Christmas surprise defines the word ‘family’ in Mattydale
By Tom Maguire
He drove through the night, hid out during the day, and lurked in the darkness after nightfall.
Petty Officer Second Class Tyler Curtis, 23, a plotter first class, pounced in Mattydale. Making himself invisible, he arrived an hour and a half before the St. Margaret’s School Christmas concert and observed his parents and grandparents going inside.
When the concert was almost ready to start, he checked in with Interim Principal Donna Skrocki, herself a talented scammer. She directed the uniformed stowaway from Georgia to hide in the dark concession area of the gym and spy on the concert through a window. It was like the sailor’s service in an honor guard — a bit of nervousness.
The student singers sang “Mary, Did You Know?” and paused. Called to stand next to the principal at the front of the gym was third-grader Brooke Flannery. “Everyone’s eyes were on her, and no one knew what was going on,” recalled teacher Becky Marino.
On cue from the principal, the Navy man, carrying flowers, came through the gym doors, “back in the shadows.” He started walking down the aisle toward the stage. As he passed each row, there was a shocked intake of breath. “He was tall and big and brave-looking,” Marino said.
Brooke froze. “She was clueless,” Skrocki said. “Her face was priceless. … I said, ‘Go! Go! Go give him a hug.” Tyler got about halfway down the aisle, and it dawned on Brooke that her very unlikely Christmas wish was coming true. “Oh my gosh!” she said. “I was in such shock. And then I ran to him, and I screamed ‘Tyler!,’ and he started hugging me.” The crowd of about 200 people gave them a standing ovation, everyone crying — brother and sister reunited after a whole year apart. “And Grandpa, oh my goodness,” Skrocki said. “I think he cried the hardest.”
Brooke remembers Tyler telling her: “Hi, I missed you so much. I’m so happy that I can see you again.” She told him: “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you came back.”
Tyler’s version: “I picked her up and swung her around and gave her a big hug and asked her if she was happy to see me — not a lot of words, just a lot of feelings and emotions.” He gave her the flowers: “Girls love flowers.”
“I couldn’t even cry because I was in such surprise,” Brooke said. “And then we were in the middle of ‘Silent Night’ and I just couldn’t stop crying.”
About a year ago there was crying of a different sort when Curtis had to leave the family in North Syracuse and go to an assignment in Georgia. He has been gone before; he joined the Navy in 2013. Back when he was in boot camp, his little sister wrote notes and drew pictures for him “every single day.” She considers him “nice, kind, and funny.” He considers her to be like a daughter to him. They remember going to parks together, going out to dinner — totally devoted to each other. “Family is more important to me than anything, so this is a good experience,” Tyler said.
He hadn’t planned on coming home for Christmas, but then his leave was approved.
“I love surprising people,” he said. He even scammed his mother, Deborah Mulcahy, telling her to be sure to send him videos from the concert. She found out about her son’s little plot when Skrocki called to ask if the showstopper was OK with her. “I saw him the very moment that Brooke saw him,” Mulcahy said. She added: “It was just a moment for everybody. Nobody expected it.”
It was a fine welcome-back for Brooke too; she had attended pre-kindergarten at St. Margaret’s but then attended public school as her mom fought Hodgkin lymphoma. Mulcahy had a year of treatment and is in remission since then. Brooke returned to St. Margaret’s about three weeks before the Christmas concert.
“By far my best Christmas present — to have both the kids here again for Christmas,” Mulcahy said.
Also joyful was Tyler’s fiancée, Maria Francisco, who made a priceless video recording of Tyler’s big entrance (view it at www.thecatholicsun.com). “I was so happy to see how it all worked out so perfectly,” she said. She added: “Afterward, a handful of people came up to Tyler and thanked him for his
service, and told him it was a powerful thing to do and said it was emotional for them.”
Two days later, Brooke’s classmates were still bubbling.
“It was just amazin’. Because Brooke never gets to see him,” said Ella Rector.
“I thought it was really nice,” said Sierra Tetreault, “and my brother [St. Margaret’s sixth-grader Christian] and I were crying for happiness with her, and my mom [Brenda] was crying too because she was so excited.”
“When we went into the Spanish room to get all picked up,” said Brayden Flannery (no relation to Brooke), “she barely couldn’t even breathe.”
“Brooke was really excited,” said Rhett Owen.
“She burst into tears and was excited,” said Nathan Hansen, “and it was just a so, so happy … moment right there. I was just so happy.”
Tyler spent about a week and a half with his family. While he was here, he also served on the honor guard, representing the Navy, for two Syracuse University men’s basketball games. “I believe in serving your country,” he said, adding that he gets to meet great people from all different backgrounds.
He said his little sister is extremely intelligent and she also loves to help other kids. She’s into gymnastics and dance — “busy girl but somehow she manages to do well at all of it.”
St. Margaret’s Christmas concert actually occurred on the snow date, “so God wanted this plan,” Skrocki said.
Approved by God, plotted by a military man, and abetted by a creative principal. “It’s a story you all want to know at Christmastime,” Skrocki said. “It’s just because it’s family, and that’s what I said to the crowd. I said: ‘You know what? This is the true meaning of family, right here, tonight.’ Not just their family, but St. Margaret’s family all standing and sharing him.”