He lay there on the old metal park bench; his white beard had gone soiled with the dirt and grime of the depressed world around him. A crumpled-up McDonald’s bag was his pillow. The contents of the bag, pulled from a nearby dumpster hours ago, was eaten with the same gusto as he once ate steak; even though the French fries were limp, chewy, and cold. His clothes were a gift from that same dumpster. The jeans were a bit tight around the waist and the large oval, smelly, oil stain on the right leg wasn’t attractive at all, but the used and battered garment did its job. A black T-shirt was buried deeper than the jeans, but he smiled as he pulled it up and past all the rubbish and rancid waste; avoiding an enormous pile of bacon grease that was mixed in with roofing tar. Freeing the t-shirt from its intended grave, he stretched it out in front of him and chuckled loudly, which caused his belly to bounce up and down. The shirt was an extra-large, which fit him nicely, but it was the words boldly printed in white across the front that struck him as funny; especially considering his current situation: IF I’M EVER ON LIFE SUPPORT UNPLUG ME- THEN PLUG ME BACK IN. SEE IF THAT WORKS.
He used the area behind the dumpster, next to a loading dock, to dress into his new “old” outfit. He discarded the clothes that he had donned for as long as he could remember and pushed them into a pile at his feet. Some might describe his clothes as a costume, but to him, they had become an unwanted attachment to a tradition that was seriously outdated and embarrassingly ridiculous. He picked up his old suit and pushed it deep down in the dumpster, where it mixed in with the black tar and bacon grease. “There,” he muttered while looking down at his jeans and shirt. “I’m normal. Just like everybody else.” He grabbed his McDonald’s bag and walked over to the park bench, sat down and ate. As the sun began to set in the west, the old man looked forward to a late fall night, sleeping under the stars.
To Charlie, a seven-year-old from the hood, an old white man sleeping on a bench in Shelby Park, was certainly not a common sight. His older brother Jeff went to play basketball in the park all the time, but he was always quick to point out to his younger brother that it wasn’t a place to hang out for little kids. “Too many drugs and crime…” he would always say. Despite all the warnings, here was Charlie on a sun-drenched Saturday morning, standing and staring at a sleeping man with a dirty beard. Charlie would have never noticed the bum, that is what most people would call him, if the chain had not fallen off his bike less than ten feet from the bench. The chain would have to wait. There was something mysterious and fascinating about the old man and Charlie needed to investigate further; regardless of the warnings that Jeff was always preaching about.
He ever so slowly crept up next to the man, being extremely quiet, paying attention not to crunch on the leaves that were underfoot. Charlie’s eyes were wide with heart pounding excitement, as his face was less than a foot away from the bum’s face. Charlie got a whiff of something foul and crinkled his nose, but the filthy odor didn’t deter Charlie’s mission. He reached out with trembling fingers and gave the bum’s beard a quick tug. Nothing happened. Charlie feared that the man might be dead, but he noticed his eyelid twitching. He gave the beard another pull. The bum grumbled something and then he shot straight up on the bench. The old man’s face registered surprise and shock and he shouted out, “Charlie! Why did you do that!? I was sleeping.” Charlie fell back onto the leafy ground, landing on his butt and hands, his eyes wide with surprise. His mouth fell open, but he couldn’t speak. Fear gripped him and at that moment, he wished he had listened to his brother.
Finally, after a frightful few seconds, he got the words out while still staring wide-eyed at the bum on the bench. “How did you know my name?” The old man’s face switched from a frown to a smile, and he chuckled when he saw how worried the kid looked, laying sprawled out on the ground in front of him. “Oh, I’m sorry, kid. I must have been dreaming of someone with the same name as yours. Isn’t that a corker? Really, I mean no harm.” “A corker? What is that?” Charlie nervously inquired. “Just a figure of speech, young man. It sort of means: ‘Isn’t it funny’ that I would dream of someone with the same name as yours?” Charlie quickly got up, brushed himself off, and looked over at his bike, wondering if he should make a run for it. Instead, he turned to the old man and said, “Well, I don’t think it’s funny at all. You, knowing my name without me telling you, is spooky and wrong.” The old codger continued to smile at him, causing Charlie to relax a little. There seemed to be something special and disarming about the old timer, so he took a few steps closer to the man. “What is your name?” Charlie asked. “I’m…” The old man hesitated and paused before nodding his head. “My name is Nick. It’s nice to meet you, Charlie.” Nick reached out a dirty hand to shake, but Charlie kept his hands planted at his sides. Charlie’s head dropped a fraction. He was reading Nick’s shirt. “What does life support mean?” “Well,” Nick clasped his hands together on his lap and thoughtfully replied. “It means to keep someone alive, even when there is little hope left.” Charlie relaxed a little more. Taking an interest in what Nick had just said, he took a few more steps closer and sat down on the far end of the bench, out of reach of the old man and out of reach of his odor. After a few moments, Charlie tilted his head up slightly and peered at Nick out of the corner of his eye. “You remind me of someone I once knew.” Nick kept his hands clasped together and looked over at Charlie. “Who might that be, Charlie?” Charlie nodded his head up and down, affirming his thoughts. “It’s your beard. You look like Santa Claus.” Nick chuckled, amused at the comparison. “Yes,” said Nick. “I suppose I do… a little. You said you once knew him. You don’t any more?” Charlie, looking sad, dropped his chin to his chest. “No. He stopped coming around when I was five. Two years ago. After my dad got shot and died.” Nick blinked twice and said, “I’m sorry.” Charlie was still looking at the ground, his voice laced with extreme sadness. “They pulled the plug on him,… and they never plugged him back in…” Nick let out a long sigh, searching for something to say to change the subject. He cleared his throat. “Charlie, do you still believe in Santa Claus?” Charlie picked up his head and looked at Nick. Sadness had settled into his eyes. “I don’t know. My brother said he’s not real. He’s just in our imaginations.” Now it was Nick’s turn to hang his head on his chest. Tears welled up in Nick’s eyes. He tried to blink them away, but a tear escaped and ran down a dirty cheek. Nick swept it away with the back of his hand. He turned his head to Charlie. “Well, I’m here to tell you that your brother is wrong. “Charlie quickly challenged him. “Then, if Santa is real, why hasn’t he been around here for Christmas lately and besides, how would you know? You’re just a dirty old bum?” Charlie wasn’t trying to be mean. It was actually polite in the way he said it; sort of matter-of-factly. Nick shifted on the bench and turned his body to better face Charlie. He whispered. “Charlie, do you believe in me?” “What do you mean?” Charlie asked. “Do you believe I’m real?” asked Nick. Charlie felt challenged; a lot like when his brother would ask him a trick question. It made him feel stupid. He defiantly crossed his arms over his chest and exclaimed, “Yes, of course you’re real. I can see you.” Charlie crinkled his nose. “And I can smell you. You need a bath…” Despite the polite and honest insult, Nick chuckled. “Well, I’m glad you believe in me. Can I tell you a little story?” “Yeah sure…”
“Okay. For many, many years, when I was about your age, I kept to myself. I never went out much. I would hide away in my house, and I would read books. Lots of books. Reading was a great escape for me. I had a simple life. My parents were rich and what I remember most about them is that they went to church a lot. Well, during this time when I was young and reading a lot, they both became ill and soon, they died. After they died, my uncle Nick, he had the same name as me, raised me. He was very religious and soon, so was I. Like my parents, I went to church a lot. My uncle Nick liked when I went to church because I learned more about life there. I also learned about God and I learned that just because we can’t see him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist. I learned about faith; a belief in someone or something that we can’t see or touch. However, even though we can’t see or touch someone or something, we can feel it in our gut and in our soul and we know- it's real. It's just as real as you and I sitting here. It’s like when you know when someone loves you; you can feel it; and you feel it when you love someone in return. There's no mistaken that.”
Charlie held up a slow hand to ask Nick a question. “Yes, Charlie?” Charlie looked up at Nick, his eyes still very sad. “If you love someone a whole bunch, can faith save them from dying?” Nick thought Charlie might be thinking about his dad and how he died but there seemed to be an urgency in his eyes that showed that Charlie was thinking about someone else. Nick answered after he took a moment to consider the question. “Yes, Charlie. Sometimes, it can.” Charlie bowed his head down again. His voice became a whimper. “My mom has cancer. My brother said that she won’t be around much longer.” Nick slid down the bench and rested a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie didn't mind. He wasn’t afraid of Nick anymore. “Charlie,” Nick softly said. “Have you ever prayed?” Charlie’s head remained bowed. “Yes. I pray every night.” “Look at me, Charlie.” Charlie raised his head up and looked at Nick. “When you pray, don’t pray from your sadness. Pray from the happiness that you receive from your mom. She wouldn’t want you to be sad. Above all, have faith in your love for your mom and let that love do the healing. Loving someone doesn’t always cure them, but it helps the person in amazing ways we can’t possibly understand. It heals the soul. That I know. Do you think you can pray the way I explained?” Charlie looked a bit confused. “I will, but how can someone like you know all about faith and love and being happy? Look at you. You’re a mess.” Charlie couldn’t help but giggle at what he just said, and Nick picked up on the humor and laughed harder than he had in a very long time. It was a laugh that started way down deep and as it rolled up and finally burst out of his mouth, his belly shook. Up and down, it went. Over and over again, and soon both Nick and Charlie were laughing so hard they were holding their sides. Finally, Nick could talk. “Do you see how happy I am?” Charlie nodded. “Charlie, I have to get going. I have things I have to do, but thank you. You helped an old man feel good about life again. I feel like you plugged me back in.” He pointed a finger at the words on the front of his grubby shirt. “It feels good to be out in the world again and not cooped up in a place where I had to wear a business suit all the time.” He winked at Charlie. “You go along now and don’t forget to pray, okay?” Nick stood up, and so did Charlie. Nick held out a hand and Charlie shook it. Both had big smiles on their faces. “Goodbye, Nick. Maybe I’ll see you in the park again soon…” Nick nodded. “Maybe you will.”
As Charlie began walking away toward where his bike was laying in the grass, Nick spoke behind Charlie’s back. “Charlie, tell Jeff what I told you about Santa Claus…” Charlie looked over his shoulder and waved to Nick. “I will.” Nick was smiling and waving back at him. Charlie bent down to pick up his bike by the handlebars, intending to roll the bike to a nearby tree so he could prop it up and work on putting his chain back on, but when he looked down, he was shocked. The chain was back on, and it wasn’t as loose as it was before. “No way!” Charlie shouted in surprise. Thinking that Nick must have heard him, Charlie looked over in the bench's direction, but Nick was nowhere in sight. He had simply vanished.
As Charlie pedaled fast to get home to tell Jeff about the bum he met, something occurred to Charlie. He had never mentioned his brother to Nick by name, but… somehow, he knew his name too, just as he knew Charlie’s name when they first met.
Charlie told Jeff all about the old man in the park, but Jeff paid little mind to the surprises of how the man somehow knew their names or about the mystery of the bike chain. Instead, Jeff scolded Charlie about making friends with strangers in the park. Charlie knew how Jeff would react, so he took it all in stride and made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. While he was spreading the jelly on the bread, Charlie tried to lessen Jeff’s irritation with him. “Where’s mom?” Jeff had his head lowered, watching some music video on his phone. “She’s at the doctor. They’re doing another scan of the tumor.” Charlie stopped spreading the jelly. He hated that word, tumor. It was killing his mother and Jeff said it like Mom was having her nails done. But it was what it was, and Charlie remembered what Nick had told him about praying. He put down the butter knife and immediately put his hands together as if making a church steeple. “Please, God. Please don’t let Mom die. She’s the only family left that Jeff and I have…” Jeff lifted his head from his phone and looked over at Charlie. Sadness replaced the irritation. “Not sure God can help her now Charlie.” Charlie looked at his brother and smiled. “I have faith.” Jeff walked over to his baby brother and hugged him tight. “I wish I did, Charlie. “
The following Monday morning, Jeff and Charlie woke up, ate their breakfast, and were getting ready for school. As Charlie went to the enclosed porch to put on his shoes, he noticed that something was tucked into one of them. He reached down and picked up the shoe and tugged at what was inside. Charlie’s eyes and mouth went wide with surprise. He was now holding onto a large wad of cash. He was speechless as he ran inside the house. Finally, he yelled, “Jeff. Mom. There’s a lot of money in my shoe! Come here!” When the three counted out the money, there was $3,000 piled up on their kitchen table. They all eyed each other before Jeff spoke up. “Someone put this in Charlie’s shoe. Who would do that?” Charlie thought about Nick, but Nick was just an old bum who couldn’t even keep himself clean. It couldn’t have been him, he thought. Or could it? They put the money into their home safe and they all decided that they would talk more about their windfall that night. The boys went to school and their mom stayed at home and waited for a phone call from her doctor; who would give her the results of the cat scan.
That night, as promised, they talked about the money and they decided that after buying winter clothes for the boys, they would save the rest. “For a rainy day, mom?” Charlie asked. “Yes, and maybe for a sunny day.” She smiled. “Come here, you two. I have something to tell you.” Charlie, Jeff, and their mom went into the living room and sat down. She didn’t waste time. She got right to the point. Charlie noticed she was no longer smiling. She looked nervous, squeezing her hands together. “I got a call from the doctor earlier today,” she breathed out as she pursed her lips together. “It seems. And after he checked the results several times, he told me…” After a long pause, she got it out. “The tumor is gone, and I’m cancer free.” Jeff could only say one word. He was choked up. “How?” “I don’t know honey. I think it’s a miracle.” With that, they all gathered for a group hug and joyful tears flowed. Charlie was about to mention his talk with Nick, but he was afraid that his mother would disapprove, as Jeff did, so he kept quiet. Soon after they wiped their tears away, his mother had a story to tell. They all sat down to listen.
“On Saturday, as I was walking into the doctor’s office, I noticed a man sitting at a picnic table near the fountain next to the medical clinic's door. There were several kids gathered around him with their parents in tow. He was giving out candy canes and something else in these little tiny plastic bags. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to snoop any further, so I continued past the group. As I passed, something very odd happened. This old man called me over to him. He called me by my name! He hollered, ‘Joyce Hunter, come here. I have something for you.’ I was dumbstruck and, yes, scared, but I walked cautiously over to him. He looked so cheerful, and he wore this great big smile. He held out his hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you, Joyce.’ I shook his hand. I was about to ask him how he knew me, but he continued to talk. He said, ‘I don’t have a lot of time, but please take these three candy canes. One for each one of your boys and you and take these three medals. Make sure all of you wear them. I have to go now.’ He handed me the three medals, turned and hurried away without another word. I yelled out, ‘Wait…’ but he kept walking toward the fountain. I then went into the doctor’s office to have my test.” Charlie was so excited that he couldn’t stay seated. He got up and walked over to where his mom sat on the couch. “Mom, what did this man look like?” “He was short. He had a white beard, and he wore jeans and a black t-shirt. Why?” “Did he stink like a bum?” “Oh, no. He didn’t. He was very clean looking.” Charlie smiled. “He must have taken a bath.” Charlie went on and told his mom about the man he met in the park. He told her everything. After telling his story, his mom got excited and asked, “What’s the date today?” Jeff said “December 8th.” “Saturday was December 6th. That's when I met the man!” she exclaimed. “What’s December 6th?” asked Charlie. His mom got out the medals that the man had given her for the first time. She took two of them and handed them to her two boys. Without looking herself, she said, “Look closely at the medal. It should say in tiny letters who the man on the medal is.” Charlie held his medal up to his face and after a few seconds said, “Saint Nicholas.” Now Jeff’s eyes got big. “Could that man have been…” He couldn’t finish the sentence. Joyce smiled and nodded. “Yes, I believe it was him. He was in a hurry because Saint Nicholas died on December 6th. Saint Nicholas was known for leaving money in people’s shoes during the dark of night.” She looked directly at Charlie, who smiled and pumped his fist in the air. “I knew it! There really is a Santa Claus!”
Nick continued to appear periodically in the neighborhoods of America, in areas, like parks and picnic grounds, where families and children gathered. He took the advice from Charlie and made sure he was clean and presentable, and he admitted he was a bit down on the day he met Charlie, but the young boy had changed him. Giving up the red suit was an end of an era for him. For close to one hundred and seventy years, he played the part of Father Christmas; and always fond of reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens before going out on his rounds to deliver gifts to the needy. During those times, it was the right thing to do since they had given him the green light from heaven to visit earth.
Lately, though, playing Santa Claus was getting to be hard on the old saint and besides, a lot of kids, after the age of seven, were losing interest in the jolly old elf and many no longer believed in Santa. Nick eventually felt the need to shed the disguise and reveal his true self to the world. Whether people would see him for what and who he really was, when he lived and walked the earth, close to 1,800 years ago, remains to be seen.
However, Nick will forever exist in the minds and hearts of the people he has touched, such as Charlie and his family. The next time you see an old man with a white beard just hanging around or passing you by on the street, consider the possibility that he may be there to give you a special gift- or maybe a miracle.
Saint Nicholas (15 March 270–6 December 343) of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe, he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.