One from the heart on Christmas Day.
Nelson Lopez didn’t realize when he volunteered to be Santa Claus for the Christmas party at his 4-year-old, autistic son’s elementary school that he couldn’t be his dad at that party, too.
So when his son, Andy, climbed into Santa’s lap — his lap — and said he wished his dad could have come with his mom and older brother and sister to see him with Santa Claus, it nearly broke Nelson’s heart.
He wanted so badly to tell his son he was there with him, behind the long, white beard, but he didn’t dare. Every child at the Christmas party believed in Santa Claus. He couldn’t risk destroying that cherished belief.
Nelson missed the next year’s Christmas party, too, as a dad, but it was the third year, when Andy was in second grade, that the Christmas party at Gridley Street Elementary School in Van Nuys turned into a scene right out of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Nearly 900 children had already sat in Santa’s lap at the two-day party, and Nelson was tired. He let his guard down. He knew Andy’s class was coming through the line soon, but he didn’t realize it was already there.
For just a second, he let his Santa voice slip back into his own. That’s all it took.
“Dad, is that you?” Andy asked from the line.
“No, no, little boy, I’m Santa Claus,” Nelson said, panicking as he regained his Santa voice. “Come sit in Santa’s lap and tell me what you want for Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!”
But Andy didn’t sit in Santa’s lap. He stood there staring at Santa Claus. It all made perfect sense now in his autistic mind’s vast imagination. The real reason his father could never come to the party with him was because he was already there.
His dad was Santa Claus.
“It’s you, dad, I know it’s you,” Andy said, standing on his tippy toes to give his dad a big kiss right on the lips. Had a child ever received a better Christmas present than this?
He was the luckiest kid in the world. He was the son of Santa Claus.
That day played such a major role in this improbable, wonderful journey Adam’s been on since then. He promised his dad, Santa Claus, he’d never let his autism get him down, and it never did.
Andy’s 18 now, and just graduated with honors from Fulton College Prep School in Van Nuys. “That’s my boy,” Nelson Lopez said, as his son delivered the commencement address. “I’m the proudest father in the world. Adam’s my son.”
Nelson and his wife, Heidy, had a close relationship with Andy’s kindergarten teacher, and she suggested they try to get Andy into Calvert Elementary School in Woodland Hills for the third grade because it had more special education resources.
“She saw his potential and wanted the best for him, Heidy said.
So, Andy moved over to Calvert, but the Lopez family’s heart was still at Gridley. For five more years, Nelson would return to the school every Christmas as Santa Claus, but with a new helper this time — a toy soldier named Andy, who still believed with all his heart his dad was Santa Claus.
“He blossomed at Calvert, and soon was mainstreamed into one regular class, then two, returning to his special ed classes after that for the rest of the day,” Heidy said.
Walking that fine line should have been tough for Andy, but he soon became one of the most popular kids at school, getting straight A’s thanks to his parents who taught him early on to wear his autism with pride and never give up.
“We wanted him to embrace why he was different and why he was seeing the world the way he did,” Heidy said. “We never wanted him to be ashamed or scared of it. It’s okay to be different, we don’t all have to be the same. The truth is we’re not all the same.”
Andy went on to Fulton — a combined middle and high school with both regular and special education classes. He wasn’t ready for regular classes, but by seventh grade he had three of them. In senior year he was graduating with honors from all regular classes.
That’s when his mom took ill and needed someone to care for her while Nelson went to work every day at Luxury Auto Center in Van Nuys, a body shop business he owns.
“After all those years of taking care of Andy, he’s taking care of me now,” Heidy said this week. “In the spring, he’s going to start college.”
Andy still remembers how much all the kids in his special education classes loved his dad as Santa Claus. He remembers how his dad used to kneel down beside them when they were crying on the floor and scared to sit in Santa’s lap.
How he’d whisper in their ear and get them smiling, and soon they’d have their head leaning against his shoulder, safe in his arms. He knows his dad really isn’t Santa Claus, but still …
There’s a quote from “Miracle on 34th Street” — the best Christmas movie ever made: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
Nelson Lopez brought happiness to a whole lot of kids growing up who needed someone to believe in. Isn’t that what Santa Claus does?
Merry Christmas, from the Lopez family. Keep the faith.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.