ON THAT CHRISTMAS long ago, the old coach was still a young man. He was 32 years old, and though the hairline had begun to recede, the face was smooth and unlined. He looked like a man without worry, but it wasn't true. Christmas was coming, his daughter was bedridden and money was short.

It was 1962, and the coach had just been hired as an assistant at BYU earlier that fall. It was the big break of his professional life, but all that was forgotten when his oldest child, Ann, became ill. The best guess is that she contracted an infection through abrasions she sustained in a bike accident. Anyway, one morning she woke up and her bed was floating."I can't stop my bed; it's twirling around the room," she was saying in her delirium, but what really frightened her was the fear she saw in her mother's face at the end of the bed.

In the hospital her father prayed over her as the 104-degree temperature raged. The diagnosis was acute nephritis, a kidney disorder that was often fatal. Her mother had lost a cousin and a friend to the same illness. For long stretches of time, her father sat on her bed and held her hand.

For the next three months Ann lay flat on her back in her bed at home, unable to lift her head. She passed the time reading, knitting, listening to records and writing her own stories, a 6-year-old prisoner of bed. She peppered her parents with questions about death. Could she take her things with her? With the onset of winter, she watched the neighborhood kids play in the snow outside her window.

Christmas was coming, and Ann announced that she wanted a doll from Santa. There were two other kids, John and Jim, to get presents for, as well, but because of their recent move to Provo money was tight.

They had never had a lot of money, but they had always had enough, thanks to a hard-working father. He coached at the high school, but this was long before he would become successful and famous, and the money wasn't enough. So he sold shoes at Sears. He taught driver education. He gave swimming and skiing lessons. He refereed church basketball for $2.50 a game. He refereed in shoes that were too small, and at the end of each basketball season he would always lose both of his big toenails. But he said he couldn't afford a new pair of shoes.

He was gone a lot, but he improvised ways to be with his children. Ann visited him at Sears. He gave her swimming lessons. He took her on errands. He was warm, funny and fun, and she thought she was his favorite child, although years later she would realize he had made all his kids feel that way.

For years the coach worked all those jobs and saved whatever money he could. They managed to buy a home in Salt Lake City, but when he was hired by BYU, they had to leave the house behind, unsold. They bought a new house in Provo, which meant they had two mortgages to pay. And then came Ann's doctor bills - and Christmas. And Ann wanted a doll.

It was just bad timing, and under different circumstances they might have simply gone without that year, but the coach and his wife weren't sure that Ann would have another Christmas. The coach borrowed $70 from a bank to buy presents.

Ann wanted a doll, but exactly which one she wasn't certain because she hadn't been out of bed since September. So the week before Christmas, when she could finally sit up a little, they bundled her in blankets and drove to Cottonwood Mall in Salt Lake City to look for a doll. The coach's wife held John's hand and pushed Jim in a stroller. The coach cradled Ann in his thick arms, as they made their way through the length of the mall, stopping frequently to peer into store windows and to look at the holiday decorations, her father smiling and pointing to this thing and that. Ann's eyes were wide with awe as she stared at the lights and toys and colors, thrilled to be among people again, to be out in the world. The mall was crowded, but it seemed to her as if they were the only people there.

Ann finally spotted the doll she wanted, and then they went home and Ann began her wait. On Christmas Eve, she turned off the lights early and waited for morning and Santa to come. She was still awake when her parents slipped into her room to listen to Dad's new Nat King Cole record on the family hi-fi, which was next to her bed.

"You need to leave," she told her parents. "If you don't leave, Santa Claus won't come."

"Of course Santa will come," her father assured her gently.

She persisted. The coach soothed and continued to listen as Nat King Cole's voice filled the small room. He wanted badly to listen to that record, but finally his wife persuaded him to leave.

The next morning, the coach carried Ann into the living room and there she found her Christmas doll, much to her delight and relief. The rest of the day's events are mostly lost to memory.

Ann can't remember much more about the doll, or that morning all these years later. After seven months in bed, she recovered from her illness. She grew up, moved away, married, became a writer and a mother, became Ann Edwards Cannon, while her father LaVell became a head football coach. It was only many years later that she appreciated that Christmas for what it really was.

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"What I do remember about that Christmas is the look of pleasure on my father's face as he dropped his new record onto the turntable," she wrote recently. "He was so young then. Much younger than I am now.

"So please don't leave, Mom and Dad. Stay with me this Christmas Eve, with the snow lying silver on the ground beneath a wide holiday moon. Stay with me by the fire here and let us listen together to Nat King Cole and Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, too. To our half-remembered tunes.

"To all the wonderful old songs."

To all the wonderful old Christmases and the parents and children who make them.

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