Perry Bice turns off the van's engine but remains behind the wheel. His shoulders begin racking with sobs. The van doors swing open and two children scramble out.
"Why is my daddy crying?" asks 9-year-old Branson Bice. Parked in the driveway is a brand-new, wheelchair-accessible van, next to the small house in Gardner. A gold and red bow is wrapped around its windshield.
Branson ignores the new van because he sees a new trampoline in the back yard -- "Cool!" -- and a basketball goal near a new wheelchair ramp -- "All right!"
"Those are tears of joy," answers his aunt Cynthia, as tears well up in her eyes, too.
On this Christmas morning the Bice family is living a Christmas memory they will never forget, thanks to a group of anonymous souls known as the Elves of Christmas Present.
For the 12th year, hundreds of elves in the Kansas City area have toiled for weeks, finding families who needed an extra special Christmas.
Already, the Bices have received more than they ever dreamed. And they still have no idea what awaits inside.
`Yes, we're blessed'
It's just hours before Christmas -- Christmas Eve -- and Perry Bice and his wife, Kathrine, know only that a man who called himself Chief Elf had called two weeks earlier to ask whether his group could bring their children some gifts.
Gifts that the Bices would not have been able to afford.
quot;Our kids will love this," says Perry Bice, 42. Bice, a former youth minister, works for a communications company in Gardner.
He flips open his wallet to a tattered image he carries all the time. Five children are snuggling close to their parents, including one toddler wrapped in a blanket in her mother's arms.
The photo was a gift from several nurses who hired a photographer for a home photo session just days before the toddler, named Rishonn, died.
"I love this photo. Rishonn's feeding tube is hidden by the blanket," says Perry Bice, with a sigh, then a smile.
A silence wraps around the Bices as their thoughts drift back to the death of their youngest child.
"We are so blessed by God," he says.
He shakes off a wave of sadness. His hazel eyes glance at his wife. A moment of happiness passes between them.
"Yes, we're blessed," she agrees.
"When you've had what the world defines as a tragedy, it's an opportunity for God to show himself. People really need to hear that message, especially this year.
"We've found a God that cares for us tenderly. He's big enough to take it, you know, whatever anger and grief you throw at him. And we've thrown at him a lot."
A process of living
There were days that Perry Bice, on his morning commute, would rail at God. Driving down the freeway he'd scream out, "Why us?"
Three years ago, he was laid off his job in Iowa. Days later, a house fire left them with nothing, but everyone got out safely. The next day their car's engine blew up. With no money, no job, no transportation and no insurance, they turned to family. Church friends helped them move to Kathrine Bice's parents' home in Idaho. The Bices were starting over.
But even deeper troubles were beginning.
Within a year, Kathrine's mother died. From her death a medical mystery was revealed. Doctors finally were able to diagnose what was wrong with the Bices' youngest daughter, Rishonn. She had a genetic disease called Mitochondrial disorder, the doctors said, explaining that her body's cells were breaking down instead of transforming energy.
The disease would steal her body, introducing her to wheelchairs, seizures, paralysis, tube feedings. Her cherubic voice would be rendered silent. Brain damage would take her mind.
Finally, her abbreviated life would end.
But before the Bices were over that shock, they learned their oldest daughter, Chambris, had the disease, too. And then Mishayla tested positive. Two other children, Branson and Talaessa, were healthy. Kathrine Bice learned that she was the carrier of the disease.
Not only had she passed on the defective genes to her babies, she could have the disease herself.
For months, the Bices lived life in a daze. Sleepless nights as the disease racked their children's lives. Hospital stays and medical checkups. Worry about the future. Grief. Denial. Anger.
Lots of anger.
Slowly a new way of thinking found its way into their lives.
"Every life has a purpose," says Kathrine Bice. "When children are terminal, it seems a lot of people perceive that their purpose in life is to get by until God takes them, to wait around for their day of death.
"We began to see that it was not a process of dying. It's a process of living," she says.
"When you watch someone live, you receive from them."
Three-year-old Rishonn, who was born on Valentine's Day, died within months of her diagnosis in 1999. The family was at her side, gathered around her crib. In her last moments, she stared into each family member's eyes with a little smile -- her way of saying goodbye.
"It was the most beautiful moment in my life, other than the birth of my children," says Perry Bice.
Perry is asked all the time how he and his wife survive that kind of grief.
"They've said I was a modern-day Job," he says. "But I'm not. Job lost his entire family....I know a lot of people that get stuck in grief. We're not. We're grateful we knew her.
"People are afraid if they give up on grieving it means they've forgotten that person. We talk about Rishonn a lot. She's like an angel looking out for us."
As the Bices tell their story, it was elves, not angels, who were looking out for them this night.
Elves at work
As soon as the sun set on Christmas Eve, the first elf crew arrived at the Bices' new home in Gardner. The home was shabby and run down, with carpet stained from cat urine. The elves had decided to fix up the home secretly on Christmas Eve. Teams of volunteer elves met first at Nike Intermediate School in Gardner, then worked in shifts.
The stinky carpet was pulled up and hauled off. New rugs and floors were installed. Twenty-six painters rolled and brushed the first coat of paint. Hours later, 26 more painters put on another coat. Eight finishing carpenters nailed in baseboards. Another building crew constructed a wheelchair ramp into the home. Gifts were wrapped. A trampoline set up.
A Christmas tree was decorated with twinkling lights and ornaments. An elf who is also a car dealer donated a new van. Another elf who is a successful businessman donated several months of mortgage payments. Yet another elf added more payments, bringing the total to more than $16,000. Each month's payment was tied on a little note that dangled from the tree's branches.
One last loving touch was nestled inside the Christmas tree -- a tiny card specially printed by an elf who had kept his printing shop open late on Christmas Eve.
By 6:30 a.m., as the etchings of Christmas morning streaked pink across the sky, the gifts were finally ready.
Near a sunny window on Christmas morning, Mishayla, 7, lays on a bed in the Bices' Olathe living room. A machine hums nearby, as her feeding tube empties its precious calories into her stomach. This morning, her hospice nurse has the day off.
Mishayla is curled into a fetal position, her hands cupped. Her hair is French-braided, showing off brown eyes with long eyelashes like feathers.
Nearby, her big sister, Chambris, 13, is in a wheelchair. Although Chambris is paralyzed, her eyes follow her brother and sister around the room. She smiles a lot. This morning Branson is impatient, wanting to open the few presents under their tree. Talaessa, 12, reaches over to Mishayla and gives her a quick kiss.
"Merry Christmas, Mishayla," she whispers, then strokes Mishayla's cheek.
Mishayla struggles to turn her head and smile.
Instead, she drools. Talaessa wipes it away with a towel.
Despite it being Christmas morning, the promised presents from the elves have not yet arrived at the Bices' apartment in Olathe. But around 10:30 a.m. there's a gentle knock on their door.
Wearing a green knit hat with the embroidered words Rookie Elf, a girl about 11 years old and a little over 4 feet tall stares up at Perry Bice.
At first, she says nothing and simply holds out a key.
"Hi there," says Perry Bice. "What is this? A key? To what?"
Like a tiny ghost, the elf only smiles, then softly wishes them a Merry Christmas. Then she spins around on her heels and runs off.
"Wait. A key to what?" says Bice, puzzled. "A house key?"
It dawns on him that perhaps the elves left the gifts for his children at their new home in Gardner. He and Kathrine bundle up all their children and carry Mishayla and Chambris out to the van.
A tiny envelope
The Bices had closed on the home just two days ago, but were not given the key. (The elves had worked with the Realtor, too.)
But now with the key they opened the door to their new home and its sun-splashed walls, fresh berber carpets and vinyl-tiled floors. Gifts were waiting under the tree. Twinkling lights of a Christmas tree drew them closer until they saw the mortgage payments, and were once again overwhelmed with emotion.
And after their tears were wiped away, Perry Bice stood back and looked at the tree once more.
That's when he noticed the tiny envelope, almost hidden by an ornament.
Inside was the last gift, a gift for everyone who believes at Christmas. Three words that reveal the best Christmas gift of all:
God loves you.
Bice smiled, then nodded and placed it on the very top branch.
LEE HILL KAVANAUGH, The Kansas City Star