I’m PROUD of YOU! The other: If you can DREAM IT, you can DO IT! It read:

Well I never thought about jail like that until Steve came in. I always thought of jail totally different then what he said. I never thought that they had people with aids and people like Laferty. After that group I started feeling sad just thinking about what my brother must of went through. All the things that I heard from Steve wasn’t so nice. He got to my head so good that it made me think twice about life. It made me think how my future is gonna end. Following my brothers path like I’m doing or get my shit straight. Steve whenever he comes back he will have my full attention again, cause this guy knows what he’s doing. When he first walked in I though that he was just another guy talking about things he knew nothing about. But he proved me wrong. He totaly blew my mind. Every body always told me about jail but I didn’t care. I didn’t think about it like Steve made me think about. I believed every word that came out of his mouth. He’s worked there for a long time. I always told people that I’m not scared to go to jail. After this with Steve it realy had me thinking. I don’t want to go be some place where I’m always watching my back, always worried about who wants to mess with me. I wouldn’t make it in there. Always thinking about something. And if it comes down to a fight, you’ll realy be in trouble cause you could get extra years in there. And me in the hole for two-three months, I’ll go nuts. I don’t wanna have that type of future. I have a loving family who is there for me. I got a little brother to look out for, and right now I’m not setting a good example for him. My older brother didn’t set a good example for me and look what I’m doing. The same thing he was doing. He used to call home and regret that he chilled with his boys instead of listing to my mothers advice. But now its to late for him to chang. To me I think this group is realy helpful. It realy made me think twice about life. I already told my mother that I would not end up like him. I don’t want to call my mother some day in the future when it is to late to turn back. That’s why I have to make a chang in my life now that I’m young. Thanks Steve. The end.

I drew in a couple deep breaths, picked up the telephone and dialed. Eric Ryan answered. “Eric, it’s Steve Manchester. I just wanted to thank you for sending along copies of those essays. I just got done reading them.”

“You’re very welcome, Steve.”

I grinned. “So…what did Raul win for placing first in the contest?”

There was a pause. Eric spoke softly. “From the look of his essay…I’d say his adult freedom.”

I choked back the ball in his throat. “Let’s hope!”

The Best Christmas Ever

A few years ago, I was reading the local paper when a story entitled “Helping Hands” jumped right out at me. It was a heart-wrenching story about a family in need.

After settling into my office, I contacted the Salvation Army to inquire about the family.

“This one’s a bad one,” the woman on the phone told me. “The mother was raped a month ago, the father’s no where to be found and the two little boys are in God’s hands.” There was a dramatic pause. “Except for a tree already donated, they have nothing!” The old lady sighed.

I glanced down at the paper and caught a quote from the older of the two boys. “The only thing I wish for is to have Christmas dinner with my Mom and little brother.” It was signed, Michael Joseph, 8 (my own son’s age). I checked the calendar. There were seven shopping days until the big night. As if my life depended on it, I promised, “We’ll make sure they get their dinner, and then some!”

The kind woman said she’d check with the mother and get right back to me. She did. I received an address, a telephone number and the clothes sizes of the boys.

The telephone hadn’t rested in its cradle for more than a minute before I began recruiting like a dictator preparing for war. Priorities were changed and my day planner was immediately altered to include shooting emails, posting flyers and bouncing from cubicle to cubicle in an attempt to wake the walking dead. Most agreed it was a noble cause and promised to lend a hand.

Within the first two days, neatly wrapped presents were being stacked on the threshold of my office. The cardboard box converted into a food bin was quickly filling. Someone even donated two brand new winter coats. The entire experience touched me more than anything had in decades. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I was pleasantly surprised to witness one human being after another rushing to the aid of those who desperately needed it. It was both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

When I finally got in touch with the mother, she was a babbling mess. In the midst of her heavy sobbing, we confirmed a mutual time to drop off the goodies. “How will I know it’s you?” she asked.

“I’ll be the fat guy in the bright red suit!”

She was crying even more when I hung up.

The morning of the big day, I watched as my wife filled two giant red stockings with plastic airplanes, Matchbox cars, various action figures and enough candy to disturb any dentist. When she thought I wasn’t watching, she also stuffed several wrapped presents into Santa’s bulging sack. I secretly checked the labels beneath the red and green bows. They read: “For Mom.”

Even the office pulled together like nothing I’d ever seen. It was absolutely magical. My one simple idea had snowballed into the common cause of many. It was amazing!

I pulled into the office parking lot and insured the entire rented suit was intact. I knew I was about to embark on a journey that would change my life forever.

Seconds ticked away like hours until three o’clock rolled around. As I headed for the bathroom to get changed, Danny Calis and Brad Cowen approached. “If you don’t already have some,” Danny said, “we’d like to play your elves and give you a hand carrying these things.”

“That would be great!” I told him. Time was the hottest commodity amongst my co-workers. Folks rarely volunteered for anything.

The caravan rolled past the graffiti-covered and charred dumpsters until finally halting in the heart of the housing project. I checked my white beard in the rear-view. It was already so tangled and matted with saliva that it made me gag. As my heart pounded out of my chest, Brad shoved the jolly fat man out of the van.

The self-contained neighborhood was desolate with the exception of three youths standing on the corner. As if they were dancers, they shuffled their feet in an attempt to keep warm. They heckled me once, but when I looked over they only smiled. There was nothing to worry about. I was Santa. Nobody was naughty enough to mess with Father Christmas. “A Merry Christmas to you, my friends,” I called out with a wave. They laughed.

Danny grabbed the food box and grunted with each step. It weighed over a hundred pounds and contained enough food to last three weeks. Brad took the two bags of clothes that were collected and I shouldered his heavy sack of toys. I was already sweating.

My white gloves hadn’t knocked twice before a young woman fumbled with the lock and slowly opened the door. She was crying and I knew right off that we’d found the right apartment. “Boys,” she squealed, “look who’s here!”

“Ho. Ho. Ho,” I pushed from the base of my diaphragm. One step in and everything turned to a blur. I tried to stop it, telling myself, “Santa Claus doesn’t cry.” It wasn’t so easy.

The living room was decorated to the taste of someone who had nothing. Still, it was spotless. There was one armchair, with strips of gray tape holding back the stuffing that fought to escape. There was a small TV, perhaps even broken, sitting atop a scarred wooden stand. A sad green tree was propped up in the corner—in terrible need of ornaments and lights. And there was a long brown couch with two little boys sitting right in the middle of its old lap. I think I actually gasped when I saw them. In a display of good manners, they both held their folded hands in their laps. Their eyes made me lose my breath. There was excitement, disbelief and overwhelming joy—all at the same time. I dropped to one knee. My plastic spectacles were fogging up and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Looking to his mother for permission, the older one finally stood, confidently walked over and wrapped his arms around me. Like his mother, he was weeping freely. I fought to be strong. Breaking the embrace, Michael ran to his mom and hugged her. As if the words had been sifted through a wad of cotton, she exclaimed, “See…what did I tell you guys? If you believe hard enough, anything you wish for CAN come true!”

I struggled for air when I looked up to find the smaller boy standing two feet from me. I watched as his eyes danced from excitement to curiosity to doubt, circling back to excitement. I grabbed the little tyke and pulled him close. Just then, the tiny voice asked, “Are you da real Santa, or a fake Santa?”

I eased away. “What do you think?”

Again, those big eyes traveled a path that could only be described as heavenly. Finally stopping at a place called faith, his entire face lit up. He screamed, “You da real Santa!” Jumping into my extended arms, he turned his attention toward his brother and screamed again, “Mikey, it’s da real Santa!”

“I know, Robby,” a voice mumbled. Michael was still swaying in his mother’s arms.

I finally stood to catch Brad wiping his eyes and Danny straightening out the crooked tree. Reaching for my sack, I placed present after present—the love and compassion of nearly a hundred people I knew—beneath the evergreen. As I handed the red stockings over to the boys, I spoke slowly, “Michael, Robby…Santa’s very proud of you for the way you’ve been good for your mom. I want you to remember, I’m always watching and your mom’s right. If you believe hard enough, anything you ever dream for can come true. You just have to believe!”

There were more hugs from the boys. As I prepared to leave, I presented their mom with the lovely gifts my wife had packed. “Merry Christmas,” I said with a hug.

“How can I ever thank you?” she sobbed into my shoulder.

“You already have,” I told her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in Santa Claus. Thank you for that!”

The ride back to the office parking lot was driven in silence. There truly were no words to describe the magic we’d just shared. After bidding my elves farewell, I stripped out of most of the sweltering outfit and started for home.

It was the best Christmas ever.

The Rockin’ Chair is released on June 18th!

A rich portrait of a family at a crossroad, The Rockin’ Chair has been called my most heartfelt and emotionally engaging novel to date. If family matters to you, it is a story you must read.

Synopsis: Memories are the ultimate contradiction. They can warm us on our coldest days – or they can freeze a loved one out of our lives forever. The McCarthy family has a trove of warm memories. Of innocent first kisses. Of sumptuous family meals. Of wondrous lessons learned at the foot of a rocking chair. But they also have had their share of icy ones. Of words that can never be unsaid. Of choices that can never be unmade. Of actions that can never be undone.

Following the death of his beloved wife, John McCarthy – Grandpa John – calls his family back home. It is time for them to face the memories they have made, both warm and cold. Only then can they move beyond them and into the future.

 Early Reviews include:

The Rockin’ Chair is a heart-rending story of a family, separated by pride and ambition only to be brought together by the strength of their ability to grow emotionally and spiritually. Manchester’s flawless dialogue, warm characters and compassionate wit all service a moving story. He reminds us that simple sentiments are often the truest. His contrast of the permanence of the landscape with the transience of human life leaves us with a feeling of wonder long after the final page is turned.”  - Corinna Underwood, Reviewer, Publisher’s Weekly

 “The Rockin’ Chair is a tightly knit tearjerker.” – Jon Land, NYTimes Bestselling Author; The Walls of Jericho

“In The Rockin’ Chair, Steven Manchester has created a book that can change the world. If only everyone would listen to Grampa John and express their love for each other, what a different world it would be.”  - Heather Froeschl, Book Reviewer, BookReview.com

2013 Book Awards

The results are in for the 2013 National Indie Excellence Awards:

Twelve Months- Finalist (Death & Dying category)

Goodnight, Brian- Finalist (Inspiration category)

http://www.indieexcellence.com/indie-results-2013-finalists.htm

The results are also in for the 2013 International Book Awards:

Twelve Months- Finalist (Spirituality: Inspirational)

Goodnight, Brian - Finalist (Fiction: Chick Lit/Women’s Lit)

http://internationalbookawards.com/2013awardannouncement.html

 

Goodnight, Brian has been released!

I’m excited to announce that my new novel, Goodnight, Brian was just released!

Paperback & Kindle:

http://www.amazon.com/Goodnight-Brian-ebook/dp/B00A6DBE10/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353860480&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=goodbight+brian+manchester

Nook:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/goodnight-brian-steven-manchester/1113610286?ean=9781611880618

My last novel, Twelve Months, became a #1 best seller on Amazon (thanks to lots of support). We’re shooting for the New York Times with this one!

PLEASE help me spread the word and share this on your FB Page (asking your friends to do the same). I’d really appreciate it.

The Best Christmas Ever

A few years ago, I was reading the local paper when a story entitled “Helping Hands” jumped right out at me. It was a heart-wrenching story about a family in need.

After settling into my office, I contacted the Salvation Army to inquire about the family.

“This one’s a bad one,” the woman on the phone told me. “The mother was raped a month ago, the father’s no where to be found and the two little boys are in God’s hands.” There was a dramatic pause. “Except for a tree already donated, they have nothing!” The old lady sighed.

I glanced down at the paper and caught a quote from the older of the two boys. “The only thing I wish for is to have Christmas dinner with my Mom and little brother.” It was signed, Michael Joseph, 8 (my own son’s age). I checked the calendar. There were seven shopping days until the big night. As if my life depended on it, I promised, “We’ll make sure they get their dinner, and then some!”

The kind woman said she’d check with the mother and get right back to me. She did. I received an address, a telephone number and the clothes sizes of the boys.

The telephone hadn’t rested in its cradle for more than a minute before I began recruiting like a dictator preparing for war. Priorities were changed and my day planner was immediately altered to include shooting emails, posting flyers and bouncing from cubicle to cubicle in an attempt to wake the walking dead. Most agreed it was a noble cause and promised to lend a hand.

Within the first two days, neatly wrapped presents were being stacked on the threshold of my office. The cardboard box converted into a food bin was quickly filling. Someone even donated two brand new winter coats. The entire experience touched me more than anything had in decades. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, I was pleasantly surprised to witness one human being after another rushing to the aid of those who desperately needed it. It was both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

When I finally got in touch with the mother, she was a babbling mess. In the midst of her heavy sobbing, we confirmed a mutual time to drop off the goodies. “How will I know it’s you?” she asked.

“I’ll be the fat guy in the bright red suit!”

She was crying even more when I hung up.

 

The morning of the big day, I watched as my wife filled two giant red stockings with plastic airplanes, Matchbox cars, various action figures and enough candy to disturb any dentist. When she thought I wasn’t watching, she also stuffed several wrapped presents into Santa’s bulging sack. I secretly checked the labels beneath the red and green bows. They read: “For Mom.”

Even the office pulled together like nothing I’d ever seen. It was absolutely magical. My one simple idea had snowballed into the common cause of many. It was amazing!

 

I pulled into the office parking lot and insured the entire rented suit was intact. I knew I was about to embark on a journey that would change my life forever.

Seconds ticked away like hours until three o’clock rolled around. As I headed for the bathroom to get changed, Danny Calis and Brad Cowen approached. “If you don’t already have some,” Danny said, “we’d like to play your elves and give you a hand carrying these things.”

“That would be great!” I told him. Time was the hottest commodity amongst my co-workers. Folks rarely volunteered for anything.

The caravan rolled past the graffiti-covered and charred dumpsters until finally halting in the heart of the housing project. I checked my white beard in the rear-view. It was already so tangled and matted with saliva that it made me gag. As my heart pounded out of my chest, Brad shoved the jolly fat man out of the van.

The self-contained neighborhood was desolate with the exception of three youths standing on the corner. As if they were dancers, they shuffled their feet in an attempt to keep warm. They heckled me once, but when I looked over they only smiled. There was nothing to worry about. I was Santa. Nobody was naughty enough to mess with Father Christmas. “A Merry Christmas to you, my friends,” I called out with a wave. They laughed.

Danny grabbed the food box and grunted with each step. It weighed over a hundred pounds and contained enough food to last three weeks. Brad took the two bags of clothes that were collected and I shouldered his heavy sack of toys. I was already sweating.

My white gloves hadn’t knocked twice before a young woman fumbled with the lock and slowly opened the door. She was crying and I knew right off that we’d found the right apartment. “Boys,” she squealed, “look who’s here!”

“Ho. Ho. Ho,” I pushed from the base of my diaphragm. One step in and everything turned to a blur. I tried to stop it, telling myself, “Santa Claus doesn’t cry.” It wasn’t so easy.

The living room was decorated to the taste of someone who had nothing. Still, it was spotless. There was one armchair, with strips of gray tape holding back the stuffing that fought to escape. There was a small TV, perhaps even broken, sitting atop a scarred wooden stand. A sad green tree was propped up in the corner—in terrible need of ornaments and lights. And there was a long brown couch with two little boys sitting right in the middle of its old lap. I think I actually gasped when I saw them. In a display of good manners, they both held their folded hands in their laps. Their eyes made me lose my breath. There was excitement, disbelief and overwhelming joy—all at the same time. I dropped to one knee. My plastic spectacles were fogging up and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

Looking to his mother for permission, the older one finally stood, confidently walked over and wrapped his arms around me. Like his mother, he was weeping freely. I fought to be strong. Breaking the embrace, Michael ran to his mom and hugged her. As if the words had been sifted through a wad of cotton, she exclaimed, “See…what did I tell you guys? If you believe hard enough, anything you wish for CAN come true!”

I struggled for air when I looked up to find the smaller boy standing two feet from me. I watched as his eyes danced from excitement to curiosity to doubt, circling back to excitement. I grabbed the little tyke and pulled him close. Just then, the tiny voice asked, “Are you da real Santa, or a fake Santa?”

I eased away. “What do you think?”

Again, those big eyes traveled a path that could only be described as heavenly. Finally stopping at a place called faith, his entire face lit up. He screamed, “You da real Santa!” Jumping into my extended arms, he turned his attention toward his brother and screamed again, “Mikey, it’s da real Santa!”

“I know, Robby,” a voice mumbled. Michael was still swaying in his mother’s arms.

I finally stood to catch Brad wiping his eyes and Danny straightening out the crooked tree. Reaching for my sack, I placed present after present—the love and compassion of nearly a hundred people I knew—beneath the evergreen. As I handed the red stockings over to the boys, I spoke slowly, “Michael, Robby…Santa’s very proud of you for the way you’ve been good for your mom. I want you to remember, I’m always watching and your mom’s right. If you believe hard enough, anything you ever dream for can come true. You just have to believe!”

There were more hugs from the boys. As I prepared to leave, I presented their mom with the lovely gifts my wife had packed. “Merry Christmas,” I said with a hug.

“How can I ever thank you?” she sobbed into my shoulder.

“You already have,” I told her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve believed in Santa Claus. Thank you for that!”

The ride back to the office parking lot was driven in silence. There truly were no words to describe the magic we’d just shared. After bidding my elves farewell, I stripped out of most of the sweltering outfit and started for home.

It was the best Christmas ever.