It was May of 1992. My family--my older brother Rick, my father, and I--were in the waiting room outside the intensive care unit of St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. Much to the shock of all of us, my mom was very ill. This was not the ordinary course of things in our lives. Not at all. Mom, Jean VanderKruik, was the stalwart, the caretaker. Just a week earlier, Dad had undergone another chest surgery and another hospitalization, and it was Mom who had gotten him--and us, her grown sons--through the whole thing.

She'd just taken him home on Wednesday. Thursday, she collapsed. Dad took her to the hospital, and Rick and I waited by our phones for the call that said she'd been sent home, she was fine, all she needed was rest.

That call never came. Instead, she was taken immediately into intensive care. Her men were in a state of shock.

Also in the ICU waiting room was another family, composed of a slender, dark-haired young woman of around 20, her infant, and her 9-year-old brother, David. Their father was in intensive care as well. The family was Latino; David was the only one who spoke English.

This short little bull of a kid bravely interpreted all the complicated medical information that needed to be communicated between the medical staff and the family.

We all spent a lot of time in the course of a week in the waiting room of the ICU, waiting for the few precious minutes of each hour that we could visit our loved ones. Mom's prognosis was not good: late-stage emphysema complicated by severe diabetes. It soon became clear to all of us that Mom was dying.

Our beautiful, energetic mom--the dark-haired woman with the twinkly eyes--had been my Sunday school teacher at our church in Milton, New York, from the time I was 3 to the time I was 10. She also practiced the "gift of hospitality"--there were always guests in our home for dinner, especially children and the elderly. From before I can remember, it was my job at holiday time to deliver plates of cookies to neighbors and shut-ins. It was a task I'm sure she would have enjoyed completing herself, but she had a lesson for me to learn. Now the woman who infused our growing-up home with the love of God was preparing to go Home to meet this God whom she'd loved and served these many years. Rick, Dad, and I, though all grown men, each wondered how we would face this world without her in it.

Then something happened that brought a little levity to both waiting families. It slowly became obvious that young David was fascinated by Rick and his white beard. Finally, David asked him, "Are you Santa Claus?"

My brother Rick, who has four kids of his own, could tell through some parental intuition that this was a boy who had faced too many of life's realities at too young an age. This was a kid who desperately wanted to believe in Santa. "Yes," he answered. "I certainly am."

David looked skeptical. All through the week, he would pepper Rick with questions, trying to catch him off guard. Somehow, it became a wonderful relief from the life-and-death drama in which we were all players. And my brother always had the right answer.

David would ask, "How old are you?"

"Four hundred and thirty-seven," Rick answered.

"How old is he?" he continued, indicating our dad.

"Six hundred and twenty-three."

David shook his head again. "How old is he?" indicating me this time.


Rick had all the answers until Friday, when David asked, "If you are Santa Claus, how come you never came to my house last year?"

That one stumped my brother.

When Rick told me about it on Saturday, I could tell he was really upset. He told me if he had the money, he would buy the kid a present. Rick was a well driller, and at that time in Duchess County there had been no construction and no need for wells. Rick was having trouble supporting his own four kids. At the time, I was still single. "I have some money," I said. "Find out what David wants for Christmas."

Rick discovered that David longed for a set of racing cars. That Sunday morning, Rick and I were the first customers at Toys "R" Us, purchasing a racing car set and looking for something that would resemble Christmas wrapping paper, which is not that easy to come by on Mother's Day. We did our best and brought it to the hospital and waited for David and his family to come. My brother couldn't sit still.

Finally, they came. Rick told David he was cleaning out the sleigh and found this present under the seat, and it had David's name on it. With a huge grin on his face, David took that box. But unlike any other kid I'd seen, he didn't immediately tear off the wrapping paper. Instead, he carried that present around for half an hour, showing everyone that he, David, had a present. I've never seen a grin that huge. As a matter of fact, a woman in the waiting room handed me a $5 bill and told me she wanted to buy a part of that present and that smile. Somehow, for that half hour, the waiting room of the ICU turned into a wonderland.

It took some doing, but we finally convinced David that he could open his present. When he found his cars, he was delighted. Later that day, his sister showed us a Polaroid picture of David and his cousins playing with the toy on a bare floor in a very humble room. Later that evening, my mother died. Somehow, those two events are wonderfully linked in my mind. Eternity collided with our world twice that day--once in the smile of a child and once in the reception of a beloved soul into the arms of God.

And somehow, Rick and Dad and I knew how we'd survive without mom. She'd been teaching us how all those years.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus