It is a place I’ve been going to for years. I always feel like a walking fashion faux pas the minute I step foot in the doors. My friend Kristie and I have spent many an hour shopping and watching movies there. Aaron and I look forward to driving to Dallas to eat at our favorite restaurant Maggiano’s for special occasions. And for the past 15 years I have gone with my sister and her four boys during Christmas to experience Santa. NorthPark Center has always been one of my favorite spots in Dallas. Our family does not have a lot of traditions, but going to NorthPark at Christmas is one that we look forward to every year. When my nephews were younger we would go early to get a number to see Santa, which meant that even though we got there when it opened or before we wouldn’t see Santa until at least mid-afternoon. When they were little Mrs. Claus was there and would lead story time. Santa would make a grand arrival through a chimney and share a story or two as well. Elves ran around organizing the pictures. Penguins used to waddle about in a certain area of the mall. The NorthPark Trains were always a highlight. Puppet shows were set up for entertainment. And we can’t forget Scrooge and his yearly complaints and harassments in the middle of the mall. The boys have been too old to see Santa for many years now, but we always walk by and peek in his house and then shop all day, visit the SPCA and shop a little more.

Last year we were all excited because we knew this year we would have a baby to take to visit Santa. I actually looked forward to the thought of getting up early, battling the traffic, getting a number to see Santa and hoping to not get run over by the mall walkers. Never did it ever cross my mind that our year would go the way that it has and that I would bury my baby before he ever got to meet Santa and take that iconic picture.

It was sometime in late spring or early summer when I felt as if panic reached in and nearly twisted me inside out. The holidays, I thought, how am I going to get through the holidays? There’s no way we can get through them I thought. There is supposed to be a baby, there are supposed to be toys and first Christmas outfits and pictures… And that was when I remembered… The frame…The only item that I had actually purchased for the baby before Max was born was a Christmas picture frame. It was square and red and looked like Santa’s belt and said “Santa and Me.” I bought it at a hospital gift store when I was out making visits one day. I had packed it away with great excitement at the top of the box knowing it was the first decoration I would put out next Christmas. The frame, I thought… I can’t open that box, I can’t put out decorations. Max isn’t here, there’s nothing right about any of this. I can’t do this. And the tears began to flow again.

A few days later I had an idea. Maybe, just maybe, I could use the frame. I wondered if Santa at NorthPark would take a picture holding the frame with a picture of Max in it? Was it crazy? Maybe. But I knew that there was no way I could face the holiday season if I didn’t at least ask. Santa had always seemed like such a nice, caring man. And so a couple of weeks ago when North Park posted all of their holiday activities, I emailed them. I wasn’t sure who to email or how to even direct the email from their drop down menu, but I eventually choose “Events at North Park.” Here is what I wrote: “Hi, I realize this is an odd request but I would appreciate your consideration. I have been coming to visit Santa at NorthPark Center for 15 years with my sister and her children. Last Christmas we were all excited because I was expecting my first child and we were going to have a baby to bring to see Santa and go to story time again. Sadly, my son Max was born premature and was stillborn on March 12th. This holiday season will be very different than what we expected. I had only bought one item for Max before he was born and that was a Santa picture frame for me to put his first picture with Santa in. We have very few family traditions, but visiting NorthPark is one of them. I was wondering if the man who is Santa would mind taking a picture with Max’s picture this year as a way for me to be able to include Max in our family tradition even though it is much different than what we wish. I am willing to come early one morning and do this before the crowds of living children arrive or I am happy to be the last one some evening as well. It would mean a lot to my husband and I if we could do this just this one year. Please let me know if “Santa” is willing. Thank you for your consideration! DeAndrea Dare” I hit send and waited.

On Wednesday before Thanksgiving I received the sweetest reply. My email request had been given to Santa when he arrived in town and he was happy to honor my wish. We set up a time that would be fairly quiet. They were so kind and told me I did not need a number, nor would I have to stand in line. As my friend Jenae said, “Santa is so cool.” And so today, Aaron and I drove to NorthPark Center. My sister, brother-in-law and three nephews met us there. We gathered outside of Santa’s House and waited for him to return from his break. And then, we took Max to see Santa in the only way that we possibly can. Santa held his picture on his lap and looked at him just like he would any other baby, then he looked at the camera and smiled. We have our iconic Santa picture and for this Mommy, that is exactly what she needed.

I’ve always believed that love is stronger than death. I’ve always taught that death does not end a relationship. When Max died I was shattered. I still am. But the only way I face each day is by living for both of us, it’s a promise that I made to him. Probably one of the hardest promises to keep on certain days… I will always wonder and probably always struggle with why they were able to save me and not him on March 12. I would make things different in a heartbeat if I could. But, what I have found is that through spending time with him, doing what little I can for him, continuing to celebrate the love that we share, and incorporating him into our life and traditions I am able to find my way little by little. It may seem odd to some, to take a photo and have Santa hold it for a picture, but it is our family tradition to visit Santa, and to not incorporate Max would be to deny his little life and I just could not do that. I have to do the things that fill my broken soul and put the pieces back little by little. The NorthPark Center Santa once said in a Dallas Morning News article in 2009, “I’ve come to understand that Santa represents hope, and in times like these, that’s very powerful.” I couldn’t agree more.

About a month ago I had lunch with a friend who was talking about when is the right time to let her child know the truth about Santa. I looked at her with a straight face and said, “I still believe in Santa.” She smiled and looked fairly amused. “I’m not kidding,” I said, “No one ever told me anything, I always wondered about handwriting and how those gifts got there, but no one ever told me otherwise. I’d just let her be.” There’s something magical that we lose as adults that happens around this time of year. I nearly lost it and didn’t want to find it and didn’t really want anything to do with anything at all. But, I owe a great deal to the man with the long beard and the big red suit at NorthPark Center. Today, he helped me in a tremendous way, and now I think I can face the days ahead with a little more joy because he allowed me to incorporate Max into our family tradition. “I’m glad I could help,” he said. “You did,” I replied, “You really did.” Hope comes to us in a strange ways.

I love you Max. Your picture with Santa is precious and sweet, just like you.