by Maggee Davis
“Dave” had Down Syndrome and grew up in a state institution for the mentally impaired. He was there from age one, then released along with many others in the 1970s. Dave then lived in a community residence with three other men. The residence had three staff people, including me, who helped the men take care of everyday needs — laundry, cleaning, shopping, food preparation, going to movies, taking vacations, and so on.
When I worked with Dave in the 1980s, he was 45 years old. He had Irish heritage, black hair, blue eyes and no teeth. His bowl-shaped haircut complemented his low hairline, a common feature among people with Down Syndrome. He belted his pants below his round belly. Dave appeared different from most people, but he was clean-shaven, looked clean, and managed his self-care well.
Early one December morning, I took Dave to Arsenal Mall in Watertown, Massachusetts, to help him buy Christmas presents and personal care items. At the end of a long hallway, we saw someone setting up for the day: the mall Santa. He was portly and older than most mall Santas, with a fake beard but real glasses.
As Dave waved and hollered with the biggest grin I’d ever seen on his face, Santa put on his cap and came right over. I gave him a heads-up by exclaiming loudly, “Look, DAVE, it’s Santa!” Santa picked right up on it. He said “Ah, Dave, I was hoping I’d see you here today.” Dave was thrilled. Santa shook his hand, clapped him on the shoulder and *knew his name*.
Dave spoke little, doing his usual muttering, simplified sign language and imitation of activities. I interpreted what I could and Santa listened graciously. People who work with mentally retarded adults are careful not to treat them like children, so I wouldn’t have suggested Dave visit Santa at the mall. But Dave saw Santa as an old friend and greeted him. Santa responded in kind.
Santa spoke slowly and clearly in a hearty, deep voice. Without being condescending, Santa said he knew that Dave had been very good that year. I agreed. Santa said he could always count on Dave to be a gentleman. He sounded as if he had known Dave for years. Dave floated for the rest of the season.
I didn’t know how to tell this man what his greeting meant to us, but there was probably no need; I’m sure he saw my tears. That generous mall Santa gave Dave a precious gift of recognition, welcome and love. It cost him nothing, and took no more than a few minutes. Indeed, he provided an unforgettable example for respecting the dignity of every human being from one moment to the next. I remember it every Christmas. I’m sure Dave does, too.