A stranger’s Christmas present led to ‘a magical moment’ for this struggling family

The perfect gifts Barry McCrory is searching for can be as simple as flavored lip balm.

Or skin lotion. Or soft, cozy pajamas.

The gifts for any special occasion are for his daughters, Helen and Emily, who also like Disney musicals. Blind since birth, they can’t see the images, but they can hear the music. If they were able to talk, they might tell their father how much they love the melodies from “Mary Poppins,” “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King.” Instead, they speak with their smiles.

“I don’t know what it is – the melodies or the rhythms,” said McCrory, 63, of Charlotte. “But it pleases them. The music is familiar. They like to hear the same songs over and over.”

Helen, 32, and Emily, 28, have spent most of their lives at Holy Angels, a nonprofit center for children and adults with disabilities run by the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont.

The McCrory sisters are the faces of the center’s 2018 Christmas Appeal named “Two Hearts, One Love, One Home.” Part the inspiration of the appeal is the story of the “perfect” gift Barry McCrory gave Helen for her first Christmas in 1986.

It was a difficult period for McCrory and his wife, Susan, both lawyers. Their first child, Sarah, had been born two years earlier with no disabilities. But they were concerned about Helen: she had a small head, her eyes weren’t tracking, and she cried a lot.

The holiday season arrived during what McCrory describes as a “vague stage” when he and his wife didn’t fully understand the significance of Helen’s profound disabilities. Later, doctors would lay it out for them – microcephaly, seizures, blindness, probable severe developmental delay.

“We knew something was wrong,” he said. “We were trying to function as a regular family.”

‘A magical moment’

The search for Helen’s first Christmas gift led McCrory to a small shop in Charlotte that specialized in European-manufactured toys. Because of his daughter’s limitations, the toy would have to be just right. McCrory looked around but didn’t have any luck.

Then he asked a clerk for help, explaining the challenges of shopping for a 4-month-old baby who could hear but not see. The clerk took an interest. She hunted around and found something she thought the daughter might appreciate: a small wind-up music box with multi-colored balls. It played “Jingle Bells.”

This might be it. But McCrory checked the price: nearly $200.

“That was a serious amount of money to me then,” he said. “I couldn’t do it.”

McCrory left empty handed. But the clerk, still interested in this case, told the store owner about the McCrory’s visit. Later, the store owner would mention the encounter to a Charlotte couple who had a disabled child and knew the McCrorys. They gave the store owner the McCrorys names and address.

On a cold Christmas Eve, as McCrory held his sleeping daughter in front of the living room fireplace, the front door bell rang. Setting Helen down on the sofa, McCrory went to the door, but no one was there. He noticed a small box in red wrapping paper had been left on the porch.

When McCrory looked up, he spotted a man in the distance walking away briskly. The man looked back, waved and yelled “Merry Christmas.”

Inside the package, McCrory found the music box he’d seen at the toy store. He wound up the little toy, took it to Helen, and let the music trickle out.

He waited for her reaction. It came in the form of a big grin.

“It was a magical moment,” McCrory said.

Overwhelmed by the gift, McCrory would never know the name of the man he called a “hidden angel.”

Struggling and coping

The McCrorys learned how to cope with Helen’s special needs.

“We learned how to negotiate with doctors, medical insurance companies and hospitals,” said McCrory. “After a while, we hired people to come into our home and keep her while she was an infant, so we could work.”

He had joined Wachovia’s Trust Department in 1984 and would later work for First Union, Bank of America, First Citizens before becoming a commercial real broker and business consultant. Susan McCrory was a real estate planning attorney with Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson.

Caregivers gave the couple some respite. But it was still a struggle for them.

By 1990, the McCrorys began talking about having another child.

“We were told by our medical advisers that Helen’s handicap probably would not happen again, but it did,” said Barry McCrory. “This was very hard. The grief was intense.”

With the birth of Emily, the couple now had two children with disabilities on their hands while looking after a third young daughter, Sarah, with normal abilities.

“The difficulties were overwhelming,” said McCrory. “We were wearing ourselves out. Even though we were supported by friends and family, we suffered emotionally, physically, socially, economically and spiritually. We went through times of brutal sadness, depression, guilt, embarrassment and sleep deprivation.”

One day when McCrory had bank business in Gaston County, he was driving down Wilkinson Boulevard in Belmont and noticed hedges with the words spelled out Holy Angels. It stirred his interest.

A source of comfort

Started 62 years ago by the Sisters of Mercy, Holy Angels has grown from a single building to eight residences on a 14-acre campus and operates two group homes in Belmont. Programs and services include education, vocational training, horticulture therapy and medical services.

Holy Angels has a staff of more than 300, more than 100 volunteers and a $15 million operating budget funded by government money, donations, grants and community support.

There are 88 residents, some of whom have delicate medical conditions and require around-the-clock care.

McCrory began researching Holy Angels and stopped in one day, introducing himself to social worker Lori Hanafin. He told her about Helen.

“She was compassionate and sympathetic,” he said. “We were put on a waiting list. When I went back to Lori two years later with a picture of Helen and Emily on either side of Sarah she realized we were in an unusually difficult situation and worked out a plan in which Holy Angels would help us care for Helen.”

As a mother, Susan McCrory “had to overcome a deep feeling of guilt over not being able to care for her own child,” Barry McCrory said of his wife, who died from breast cancer in 2009. “These feelings were reduced when she saw what a loving, caring environment Holy Angels was for Helen. The caregivers and nurses were very good to her. She received a lot attention from affectionate caregivers and skilled professionals – physical therapy, regular meals and baths, and she generally experienced more interaction with people in a way that helped her thrive.”

In time, Emily joined her sister at Holy Angels where they share a room. The girls’ parents, who divorced in 2007, took them home on weekends and holidays – a practice Barry McCrory has continued with the help of caregiver Linda Berger who looks after Emily while he’s with Helen.

Susan McCrory served on the board at Holy Angels and Barry is dedicated to raising money for the center’s foundation and for medical equipment, food and clothing for its residents.

“Holy Angels has been a critical source of comfort for me and my family,” McCrory said. “We were able to be a family because of it.”

Hanafin worked with the McCrory family and called their relationship with Holy Angels “truly a partnership.”

“They took the girls home on holidays and their birthdays,” Hanafin said.

On a recent visit to Holy Angels, McCrory arrived with a plastic bag stuffed with Christmas gifts for his daughters – sweat pants and shirts. They like soft, loose fitting clothes.

Asleep in wheelchairs, the sisters remained undisturbed as he kissed their cheeks.

“Hey baby, hey girl” he told Helen.

As he massaged the sisters’ feet, McCrory described their personalities.

“Helen is more of an old soul – appreciative, patient and forgiving,” he said. “Emily is good at conveying her feelings to me that she doesn’t think I am doing all that is within me to help her.”

This Christmas, the girls will be home with McCrory and caregiver Linda Berger. He may read aloud to them – something like Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” They won’t understand what McCrory is saying but his deep voice is familiar and comforting.

“My voice is a constant with them,” he says.

Maybe they’ll listen to Disney musicals and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony has been going over well with them.

Emily likes chocolate and pudding is high on her list of favorite foods. Helen loved to eat until she lost the ability to swallow two years ago; now she’s fed through a feeding tube.

McCrory sees himself as the girls’ advocate, “especially with regard to medical needs. My chief goal is to make their lives as happy, painless and peaceful as possible.”

The sisters require a lot of attention. But McCrory said they’ve taught him that “to love means you open yourself up to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as joy and fulfillment. “

His daughters have provided “an intensity of feeling that I never knew was possible.”

Want to help?

Go to www.HolyAngelsNC.org or mail check to Holy Angels, PO Box 710, Belmont, N.C. 28012.

To volunteer call Holy Angels at 704-825-4161 and speak to the Volunteer Engagement Director.