The second thing Charlie Brison thought about, when his doctors diagnosed his lung cancer, was the list of repairs he needed to do for his family, before...
The ultimate “honey-do” list, by a dad with a deadline.
For Kalli, his 17-year-old daughter, he needed to fix her car, which had had been parked in the driveway for months, its engine shot.
For Jessie, his 13-year-old-daughter, he needed to fix the part of her computer that had fried out, rendering it blind and mute.
And the familyʼs only bathroom had leaked for the past 10 years, a slow drip that had eaten away sheet rock, mushed up the floor and the ceiling. The bathroom was its own ecosystem for several kinds of mold and probably a few that scientists havenʼt discovered yet.
No matter how many times his wife, Kim, scoured off the black furry creatures, they grew back. Some days the ceiling looked like it needed a shave worse than Brison did. In desperation, the family had stretched trash bags taut, blotting out any wayward spores.
The 49-year-old Leeʼs Summit man can still joke, still laugh. Heʼs always been the kind of man who told you what he thought, good or bad, always straight up. With a strong work ethic ingrained in his soul, Brison is a proud man who believes in being self-sufficient, not living beyond his means, taking care of what he has.
Men who work with their hands are like that. And Brison, who has worked 30 years in the construction business, knows what it means to put in 65-hour workweeks.
But with cancer, work and money evaporate. Fixing the bathroom would take at least two weeks and thousands of dollars. With fatigue his constant companion, Brison just seemed to keep finding more bad than good days lately.
When his phone rang, and the caller I.D. showed it was someone named “Chief Elf,” Brison was more than skeptical. He wanted to refuse the offer of help. His family didnʼt need charity, he said again and again. But more than anything, he didnʼt think he deserved help.
When a manʼs mortality smacks him in the face, he sees clearly what things are important and what things really donʼt matter. For a dad, working so hard all his life, regret shamed him about the lost time from his family.
But Chief Elf had patience. He explained that the Elves of Christmas Present is not an organized charitable group. Chief Elf himself is not a rich man, nor are his elves.
They are common, everyday hardworking people who band together each year trying to make Christmas extra special for a few families who have had a rough year. For the last 17 years thatʼs what theyʼve done in the metro area. Always anonymously. Always leaving without witnessing the joy their gifts of sacrifice bring.
Brison listened as Chief Elf retold a few projects. One year, they moved mountains for a little boy who was too sick to go to them. Another year, a little boy whose sister died on Christmas Eve got the ride of his life, flying with Santa as he delivered presents, landing in a cul-de-sac in Olathe. And still another year, teams of elves built a bedroom and handicapped-accessible bathroom for a mother whoʼd had a terrible accident and double amputation in the months before Christmas.
These were not gifts of charity, explained the elf, but gifts of love by people who celebrated the true meaning of Christmas. Itʼs not about stuff, he reminded him; itʼs about sacrifice.
And besides, said the elf, you and your 20-year-old son, Jake, (also a construction worker) would be the co-conspirators. We could use your hands, too, he said. Despite all the magic that Christmas Eve brings, crunching down a two-week construction job into 12 hours would need a lot of magic and sweat.
Brison cried as he listened to the words. His heart had been broken by the doctorʼs diagnosis, and so was his familyʼs. This was a gift everyone needed, including him.
His “honey-do” list was about to be shortened.
An elf crew inspected the bathroom. The 5- by 7-foot room would be gutted. An entire exterior wall would be removed, with the area hermetically sealed to pre- vent mold spores from implanting them- selves into human beings. Everything would be hauled off: floor tile, sheet rock, ceiling, window.
An elf car dealer advised the group to just replace the daughterʼs car instead of repairing it. So the elves pooled their money to buy a Honda Civic EX. With a sunroof.
A team of computer geek elves found the very best deals on the very best computer and printer and monitor. The elves passed around the hat again.
But what about the 34-year-old bath- room fixtures?
With one phone call, that too was taken care of. A former recipient, helped by the elves herself years ago, bought a new toilet, new pedestal sink, new shower/tub enclosure with her blessings. Another former recipient would act as a foreman for the night, directing the flow of 40 elves demolishing and reconstructing.
Brisonʼs biggest challenge now was keeping the whole thing a secret from his family. Not one to make up a whopper, he told his wife and kids straight up: Youʼve all got to leave the house by 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. No questions asked. And you canʼt come back until morning. If you donʼt leave, I promise Iʼll come back and haunt you, he told them.
Black humor, but it still made them all laugh.
“It was so Dad,” recalled Jake, who said his father has taught him to be strong and stubborn, and thankful.
The sounds of elf merriment began at 4:15 p.m. Christmas Eve. Drills thumped long into the night. Saws whined. Men wearing breathing masks moved in and out of the house, removing one wall, mudding in another, lugging in a gleam- ing toilet bowl, a brand new pedestal sink, armfuls of tools and caulking guns.
The hours sped by, and the dank bath- room morphed into a crisp shiny one.
At 7:05 a.m. dozens of drop cloths and plumbing tools, paper towels and drill bits, shop vacs and extension cords were rolled up and hauled away. At 7:12 a.m. the last of the elves dropped their exhausted selves into trucks and cars.
“Letʼs roll, guys!”
And as neighbor after neighbor peeked out from behind front doors, another vehicle slowly pulled into the driveway on Opal Street.
One carrying a family brimming with anticipation of the future.
LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star