Thanks to the kindness of strangers, Christmas came early this year for Winterport residents Ben and Jess Tracy and their children, Lydia, Ruby and Phineas.
Baby Phin was diagnosed with chronic lung disease of infancy shortly after his July birth, and the family has been faced with emotional and financial challenges ever since.
On Tuesday night, they were surprised by a visit from three strange men — the little girls have started calling them “the wise men” — who came to their door bearing armloads of brightly wrapped gifts.
“I was fighting the lump [in my throat] for sure,” Ben Tracy said Christmas Eve from his home. “It was overwhelming.”
He cuddled his son while Lydia, 5, and Ruby, 3, tumbled over each other on the couch. Stockings were hung by the crackling fireplace, and presents from the strangers were piled under the Christmas tree in exciting profusion.
“There’s something for everybody and doubles and triples for the kids,” Ben Tracy said.
Pastor Allen Gregory of the Winterport Baptist Church was one of those wise men bearing gifts. He said that giving a little unsolicited help to a family that needs it “made my Christmas.”
“I love getting together with my family and I love getting gifts, but this was off the charts,” Gregory said. “As far as I’m concerned, that was my Christmas gift — just to see their faces.”
‘The worst feeling’
As soon as Phineas was born, he had trouble breathing. The lung disease caused severe problems to his heart, liver and kidneys, and the Tracys spent much of the rest of the summer in hospital waiting rooms hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Jess Tracy said. “It was the worst feeling in the world.”
An operation to close a valve between Phin’s heart and lungs was successful and the baby’s health started to improve, but he was still in and out of hospitals into the fall. Although the baby’s almost million-dollar hospital bills have been taken care of by insurance and MaineCare, Ben Tracy, who is the family’s sole breadwinner, missed a lot of work at his graphic design job at Hamilton Marine in Searsport.
Christmas, the couple figured, would get downsized.
“With less money and more kids, the pool shrunk quite a bit,” Ben Tracy said.
But they hadn’t counted on the generosity of the pastor and congregation from the Winterport Baptist Church.
“Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?” Gregory asked. “Jesus came to die to help us out. God set the bar pretty high when it comes to Christmas giving. I consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to do a little something for somebody that touches their heart.”
The Tracys aren’t even members of that church. They belong to the Ellsworth Church of the Nazarene.
But someone had asked Gregory to pray for the family, and he found he couldn’t stop there.
“Hearing what they were going through with their child, with little Phin, my heart was touched by that,” Gregory said. “I wanted to try to do something to help them. I thought that was something the Lord had intended for me to do.”
Last Sunday, Gregory told his congregation about the Tracy family and asked if people would help them have a happier Christmas. Instead of a collection plate, he left a basket at the back of the church with a photograph of the couple and their three kids, hoping it would inspire the 34 people in church that day to give a little.
The inspiration worked. The congregation members dug deep into their pockets — never mind that it has been a tough economic year for many, never mind that they had their own families to support — and pulled out enough dollar bills to give the Tracys what the pastor calls the true gift of Christmas.
With the money — and a $100 donation from the church’s deacon’s fund — Gregory’s wife, Judy Gregory, was able to purchase toys and clothes for the three children and gifts for the parents, too. On top of that, the congregation bought the family a $100 gas card and an $80 food card.
“The church gave way beyond anything I could have imagined,” said Gregory, without being specific about the amount. “My goal was to give an opportunity to give out of love. It’s a whole lot more fun.”
Jess Tracy said that it’s clear the church put thought and work as well as love into the presents.
“It’s fun because I can tell what some of these things are and my kids will love them,” she said.
Family, their own church, and the community have rallied around the Tracys in other ways since Phin’s diagnosis. In August, a benefit dinner raised around $3,000 to help them with living expenses, and Hamilton Marine also has been “fantastic” and 100 percent supportive, Ben Tracy said.
The couple said they hope that 2010 will bring Phin continued health improvements and normalcy.
“I want to stop feeling like this poor family that’s had all this trouble,” she said.
Having a busy Christmas that is packed with surprises should help, she said.
Lydia and Ruby said they were excited to open their gifts.
“It was cool,” Lydia whispered about the early Christmas delivery.
For Ben Tracy, the visit from Gregory and two other men from the Winterport Baptist Church is another example of something he has been noticing since their son’s health travails began.
“For every thorn we’ve had this year, it seems like the rose is pretty amazing,” he said.