Every year, someone will describe something that happened to them, their family or a friend during the Christmas season. The outcome is usually described as a special Christmas blessing or even a Christmas miracle. I’ve been blessed to have seen several Christmas miracles in my lifetime.
Driving east on Fife Avenue, past Wilmington College, past the city park and the county engineer’s office, sits a beautiful old, brick building. It’s currently owned by Wilmington College, but not too many years ago, it was known as the County Infirmary. Quite often it was simply called “The Old Folks Home.”
The residents of the infirmary were primarily the poor, the old, the physically infirm and people with a significant disability. The folks who worked the infirmary were big-hearted people who usually didn’t have all the resources they needed, but they worked hard to provide kind, loving care to a special group of people.
Throughout the mid-’90s, when I still worked at Clinton Memorial Hospital, we would often work with the folks at the infirmary. Our pharmacy worked closely with their staff.
Also, if a resident of the infirmary needed some simple outpatient testing (blood drawing or EKG), rather than requiring the staff of the infirmary to bring the resident to the hospital, we would go the infirmary with the necessary equipment and take care of the patient. It was a lot easier that way and we became well-acquainted with most of the residents and staff.
It was during that same time period that I worked to perfect my “Santa’s Helper” role. I know how busy the real Santa Claus is during this season, so I always did what I could to help the big guy. It was always fun.
Over the years, I became known as the CMH Santa.
One year, just before Christmas, my boss, Debbie, asked me if I would go with her to visit the residents at the infirmary. So, dressed as Santa and with Debbie dressed as Mrs. Claus, we headed out Fife Avenue. We were ready to spread some Christmas joy.
Mrs. Claus and Santa approached the big, white front door and knocked. A shy resident answered the door, then immediately shut the door on Santa and his wife.
Behind the closed door, we could hear the resident yell, “It’s Santa.” That was followed by laughter and giggling.
A member of the staff opened the door, apologized and gave us a hearty welcome. The residents were thrilled to see Santa and Mrs. Claus.
We came prepared with a gift for every resident and staff member. Anyone allowed to have candy, received a large red and white striped candy cane. Folks on diet restrictions received a huge, shiny red apple. Just before handing them the apple, Santa would give it final polish with his spotless, white gloves.
Smiles, wonder and laughter filled the halls and rooms of the entire infirmary.
In the basement of the infirmary, were the weakest and sickest of the residents. Most of them were very elderly, sick and unable to leave their beds. The staff provided special care to these patients.
As I approached the last bed, I saw a very small, frail lady laying on her side. The staff member said that she wasn’t responsive and suggested that I just let her sleep.
Despite that, I approached the side of the bed, knelt down so we were face-to-face. I reached out with my gloved hands and took one of her hands in mine.
Her skin was thin, almost transparent. Her fingers were bent and twisted from arthritis and many years of hard work. She appeared to be nearly 100 years old. They told me her name was Gladys.
Gently holding her hand in mine, and using my best Santa voice I said, “Well, Gladys. Here you are. I’ve been looking for you. You didn’t think you could hide from Santa, did you?”
Her eyes fluttered. Then opened. Looking at me with tired, wet eyes she didn’t see me — she saw Santa.
With both hands, she held my face and said, “Santa?”
“Yes, Gladys. It’s Santa. I am so glad I finally found you. Why, I haven’t seen you since you were just a little girl. It is so good to see you.” I said.
She smiled and gave me a gentle kiss on my white, bearded cheek. I told her that I knew she had been a very good girl. I said, “We all love you, Gladys.” Again, she said, “Santa?”
As I gave her an apple and straightened up, I heard gentle crying behind me. I turned to see her care provider and the director of the infirmary with tears running down their face.
The director told me, “I’ve been here over three years. That’s the first time I’ve heard her respond to anyone or say a word. That was beautiful.”
Christmas has always been a time of miracles – the birth of the Christ Child – the reawakening of a dear old soul.
Over the years, I pray that you will experience many miracles.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.