A Tale of Two Parades

Happy brothers on Christmas Day (2009) (Swank photo collection)

Through the best of times and the worst of times, I have been Santa Claus at the Organ Pavilion for San Diego’s “December Nights in the Park.” I have watched many babies grow up on my lap. I’ve had kids bring their babies back to see me. I may not know their names, but I do recognize their faces and share their joy. Santa has been their friend since 2002. He’s always glad to see them again.

Last year, a woman who has visited Santa with her family for over a decade learned I had cancer. She talked with my wife. The woman is a pediatrician and, earlier in the year, she lost her mother to cancer. She insisted on updates about my condition and even visited with me during my radiation treatment at UCSD Medical Center.

In late May 2020, the pediatrician asked Santa to participate in a birthday parade for a four-year-old patient undergoing leukemia treatment. Such processions have become popular during the COVID-19 epidemic. Although my wife and I have remained under quarantine at home, I agreed to participate. We would be in our car at all times. It brought back poignant memories of visiting dying kids from when I was Hospice Santa.

For the parade, I made a large number “4” for the side of my car and personalized it with the boy’s name.

A cancer support group organized the event. There was an initial rendezvous in the parking lot of a shopping mall with decorated cars, people dressed as Star Wars figures, a fire truck and many loud motorcycles with American flags. The motorcade advanced and Santa followed the fire truck as it passed the little boy’s driveway. It was over in an instant.

Personalized “4″ for birthday parade (2020) (Swank photo collection)

The doctor, a very wonderful woman, had arrived just as the parade began. Afterwards, we met a block away and learned about the boy. Last year, when his mother called to explain the symptoms, the pediatrician immediately recognized that her son had classic childhood leukemia. Now, the little boy was finishing treatment and, fortunately, his prognosis is positive. 95% of patents with his form of leukemia survive. Regardless, this has been a wrenching ordeal for all involved.

The doctor drove back to the family home to talk with the mother and kids as they stood without masks in the cul-de-sac. We pulled up and the older brother (age 6) immediately announced that he didn’t believe in Santa Claus. When I am dressed as Santa, it is very, very unusual for a kid to behave surly and confrontational.

The mother did not correct his behavior. His younger brother was neither impressed nor seemingly interested in conversation with Santa. He gets a pass since he’d just gone through difficult cancer treatment.

A few days later, pictures were posted on the cancer support group’s Facebook page. In one, a toy store seems to surround the birthday boy.

Then I understood…

Why should the older brother believe in a relic like Santa Claus when a roomful of toys suddenly appears in May?

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As Santa Claus, I led the early Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parades with Susie, the gentle black Lab who customarily lounged around the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Society. The parade route traveled north on Fifth to “E” Street, west to Fourth and back down into the Gaslamp Quarter. Kids lined the streets and called out to Santa and Susie. I would wave back and wish them, “Merry Christmas.”

In 2009, heading south on Fourth Avenue, a man pointed out two young boys in a second story window of an old hotel building yelling for Santa’s attention. When I waved and called back, their smiles melted my heart. They didn’t think that Santa had heard or seen them.

A few days later, I went to the hotel and a custodian confirmed that a single mother with two small children lived in one of the apartments. He said they were good boys and their mother worked hard to provide for them. I gave him my phone number and the mother called.

She remembered that her sons got very excited because Santa actually saw them and called back to greet them. She couldn’t believe that Santa was now interested in their Christmas. Mom confirmed that she didn’t have much money and wouldn’t be able to buy much for the boys.

I asked her to learn what they really wanted for Christmas and call me back. I told her that Santa would appear on Christmas morning with the gifts.

The visit turned out to be the highlight of my 2009 Christmas Season. These little guys were astounded that Santa himself had come to their one-room apartment.

Their mother sent a card with this printed message: “Let us join in prayer to ask for God’s peace at Christmas and always…”

She wrote, “We just wanted to write a thank you for all that you did for us at Christmas. I think Matthew put it the best when he said, ‘I am so happy.’ This by far was the best Christmas the boys and I have ever had. I do not have the words to express how gratefull (sic) we are. With much love and blessings, /Michelle/ /Matthew/ /Major/

In these times of COVID-19 and racial turmoil, I hope this mother and her sons are safe.

I hope she found a good job and stability. Her boys are fortunate to have a strong and loving mother.

Why do some people have so much and others have so little?

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