A Guardian Angel

She sobbed at night, too angry to pray. But a gift from strangers gave her a new outlook.

She was so mad at God, Datha Jackson had stopped praying to him.

In July, her 15-year-old daughter, Heather Tice, was in a car crash and was rushed to St. Luke╩╝s Hospital. Heather was a passenger in a car driven by a beginning driver who slammed the vehicle into a tree. The driver and two others in the car escaped injury.

Heather survived but nearly died the next day in the hospital: Her lungs collapsed; she contracted pneumonia and sank into a coma.

For three weeks Heather╩╝s medical team prepared Datha for her daughter╩╝s death. But when she recovered from the pneumonia, the family learned more grim news: The Belton High School sophomore, a straight-A student who loves school, was paralyzed.

In seconds along a roadway in Belton, Heather╩╝s dreams of being a sports masseuse were shredded along with the tree the car hit. Heather keeps a piece of its bark in her purse still, a reminder that reality bites.

But on Christmas Eve, reality for Heather and Datha also included elves.

Not the pointy-eared kind in green tights. But dozens of anonymous people who cared enough to help raise a family╩╝s despair and show them what Christmas is.

* * * * *
Last year Christmas wasn╩╝t the best for Datha. In fact, it came in January for her. That╩╝s when she came home from intensive care, after the 39-year-old had a heart attack and bypass surgery, and learned she had coronary artery disease.

Daughters Michelle and Heather kept her presents and goodies unopened under the Christmas tree. The holiday was just “postponed” until Mom came home.

But this year Christmas loomed.

With no money and months of rent past due, Datha knew the new year meant eviction. Social service agencies were trying to help them, but the cogs of government help turn slowly. Immediate assistance for help with the rent fell through.

Homelessness wasn╩╝t a question of “if” it would happen, but “when.”

Datha questioned herself. The despair and worry made her cigarette habit worse; her weight dropped even more.
After the car crash, the single mom quit her job. Heather needed her mother to be with her. They are facing the struggles together now. Part of Heather╩╝s therapy included months of rehabilitation in Lincoln, Neb., at a special hospital that teaches the newly paralyzed how to live again. Datha went to help her daughter, but she needed to learn how to live again, too.

Bills piled up. Rent was due. The car need- ed repairs. Medicines and medical equipment were needed. Their savings dwindled.

At night, in Heather╩╝s hospital room, Datha sobbed. She prayed to her mom, who had died in 1998, asking her to help them, asking her to intercede with God and please ask him to stop testing her family.

She was too angry at God to pray herself.

Datha╩╝s best friend, Sally King, kept telling both mother and daughter everything was going to be OK. God loves you both, she╩╝d said. Although they listened to her words, neither believed her. God allowed this all to happen. Why?

King gave Heather a tiny necklace. A guardian angel to watch over her, and maybe her world would seem better. Heather asked to have the necklace put on as soon as her neck brace was removed. And things in her life did seem to get better ... a little.

She learned her paralysis wasn╩╝t total — she could squeeze her hands. Her swallowing muscles stopped aspirating liquid — she was able to eat again. The exercises with her speech therapist were working — finally she could speak above a whisper.

And one day in the Nebraska hospital the phone rang. It was a familiar voice to Datha, a mother to whom she had given her day-old baby boy 19 years earlier. The boy, now a man, wanted to meet her. Datha╩╝s daughters were thrilled they would get to meet their brother. Datha collapsed with tears of both joy and sadness.

And after months in hospitals, Heather was allowed to go home again to their Belton apartment. Home to her stuffed animals, her friends, and a safe place to grieve her loss and rethink her future.

Heather is making successes each day.

Perhaps the biggest: She╩╝s come to some answers in her quest of “Why me?”

“I don╩╝t wish this on anybody,” she said, looking down at her legs, “but if anybody could handle it, I could.”

She tells herself that every day, along with her new appreciation for the little, tiny everyday things in life she took for granted before. In January, she takes another big step: She returns to Belton High School part-time, a dream that brings both delight and fear.

Datha listens to her daughter╩╝s successes and smiles. But her eyes show her agony: Datha knows how desperate their living situation is. Section 8 housing could help them, but the waiting list stretches into a year or more. Homelessness, she knows, is inevitable.

Datha tries to remind herself again that her family has each other. They╩╝re all here, even a son who grew up with another family. But her Christmas spirit is depleted as much as her bank account.

She knows that late this night, the sadness will visit once more.

Christmas Eve won╩╝t make it any different, she thinks.

* * * * *

Around 6:30 p.m. the knocking comes in three short raps.

An 8-year-old girl wearing a “Rookie” elf hat smiles at Datha. “Merry Christmas,” she says and hands her a single envelope.

Datha turns to her family, to see which member knows the child. No one does. She turns back to ask, but there is no one there.

“Wow. She disappeared so quick! She just disappeared!”

She hands the envelope to Heather. With hands that aren╩╝t as strong as they once were, Heather opens the envelope.

Inside is a 1-inch silver guardian angel on a necklace, a tiny angel strong enough to lift despair.

Heather begins reading from a card inside:

“Dear Datha, It has been brought to our attention that Heather is seeking a guardian angel for you. ...Please accept this gift in honor of the man whose birthday we celebrate on this holy night. Long ago, his family also had a shelter problem, and an angel watched over them....”

Heather╩╝s hands shake as she wipes her eyes, letting the card fall. Datha stoops down to hug Heather.

“Oh my gosh!” she says, standing up, trying to take it in. “Oh! ... I╩╝ve got to sit down. ... My God. ...”

The gift is $7,000 for housing needs, an amount that individual elves in the grassroots group, the Elves of Christmas Present, gave from their own pockets. Some paid for an entire month of rent; some for a week or even a day, but it╩╝s enough for Datha to pay for an entire year, or even to allow her the freedom to move to a larger apartment, one better equipped to handle Heather╩╝s wheelchair.

Datha╩╝s shoulders rack with her sobs. Her children cry too. Sally King wraps her arms around her friend.

“I told you it would be OK, didn╩╝t I?”

Datha nods. All her worry and stress and despair evaporated in a single moment.

“I feel lighter,” she says, now laughing. “Wow. ... What a Christmas!

“...We won╩╝t be homeless.”

She looks around the room into the faces of her friends, into the faces of her children. A gift from strangers, for Christmas.

“... We╩╝ll be OK. ... I can╩╝t believe it....”

LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star