Santa gives unique gift to grieving family

? Early last December, there were good days for Hannah Saulsbury.

Days when she could play like any other toddler. Days when the 3-year-old didn’t feel the pain — the “owies,” she called it — from her cancer.

Her 5-year-old brother, Hunter, didn’t care that Hannah was bald from her radiation. He just liked being with her.

And Christmas was almost here. One day during play, they had great fun pretending they were at the North Pole.

Maybe it wasn’t mere coincidence that at that moment their mommy, Valerie Saulsbury, overheard them. Or that a man telephoned hours later saying an organization wanted to give Hannah a Christmas gift.

The man, known as Chief Elf, was with the Elves of Christmas Present, a group that tries to make Christmas extra special for a few families who have had a difficult year.

Adults never really believe that the Elves can execute their grandiose plans. Saulsbury doubted, too. Still, she told Chief Elf about their pretend game of visiting the North Pole.

Days later Chief Elf called again: How would Hannah and Hunter like to fly with Santa on Christmas Eve?

‘She was so thrilled’

Chief Elf had a much better idea than a cold, open-air sleigh. An elf was also a pilot, with a helicopter available.

The children were ecstatic when their parents told them.

Days passed. Brother and sister talked each night about the ride. Hannah couldn’t mention it without giggling.

“Her expressions were so vivid,” said Valerie Saulsbury. “Maybe even more so because she didn’t have any hair. Her big blue eyes … she was so thrilled.”

But a few nights before Christmas Eve, Hannah’s bubbly personality faded. On Christmas Eve morning, hours before liftoff, something was terribly wrong. Hannah was listless, her breathing raspy. At noon her family called 911.

In the ambulance, oxygen revived her. The paramedics asked her whether she had any pain. She shook her head no. But her mommy knew better.

“Hannah, it’s OK to say if you have owies. Do you?”

Hannah slowly nodded her head yes and began to cry. Then she lost consciousness and didn’t feel the pain anymore.

At 3:50 p.m. the blips on Hannah’s heart monitor began slowing, and then stopped. The family held one another and said their goodbyes.

Riding with Santa

At home, their phone message light was blinking. Chief Elf was trying in vain to reach them, wondering where they were.

Valerie called, telling him about Hannah. Then she hesitated, with the silence hanging in the air: “Could Hunter still go? We don’t want him to remember Christmas as the day his sister died.”

Chief Elf swallowed hard.

“Of course,” he said.

Before long a car’s headlights glimmered in a near-empty parking lot at Johnson County, Kan., Executive Airport.

Santa saw a little boy climb out of the car, then two young parents, their eyes haggard.

Earlier that day Santa had two Santa hats specially made for Hunter and Hannah. But as he waited he slipped Hannah’s hat into his pocket.

“I’m sorry about Hannah,” Santa said to the family, after an awkward silence. Hunter looked away. The Saulsburys nodded.

Clearing his throat, Santa looked at Hunter and said: “Now, let’s talk about you.” He picked up a 3-inch-thick book titled “Santa Book,” a record of all the good boys and girls Santa had visited so far in 2001. He turned to Hunter’s page.

“It says right here that you were a big help to your sister Hannah. I’m very proud of you for that.”

Santa moved on, telling him about the family they were delivering presents to. Hunter’s job was to protect the gifts until the helicopter landed.

Santa exited first. He was going to slip down the chimney and then open the front door for the others. Hunter leaped out next, hoisting Santa’s sack over one shoulder, like an elf pro, and grinning so wide at the front door that Santa had to laugh.

Santa worked quickly, arranging the presents expertly under the Christmas tree. In less than 10 minutes their good deed was done, but not before Santa noted that Hunter’s face glowed, along with his parents’.

Off they flew. But as they neared their own house, Wylie Saulsbury noticed something was different.

Their subdivision in Olathe has more than 30 homes. But as they looked down, only one house had its Christmas lights on — their own.

As a way to honor the brightness of Hannah’s short life, neighbors had turned off their own Christmas lights and darkened their homes. Others stripped strands of lights from their shrubbery and trees to create one shining memorial.

An 8-foot birch in the Saulsburys’ front yard now glowed with hundreds of lights.

On the cold tarmac, Santa hugged Hunter.

“She was here, too,” he said, handing him Hannah’s Santa hat from his pocket.

“She was right here with us, Hunter.”