The last day of Family Court of 2010 in York County started with pain and tears and arguments in "emergency hearings" over who got the kids during Christmas as divorces raged on.
The bailiffs were tense, the judges tired, the court staff whipped. Lawyers carried thick files and one lawyer, so tired and frayed, lamented: "Nobody seems to win here in this place."
Women ran out in tears. Men walked outside and chain-smoked. Grandparents wept. The kids, always these little kids, if they were there, stared straight ahead at nothing.
The place felt like Kabul, minus the bombs.
Then came the afternoon with Christmas close enough to grab it. Instead, Christmas grabbed the kids who showed up. Nobody fought over anything.
The lawyer running from client to client was an Army of one, bald and tired, named Dale Dove. His legal assistant, the hero behind all scenes, Linda Elkins. She wore a Christmas sweater and brought tiny bags of toys for kids.
The judge for less than a year, to hear all these adoption cases, was David Guyton - the judge who had refereed pain all morning in those custody battles.
His face was lined and looked like he had been beaten up by the awful words he had heard during the brutal morning. Guyton is the father of two kids - one the biological way, one adopted six years ago.
That magic day changed the life of Guyton and his wife and son, as a daughter came to them before Christmas through adoption - and never left.
"I can't think of a better way to end this year," said Guyton. "Let's make some happiness."
Armed with Kleenex
Dove, who specializes in adoptions, knew if these adoptions were done, all families would get a tax credit for the year. But that is not why his bald head glistened with sweat.
Dove wanted kids to celebrate Christmas as legal children of legal parents.
"Every kid deserves a Christmas as somebody's child," said Dove. "The presents that say, 'From Mom and Dad.' "
Dove brought in his first clients. Adoptions are legal matters, so they require legal hearings. On the record, in a courtroom, with bailiffs with guns because of all that other stuff - the anger, the hatred - in Family Courts.
No gun was needed this afternoon, though.
Instead, bailiff named Rau was armed with Kleenex. He needed it, too. He re-loaded with a second box before it was all over.
'Tears are legal'
The first family was a man who makes maps and a woman who stays home and takes care of kids. They already had two sons and an adopted daughter. They were here to adopt a 3-year-old boy who had been in their home since just after birth in foster care.
The kid, whose initials are "J.C.," called them, "Mommy and Daddy." J.C. had endured unspeakable suffering like all these kids from abuse and neglect cases had in their short lives.
The Rev. Marshall Fant sat in the audience as support for the adopting family.
"This is the best Christmas ever," he whispered.
Everybody in that little room saw J.C. in his red sweater and heard him. There was no doubt that "J.C." meant Jesus Christ, right there in that room.
Second up was a little girl, age 4, who endured unfathomable things in the time she was not in foster care with this wonderful family who decided to adopt. She wiggled on her new mother's lap and left in her new father's arms.
The mother, Carolyn Cooper, could barely talk through tears of joy. The father, Kevin Cooper, managed, "best Christmas - ever."
Up third was a family who adopted a 4-year-old boy so tiny his feet did not touch the floor in his little chair.
His new parents, who had cared for this boy in foster care for years, too, had to hold each other to keep the tears from hitting the little boy who was becoming their son for good - forever.
They brought 36 people to watch. The courtroom was so crowded, people had to stand against walls. The judge let them all in.
"We allow crying in my courtroom," Guyton said. "Tears are legal."
The little boy left in his daddy's arms. His feet dangled.
'A miracle, he was'
Judge Henry Woods retired earlier this year after almost two decades on the Family Court bench. He still works as a judge because there is so much pain and suffering to be handled in Family Court that extra judges are needed.
Woods walked in to watch the adoptions during a break in the pain he had to referee elsewhere in the building. His face beamed.
"This is the greatest thing that happens in Family Court," said Woods, who had officiated at hundreds of adoptions in his career. "And just in time for Christmas."
The next to adopt were Johnny and Wendy Hall from Chester. They also adopted a child who they had brought into their home in foster care. Her name is Grayce, and she is 7.
Grayce wore a red dress and black shoes that were shined. She had glasses. She wore a red bow in her brown hair. Family packed that courtroom, too, and they leaned against each other and cried.
Guyton shared that he had adopted a daughter who had the same coffee-with-cream-colored skin as Grayce, the same curls of girls who have hair mixed of white and black races. He shared that it was one of the greatest things this combat veteran judge had ever done in his life.
Grayce giggled the whole time.
'We lover her - so much'
Johnny Hall, a truck driver with rough hands, spoke these words to the court when asked why he wanted to adopt.
"We love her - so much."
Into court came Sundie and George Goings of Great Falls. They brought in Genevieve, 4, and Melissa, 7, in matching red Christmas dresses that looked like presents under a Christmas tree.
"We adopted them just before Christmas two years ago," said Sundie Goings. "That was the best Christmas ever. Until today."
The Goings brought in Ethan, a toddler at 15 months, who had been in their home in foster care almost every day of his little life.
"We got him at 3 days old," said George Goings, a welder by trade. "A miracle, he was."
In a few minutes, Ethan was a Goings, legally, like his sisters. A Goings now, just like his older brother, Steven, 16.
"We love our brother," said Melissa.
"Lots," said Genevieve.
"More than anybody will ever know," said Sundie, the mom.
'The best Christmas'
By this time, attorney Dove looked like he had run a marathon. Judge Guyton was beat. The social workers from DSS who specialize in adoptions were exhausted.
But an 8-month-old named Sam came in, in the arms of the man who wanted so much to be his father, the Rev. Chris Autry.
Suddenly, nobody was tired anymore. Guyton and Dove marched through the legal proceedings. The room filled with tears again, with smiles again.
Sam's smile was the biggest of all.
Rebecca Autry, about to become a legal mother after being a foster mother, said these words as she left that courtroom where so many ruined lives are made whole.
"I am the happiest person in the whole world. This is what Christmas is all about."
Guyton, the judge, nodded. Dove and Elkins, the legal team, nodded.
The bailiffs, the court reporter - all these people who volunteered for this "emergency afternoon" of adoption hearings to get the adoptions done before Christmas, nodded.
Bailiff Rau with the Kleenex handed them out yet again - the ammunition of love.
Rebecca Autry told anyone who would listen: "This is the best Christmas - ever."