Sunday, December 24, 2000

Yes, Bethany, there is a Santa Claus

And his heart and spirit are with you this Christmas

By Sylvia Slaughter
Gannett News Service

        For the love of his little girl, Wayne Duke sat in the hair salon, inhaling noxious fumes.

        He was on his way to becoming Santa. Step by breathtaking step, a stylist was bleaching his dark-brown hair white, his dark-brown brows white, his dark-brown mustache white, his dark-brown beard white.

        And Wayne Duke sat there, crying.

[photo] Rufus Trigg, of Performance Costumes in Nashville, helps transform Wayne Duke into Santa Claus.
(Gannett News Service photos)
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        Not because of the fumes. The Pleasant View, Tenn., man was crying what he called father tears. Tears of joy, really.

        Because, he remembered while sitting there, it wasn't all that long ago when he figured his daughter, a patient at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, wouldn't live to see another Christmas.

        Wayne and his wife, Linda, adopted Bethany and Alisha, identical twin girls, when they were practically newborns. Bethany has had a litany of ills. The latest: a drug-resistant staphylococcus infection and a fungal infection in her bloodstream. The longest lingering illness: hydrocephalus, commonly known as having excess fluid on the brain, and cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects muscle control.

        Generally, Bethany's hands and arms are immobile, folded against her sides, just under her chin. She has never walked. And she has never really talked, except for guttural, Lilliputian sounds that sometimes only her father can decipher.

        One of those sounds was her word for “broke.”

[photo] Bethany Duke
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        It's a sound that's become the impetus for Wayne Duke becoming a cosmetically correct Santa with real white hair, beard, brows and mustache, with real round belly and real red suit.

        The beard, however, is most important of all in this Christmas tale of love.

        Wayne Duke could have faked it, like a mall Santa had done once. He could have bought a Santa cap that had snow-white curls attached. He could have picked up artificial snow-white brows and beard at a costume shop.

        But Wayne remembers that distant day when he carried his daughter from the car and sat her in the mall Santa's lap. He remembers seeing Bethany's fingers lock together when they touched Santa's beard. Because of the cerebral palsy, Bethany couldn't release her fingers. It took Santa and Bethany's father to pry her fingers loose.

        In doing so, the mall Santa's beard fell from his face.

        A startled little Bethany Duke feared she broke Santa.

[photo] Mr. Duke admires his newly bleached whiskers.
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        No, this year an artificial Santa just wouldn't do. That's why Wayne Duke spent two sessions in the hair salon. “I want Bethany to have her best Santa ever,” Wayne says. “She's been in and out of the hospital since June. There were days when, well, when everybody except her mother and I gave up on her. Now, she's going to make it.”

Christmas every day

        Bethany, 8, is confined to the renowned pediatric facility that is Children's Hospital in Corryville. She's lived there since before Thanksgiving, far too long, Linda Duke laments.

        Before Wayne and Linda married, they each had a son from a previous marriage. They adopted each other's son and quickly became a family.

        The boys are now grown men. In fact, the older son is the biological father of Bethany and Alisha.

        “We adopted the girls, and hard as Bethany's sickness has been on me and my wife, I can say that Bethany's brought me Christmas every day,” Wayne says.

        And vice versa.

        Once, when Bethany, who can't even sit alone, wanted inline skates when Alisha got hers, Mr. Duke obliged and attached some to Bethany's walker.

        When Bethany wanted to go Jet-skiing with her dad and Alisha, Duke created a harness that strapped her to his chest.

        When Bethany wanted to play basketball with Alisha, her dad held the ball in his hand while Bethany pushed it toward the basket with her nose.

        These days, Linda, 50, has taken up residence in Fort Wayne, Ind., where she has family who can help her with Bethany.

        Wayne, 49, has stayed behind to run his small business in Pleasant View, 25 miles north of Nashville.

        In between making a living there, Wayne made Christmas plans, too. Besides surprising Bethany, he decided to become Santa for other children on his daughter's hospital wing.

        He and Linda pooled money they had planned to spend on each other's Christmas gifts into a Santa fund for the sick kids.

        “There's nothing I want,” Wayne says, “except for our Bethany to have the best Christmas she's ever had.”

Is he the real Santa?

        Last weekend, Wayne drove to Cincinnati to see his daughter, although he couldn't allow her to see him. He didn't want to blow his cover, with beard and all partially whitened.

        After arriving, he waited nearby, until the little girl fell asleep, then he slipped into her room, kissed her, then drove back to Tennessee.

        Thursday, Wayne returned, to be there when his daughter came out of surgery to replace a shunt that regulates pressure on her brain.

        While Bethany was in surgery, Linda Duke used a mascara brush to apply a titanium oxide compound to brighten her husband's white eyebrows, lashes and beard.

        After hearing Bethany's prognosis was good, he rolled out the trunk that held the red suit. He put in his green contacts and grabbed his cane. He practiced his Santa whisper.

        Bethany is a daddy's girl, so covering the details was important.

        “Santa was sitting in a rocking chair just waiting for Bethany to come back right by the 6-foot Christmas tree,” Wayne Duke says.

        Did she really believe it was the true Santa? After a few tugs on the beard and some snuggles, the father was pretty sure.

        But the real test came when Linda, who had been teaching Bethany the song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” asked if she could give Santa a kiss.

        Bethany would allow it only if she could talk to her dad on the phone and hear his permission herself.

        “That left no doubt at all that she had no idea,” Wayne says. “I couldn't have asked for it to have gone any better.”

        Wayne Duke had help with his Santa charade: When he passed out Christmas gifts Saturday, Alisha, Bethany's twin, was dressed as an elf.

        “I couldn't do for Bethany without doing something special with Ali,” Wayne says. “I love both girls, and I love them equally. I've loved them since they were little things, like I have loved their brothers. But with the girls, I didn't know how deeply I could love until they came into our lives.”

Just one hug

        Monday, after Bethany opens her Christmas presents, her dad will retire his Santa suit.

        Da, as Bethany calls him, will be just Da, a man with white hair, brows, mustache and beard.

        Wayne Duke doesn't know what he will tell Bethany about his appearance. But he doesn't worry much.

        “I will have everything in that hospital room I ever wanted,” he says. “A wife, two daughters, two sons. I don't want anything else.”

        Wayne Duke lied a little. After reflecting, he adds one gift, a gift he's asked God to give him.

        Just once, he'd like Bethany's little frozen arms to be able to reach up and hug him around the neck.

        That would be enough to last this Santa a lifetime.

        Contributing: Kristina Goetz of The Enquirer


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