When the chemo started and nurses told 9-year-old Mason Kempf to think of something happy, he thought about snow.
Even though the outside breezes were soft and warm and the tree’s leaves green as he lay this summer in the hospital bed at St. Jude’s, that’s the memory he clung to.
Mason remembered the Christmas Eve snow last year, when the flakes fell fast, big and fat at his Overland Park home. Perfect for snowballs and snowmen and snow sledding. White stuff that made your fingers stiff and your cheeks sting. And then how good it felt to warm up with a cup of hot cocoa, and watch the steam spiral upward.
Because of snow, Christmas morning was the best.
His sickness started in April. Headaches and double-vision. His legs sometimes didn’t work right. Doctor’s visits and medical tests determined he had a brain tumor. Next came weeks of chemo and a radiation mask to protect his face from the treatments, and all those shots…
Sometimes he’d catch his mom and dad looking sad.
He started asking for his favorite Christmas gift right then because it wasn’t something parents could buy from a store. He believes in Santa Claus, but he worried that snow might even be too tough an assignment for Santa. (He ignored his brother Maverick, 8, who told him that the kids at school said Santa wasn’t real.)
Still, just to be sure, Mason started asking God, every night. His whole family — parents, Andria and Eddie Kempf, brother and sister, Ally, 3 — started praying for it, too.
The months passed. When the winds became bitter and the nights grew long, Mason finished all his cancer treatments. His doctors told his parents to take him home and enjoy life.
Christmas was coming. Along with the chance for snow. Watching the weather forecasts was his family’s new hobby. Night after night, weathermen and women told Kansas City viewers about the snow thundering down in other parts of the United States.
But Kansas City looked like it would just get a dusting. Not enough to play in.
It was a forecast that made Andria Kempf’s heart break even more.
* * * * *
Out of the millions of letters Santa receives, one stood out.
I know you can not take cancer away. But maybe, just maybe can you keep pain away on Christmas day? My Christmas wish is simple: love, laughter and smiles for Mason, Maverick and Ally. I HEAR the sleigh bells. I believe. Listen closely, and feel the magic today.
Dreaming of a White Christmas!”
Andria Kempf had posted it on her blog, www.masonarik.blogspot.com.
More than anything, Santa wanted Mason and his family to have snow on Christmas. For a couple of weeks, he’d been working on exactly that.
On Friday, the morning of Christmas Eve, he took a break from his busy schedule to visit the Kempfs.
In full regalia, red suit, magic house key, walking cane and all those bells, Santa pounded on their front door, Ho-Ho-Ho-ing to announce his arrival.
Maverick raced to hide in his room, but then came out later and told Santa what he wanted.
Ally’s eyes grew even wider when she saw Santa. She did a little dance whenever he talked to her because he made her so happy. She had on striped socks, just like Santa.
Mason, who is very shy, smiled and giggled ever so quietly. Andria and Eddie Kempf took picture after picture after picture.
Then Santa talked about Mason’s wish.
“It looks like Mother Nature is teasing you people in Kansas City,” he said. “I have no way to bring snow in my sleigh, Mason, but Mother Nature is my friend. And if she doesn’t help out, she’s going to get coal in her stocking.”
He told them how much he wanted to give Mason snow. He also reminded them — because human beings sometimes forget— that Santa can’t perform miracles. “Only God can do that,” he said.
But he can do magic. And he does have a lot of elves to help him.
As he talked, the snow outside began to grow thicker. Andria Kempf fought back tears watching the snow flakes tumble down so swift and silent where before there had been none.
Even though they melted away just as fast.
* * * * *
Since November, the Elves of Christmas Present had been thinking how to bring snow to a little boy in Overland Park.
But it was a very tough assignment. They were watching the weather forecasts, too.
The Elves of Christmas Present are a group of anonymous people who try to make Christmas extra special for a few families who have had a difficult year. One important part of their gift is sacrifice. For most elves, that means working long into the night on Christmas Eve while the rest of the world is settling into bed.
One elf, who lives in Kansas City, worried that the snow for Mason wasn’t going to happen from nature. He decided to buy six snow machines and had them shipped from Pennsylvania.
He told his wife: You never know when you might want snow … . Besides, failure for this gift is not an option.
A week before Christmas, Chief Elf made that elf the leader of this mission. Project Snowman was on.
Cell phones across the metro rang with plans and ideas. Construction crews volunteered dump trucks and drivers, Bob Cat equipment and loaders. Firemen volunteered to operate fire hydrants and hoses. Even one fireman elf invented a special router for the hydrant to keep the water pressure strong for six snow machines.
Carpenters secretly measured and re-measured the Kempfs’ front and back yards to figure how much snow they needed. Neighbors offered the warmth of their garage for Christmas Eve night, along with hot cider and coffee.
Two days before Christmas, the elves practiced making snow. They learned about dew points and humidity. How the temperature to make snow in Kansas City was 28. Any higher, and only a mist of rain spews out. Lower temperatures work, as long as the humidity is dry.
And just in case it wasn’t cold enough and snow didn’t come, the elves devised a contingency plan. At 3 p.m. Christmas Eve, two dump trucks and a dump trailer went to Snow Creek in Weston and scraped the mountain there, gathering as much hard icy snow as their dump trucks could hold.
Meanwhile, permits were issued. Police notified, along with neighbors. And the project was set. More than 100 people vowed to be there starting at 10 p.m. Christmas Eve. And not leave until there was snow.
For the first time in the 20-plus-year history of the Elves of Christmas Present projects, some elves began praying for Christmas Eve to be really cold.
* * * * *
At 10 p.m. carpenter elves settled baffles around the basement windows of the house on West 96th Terrace, an effort to keep the noise levels down.
Three children and their parents were settling into sleep in their basement after watching the movie, “Despicable Me.” Everyone waited until a text message gave the OK: The kids are asleep. You can start now.
At 10:30 p.m. the block was suddenly bright as noon and loud as a construction zone. Lights and generators, the beep-beep-beep of dump trucks backing up, a line of people with rakes, waiting for the snow.
The snow machines were fired up. But nothing happened except a fine mist spraying into the air. It was too warm. The temperature was hovering at 30 and the hourly forecasts agreed there wouldn’t be much of a drop for the next 10 hours.
But the elves weren’t defeated.
The scraped snow from Weston was waiting in the dump trucks at a staging area just behind a Home Depot. Like massive dinosaurs, the vehicles crept down the suburban street, stopping in front of the Kempf’s home.
There was a great yawl sound. Then the dump trailer’s bed rose three stories into the air and down the snow fell, landing with a thunk: one big fat brick of white ice. Bob Cats and loaders smashed the stuff, spinning and pushing it here and there. Elf rakers worked the front of the lawn, sweeping and smoothing, hiding their own footprints. Other elves reset Christmas decorations that had been removed to keep them from damage.
Neighbors watched. And so did Andria Kempf, who had slipped away from her sleeping family.
What she saw took her breath away.
“This is mind-blowing,” she said, unable to stop laughing. “I keep asking people to pinch me. This is like watching a Hallmark movie, except it’s real….There is magic here.
“The magic is that all these people are doing this for Mason.”
She stopped talking and took in a deep breath, trying to make herself not cry.
“I had no idea….”
* * * * *
Before the sun rose a few hours later, Mason, Maverick and Ally woke up. Just in case Santa’s gift came, they dressed in snow suits.
Their grandfather, Gayle Van Durme, whom they call “Poppa,” walked in from the garage. The children’s grandmother, “Mimi,” Kay Van Durme, spent the night with the children.
Did it snow, Poppa? Did it?
“Yes, it did. But not very much.” And the children were sad. Until….
They went into the garage and its door was raised. And there was gleaming white snow.
Also a sledding hill. A new Christmas tree. Snow everywhere in their yard. And nowhere else.
Ally screamed, then screamed again, enough to rival any YouTube Christmas moment. Maverick grabbed his sled while yelling: “It snowed! It snowed!” Mason, whose legs were a little wobbly, had to sit down, but he just kept smiling as he looked at everything.
Five minutes more and all three children crowded on a sled and zoomed down the incline. Maverick ran around and did it again and again and again, sometimes feet first, sometimes head first. Even his parents and grandfather slid down the mini-hill.
Ally stooped at her feet and made a little snowman, a gift for her family.
Mason watched. Always smiling. Until his parents feared he was getting too cold.
As the family went inside to open Christmas presents, Maverick told his mom loud enough for all to hear: “Mom, this is the best Christmas ever.”
And Andria Kempf, who was helping Mason walk back into their house, thought so, too.
LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star