We had finally gathered all of the Christmas gifts at school. The storage closet was overflowing with brightly wrapped boxes. The teachers had completed their assigned shopping tasks on time. I would now have a few extra days to deliver the packages and stockings to the homes of our district's neediest families.
I loaded my van. After making a few deliveries to the apartment complex, I drove to Tommy and Frankie's home. They lived with their mother, grandmother and younger brother in a weather-beaten, two bedroom duplex.
I parked my van, opened the rear hatch and grabbed the large tote brimming with presents and three stuffed stockings. I carefully climbed the icy steps and knocked on the weathered storm door. While waiting for a response, I fumbled in my barn coat's deep pockets, searching for the pair of inexpensive, wire-rimmed glasses that I had recently purchased.
They'll help, I thought, as I put them on and looked over the gift list one more time. My eyesight wasn't as good as it once had been.
With that, the door opened and a very surprised 3-year-old stood at the threshold. He looked up at me, with his mouth agape, saucer-sized eyes and a dumbfounded look. "Santa!" he said in disbelief.
My reflection in the cracked pane quickly clarified the situation. My white beard, wire-rimmed spectacles and the floppy red ski hat bore more than a passing resemblance to the costume worn by the Great Man of Winter.
For a moment, I was unable to respond to this unexpected greeting. Without pausing to think, a stentorian voice from deep within suddenly burst forth. "Hello, little boy, what's your name?"
"Billy," he timidly answered. "Why are you here, Santa?"
"I'm here, Billy, for a secret visit." Once again, I looked down at the gift list.
"Well, Billy, let's see what my list says." A broad smile grew under my beard as I pointed at the paper. "Hmmm, oh yes, there you are. According to my list, you've been a nice boy all year."
"You know, Billy, I have so many gifts to deliver, and my sleigh is so full, that I had to make some very secret, early visits to the boys and girls who have been especially nice this year."
"Can I tell my brothers that you came?" Billy asked.
"I think you should keep my early visit a secret, don't you?" I didn't want to shake his brothers' lingering belief in Santa Claus.
"But Santa, I have to tell them who brought the gifts."
"Well, Billy, you can tell your mom where they came from, but Santa wants you to make a special promise, that you won't tell Tommy or Frankie anything about my surprise visit until Christmas morning."
"OK." He extended his small right hand, with a crooked pinky. "Pinky promise, Santa?"
I removed the glove from my hand and we clasped our pinkies together. "Pinky promise, Billy."
At that moment, Billy's mom came to the door. She did nothing to betray my true identity. We exchanged pleasantries and greetings. I gave her the tote and the folded gift list. Finished with my task, I turned to leave.
"Santa?" Billy had come back to the door.
I turned at the bottom of the steps. "Yes?"
"I love you."
"And Santa loves you, Billy."
As I walked toward the van, a tear fell on my whiskered cheek. Santa Claus truly loves all the boys and girls of the world, Billy.
Bruce Mitchell, an elementary school counselor, enjoys helping families in need of additional support, especially during the holidays.