Dear Santa, I know you’re super busy. Heaven knows, you have approximately 1.9 billion children in the world to worry about. But I wanted to bring a few kids to your attention. If you have time.

First off, please help Sophie (13), who is losing her hearing. Right now, her mother is taking her to UF Health Shands Hospital, in Gainesville, Florida. And everyone is worried.

Sophie’s mother is Deaf, and uses Cochlear implants. The deafness is a genetic issue, and now Sophie is going through hearing problems. Sophie’s mother writes:

“Would you please pray that doctors can stop Sophie’s hearing loss and even restore what’s been lost?”

If anyone can help her, you can, Santa. And when you’re finished helping her, please help Jayden (15).

Jayden’s lungs are giving him problems. The doctors aren’t giving him a good prognosis. In fact, they’re giving him bad news.

“I just want to be a normal kid,” he writes to me. “I just want to breathe normal again.”

Visit Jayden, will you Santa? Give him special attention. And if you have time

after that, please help Kirsten (12). Kirsten’s mother has never married, Santa, because her mother has been taking care of Kirsten’s ailing grandmother for many years.

“After my grandma’s stroke, my mom and me moved into the house, and my mom dropped out of college, and all she does is take care of Grandma.”

Kirsten’s mother has accompanied her grandmother for every bathroom break, administered every shower, and tucked her mother into bed every night.

As a result, Kirsten’s mom has never lived a life of her own.

“Please pray for my mom to have a good Christmas, she deserves it.”

So if you’re reading this, Santa, help her. And when you’re through helping Kirsten’s mom, please send some love to my friend Mason.

Mason is 24, living in Hoboken, New Jersey. He might not be a kid, Santa, but…

Avondale Park. Birmingham, Alabama. The town is decorated for Christmas. Garland everywhere. Wreaths aplenty. Visions of reindeer tinkling in the snow.

There is an old man in the park, talking to a giant bronze elephant statue. His adult children are nearby, snapping photos. A small crowd is gathered around him because he is in love with this inanimate object.

I ask the man why he is passionately stroking a statue.

“Ain’t a statue,” the old man explains. “This is Miss Fancy. She’s an old friend of mine.”

Then he tells a story.

The real Miss Fancy was born in 1871, in the wilds of India. She was a puny elephant, purchased by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus for a pittance.

In circus world, Hagenbeck-Wallace was big potatoes. Second largest circus in America. Founder, Carl Hagenbeck, was a pioneer who believed in reward-based animal training instead of fear-based training, so he never hurt animals like other circuses. As a result Miss Fancy was cheerful and good-natured.

Miss Fancy was likely trained to ride bikes, play musical instruments,

play baseball, sing Schubert, and of course, wear wedding dresses.

In the late 1800s, Miss Fancy toured the United States, and entertained audiences from California to Maine. She was seen on posters and handbills from coast to coast.

But in 1913, her career ended. The circus made headlines when a Hagenbeck-Wallace train wrecked. It was a disaster. Hundreds of animals were badly maimed or wounded. Fancy was among the injured.

So the circus sold her. Fancy was 41 years old when she was sold to Avondale Park, in Birmingham.

“She was sent here to retire,” said the old man, affectionately stroking the statue. “She became the lifeblood of our town.”

Avondale Park was a glorified zoo. A rest home for animals. There wasn’t much going on in Avondale. People paid a few pennies to see Miss Fancy eat hay and make poop.

Things were pretty loose…

Detroit. Late December. Santa was running late for his appointment. He was stuck in traffic on I-75. Santa was driving an old car.

The car had been giving him fits. The vehicle had been in the shop for a week. The car had needed a new alternator. The godless auto mechanics had charged him $500 bucks to replace it, plus labor. It was highway robbery.

They were taking Mister Claus to the cleaners.

Plus, Santa’s home heat pump had quit working. His wife had called for an estimate from a repairman. The heater guy said the old heat pump unit was shot. So they would need a new heater. We’re talking a lot of cash.

Santa didn’t make much money. He was a blue-collar guy. His main gig was working at an automotive assembly plant.

He had been working there for 39 years, welding Dearborn steel. His department-store Santa gig was only part time. A seasonal job.

The gig started one year when Santa’s beard went white, and a coworker told him he looked a

lot like Kris Kringle.

The rest was history. Santa grew his beard out. He invested in a costume. It was a good side job.

But his financial life was falling apart. He was hemorrhaging money. They were living on peanuts, and his wife was buying groceries with pocket change. It was shaping up to be a hard candy Christmas.

And right now, Santa was late for an appointment at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. He was supposed to meet a little boy and deliver holiday cheer. But right now, he was gridlocked in traffic.

Santa glanced at his watch. He was 45 minutes late, and traffic still wasn’t moving.

Santa slapped his steering wheel and used an expletive. Not a bad word. But an expletive.

Then, his car died.

Santa had to call AAA. Finally, after 90 minutes of waiting around for a ride, Santa…

Pensacola. I am at Target this morning. Not far from the Winn-Dixie on Bayou Boulevard.

The parking lot is swamped with black-and-white Chevy Tahoes. Lightbars on the rooftops. Push bars mounted on the bumpers. Cop cars.

I walk into Target to find a gaggle of police officers, lingering in the foyer. Badges. Tactical boots. Duty belts. Ballistic vests.

The officers are in jocular moods, laughing and horsing around. Each cop is pushing a shopping buggy because today is the annual Pensacola Police Department Christmas shop-a-thon.

The premise is simple: Throughout the year, police officers meet a lot of kids in the line of duty. Officers meet children who are trapped in bad situations. They meet kids who live in squalor. Children of drug addicted parents. Children whose parents have been arrested. Children of suicide. Kids who have nobody.

The Pensacola officers remember these children’s names. Then, the cops secretly add these names to a mounting holiday list at the station.

“When Christmas rolls around,” says one officer, “we all come to Target and go buck

wild buying gifts.”

This isn’t an official city program, with official city funds, with an officially Marketed Name™. No, this is just a few cops who decided to play Santa.

These officers have been doing this for 15 years, just because they want to. Private donations pay for everything. A lot of cops contribute out of their own wallets.

“We don’t do this for press,” says one cop. “We do this because we actually know these kids.”

I am wandering the aisles with Officer Dave. Dave is pushing a buggy, shopping for a 5-year-old boy. Dave works patrol. His chest-mounted radio keeps squawking as he’s browsing through the stuffed-animal section.

“Kids like fuzzy bears,” says Officer Dave, throwing a stuffed animal into the cart. “Let’s get him a fuzzy bear.”

I meet an officer who is shopping for a little girl whose father killed her…

Downtown Birmingham. Christmastime. It’s raining. There is a heavy fog suspended over the world so that the city looks like the opening scenes of a Dickens novel.

There are ghosts in Birmingham tonight. I can feel them.

I pull up to the Lyric Theater a few hours before soundcheck. The rain is really coming down now. The backstage doors are slung open. The crew is waiting for the band to arrive. I am with the band.

There is a stagehand standing out back, on smokebreak. He has piercings on his face. He is dressed in crewman black.

“Welcome to the Lyric,” he says, stepping on his cigarette. “Give you a hand with your stuff?”

He helps me unload my instruments. Tonight I have three accordions that are all about the size of mid-sized Buicks. I am playing music this evening, telling jokes onstage with Three On a String.

I walk into the theater, carrying my musical tonnage, and I’ve never seen a theater so magnificent. In fact, to call this place a “theater” would

be selling it short. This is the Sistine Chapel.

The room is classic baroque. The stage is a proscenium-style stage, shaped like a giant arched window. There are opera boxes adorned in gilded fleurons and ornamentation. Multiple balconies, trimmed with gold leaf paint. Scrollwork galore.

The arch above the stage has an intricate mural. The mural was painted in the late 1910s, and looks like it belongs in the Pope’s bathroom. The painting is entitled “Allegory of Muses.” The painting depicts a bunch of naked people running around, groping each other. But they are Roman naked people, so it’s okay.

“Wow,” I say in a half whisper.

“Yeah, wow,” says the stagehand, then he adds, “you’re looking at the grandest Vaudeville stage in the Southeast.”

Jack Benny performed here. Mae West. Fred Allen. Buster Keaton. Eddie Cantor. And once upon a time, Will Rogers wore a…

The first concert I ever saw was the Oak Ridge Boys. I was 2 years old. Mama took me. I pooped my diaper while they were singing “Elvira.” My mother changed me at the foot of the stage as I was singing at the top of my voice. One of the Oak Ridge Boys gagged, mid-song.

“That’s Mama’s little musician,” said my mother, wiping my hindparts.

The next concert I ever saw was the “Grand Ole Opry.” My father moved us to Tennessee because he was building the GM plant in Spring Hill. Mama knew I loved music, so she carried me to “country music’s biggest stage.”

I remember seeing Jerry Clower. I remember a bluegrass group practically lighting their instruments on fire. I remember Minnie Pearl.

During the Opry performance, Mama stood me on the back of the pew so I could sing along. She kissed my cheeks and said, “That’s Mama’s little musician.”

Mama bought my first nice guitar. It was the first “fine” instrument I ever owned. A

Gibson. Student model, B-15. It was indestructible. You could use this guitar to tenderize meat. I still have it.

And it was Mama who bought my first piano on my 9th birthday. Mama bought a second-hand piano from the classifieds. She sent my father to pick it up. He bribed his friends to move the instrument with cases of free Busch. As a result, the piano was beat to heck.

I began playing piano in church at age 10. I was an accompanist. My mother was so proud. She always sat on the front pew at church and told innocent bystanding visitors that I was her son. “He’s our little musician.”

Throughout the years, I would go on to break my mother’s heart a million times. After my father took his own life, Mama became a single mother. She struggled to make ends meet, cleaning condos. I threw my…

He’s single father. A widower, to be exact. But that’s not the story here.

He waits tables for a living. And on his off-days, he works at another restaurant.

Sometimes, he works with his brother’s power-washing business for extra cash. He does handyman work, and installs home sound systems. He is a busy man.

He does it for his kids.

The money goes out the window as fast as it comes. And he’s away a lot.

His children are used to fending for themselves. They’re used to preparing their own suppers, watching television alone, and tucking themselves in.

But not since she started coming around.

Let me back up.

Nine months ago, he met her. She’s a receptionist at a doctor’s office. She was at his restaurant for her coworker’s birthday party.

He saw her and couldn’t stop looking at her.

By the end of the night, his friends in the kitchen knew he was smitten. They teased him. “Go talk to her,” they said, shoving him.

But, confidence doesn’t exactly grow on trees, and our Lone Ranger has been out of the saddle since high school.

He didn’t

know how to approach her. He was—according to his coworkers—a big, fat, hairy chicken. So, without his permission, one of the waitresses spoke for him.

“See that guy over there?” the waitress whispered into the receptionist’s ear. “He’s the best guy you’ll ever meet. He likes you, but he’s too scaredy-cat to talk to you.”

Ouch, Kemosabe.

But that’s how it started.

A little bout her: she was married once. The doctor told her she couldn’t have kids. It broke her heart, all she’s ever wanted were children.

She likes long walks on the beach, Mexican food, Trisha Yearwood albums, chocolate ice cream, and any book that wasn’t written by Danielle Steel.

They went on a first date. It lasted for sixteen hours. But they darkened no bedrooms, rustled no sheets.…