It was the oddest of places -- and maybe the best of places -- for a 7-year-old to spend part of Christmas Eve: on the hospital ward where her 3-year-old sister died three months before.
What brought Kristy Clutts and her family to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center yesterday was grief over the death of a child -- and it is a story of the Christmas spirit, the spirit of giving.
It began one Saturday morning in August when Amy Clutts, a pixie of a 3-year-old, began vomiting in her sleep at home in Parkville. She was rushed to an emergency room and then to Hopkins; Amy had suffered a stroke.
Amy couldn't speak, and her right side was paralyzed. She had frequent seizures. She eventually improved and was moved from intensive care to the pediatric neurology unit and then to the Kennedy Institute across Monument Street. But Amy had a second stroke on Sept. 12. Two days later, she died.
The family was devastated: her parents, James Clark Clutts, 29, a truck driver, and Michele Clutts, 28, a homemaker; and sisters Kristy and Laura, 19 months.
Little Kristy was sad and puzzled, too. As Christmas approached, and the family faced the holiday without Amy, Kristy's questions became more poignant. "She would ask us, 'Couldn't we find someone magic to bring Amy back?' " Mrs. Clutts said. "Couldn't Amy come back home for Christmas?"
Kristy's parents tried to tell her that this Christmas would be different. It would be a Christmas without Amy and, because of medical bills, it would be a holiday short on gifts.
Then, Kristy asked: Couldn't we get something for the kids in the hospital where Amy died?
First, Kristy talked of a VCR, but her parents steered her to less extravagant gifts, maybe coloring books and crayons. Then, Mrs. Clutts and her sister, Cheryl White, decided to approach Parkville businesses for donations. The campaign began a week ago today and snowballed. While big businesses were slow to respond, Parkville's small retailers came through with cash and products, and by yesterday morning, the Clutts family had amassed enough loot for 20 Christmas stockings stuffed with coloring books, crayons, candy canes and toys, plus a television set with a built-in VCR.
"It was my idea," said Kristy, wearing a Santa cap with her name in sparkles.
"She asked if Amy knew what she was doing," Mrs. Clutts said, "and I said, 'I bet she's up there smiling.' "
Five-year-old Michael Acker, a New Windsor kindergartner recovering from a tracheotomy in Room 4, was the first of 15
children to get a green balloon, a "Cowabunga!" sticker and a stocking. He eagerly unwrapped one Matchbox-type toy and then another.
"Mommy, how come he got two?" asked Kristy like a good 7-year-old, popping her bubble gum.
"I hope you get out of here real soon," Mrs. Clutts told Michael.
"I will," Michael said and, sure enough, he was moved from intensive care to another floor in the afternoon.
In the next bed, 14-year-old Cari Wickesser of Sykesville, a freshman cheerleader at Liberty High, lay stricken with what doctors think is toxic shock syndrome.
For the previous three days, Cari had hardly moved. Then, about the time the Clutts family arrived, she awakened. Her father, Craig, told her to blink, and she blinked.
Michele Clutts handed Mr. Wickesser a stocking, they exchanged a few words and embraced, total strangers, both in tears.
"This kid is so kind to everybody, it just doesn't seem fair," Mr. Wickesser said of Cari. "It's such a cold, non-personal world anymore . . . but then you find there are people who really care."
Cari's mother, Cindy, said she watched everyone rush to get ready for the holiday and felt that "I want everybody else to stop. . . . I don't mean to be selfish, but being 14 is the most critical time in your whole life, and she just can't miss it."
Bradley Acker, little Michael's father, said he and Craig Wickesser had compared notes late at night as their children battled diseases for which they were completely unprepared.
"It's unbelievable how your priorities change," Mr. Acker said. "Other things in your life just don't matter."
The Clutts family moved down the corridor, playing Santa to babies and kids afloat in a sea of medical high-technology -- tubes and respirators and blinking monitors.
Mr. Clutts knew every inch of pediatric intensive care. He had slept night after night last summer in the parents' waiting room. In the month Amy was sick, he went home only once for four hours.
Mrs. Clutts was drained. She said going into Room 3, where Amy died, hurt the most.
"I was trying hard not to cry," she said.
When all the children had received stockings, balloons and teddy bears, the Clutts family gave the nurses the TV-VCR, adorned with a big red bow, and some videotapes, the $450 spur-of-the-moment donation of Bill Doxanas, owner of the Bel-Loc Diner.
"They just had that sincerity," Mr. Doxanas said. "It seemed like such a good cause that I couldn't turn my back to it."
When the giving was done, the Clutts clan headed out, mom and dad, Kristy and Laura, aunt and cousins and great-grandmother, about to spend their first Christmas without Amy.