EVER SINCE cancer took the life of David Atkins' mother when he was 3, his dad, David Atkins Sr., tried hard to be both father and mother to him - working two jobs, taking David to kindergarten and then to first grade every day at Saint Martin de Porres Interparochial School in Germantown, cooking fried chicken for the potluck suppers there, supervising the bean-bag toss at the Halloween party, showing his son the love of an intensely devoted parent.
All of that ended around 2 a.m. on March 1, when Atkins went to answer a knock at the front door, telling his 6-year-old son to wait at the top of the stairs.
That's where David was standing when he saw his dad shot repeatedly in the doorway of their Nicetown home. The boy dialed 9-1-1. When police arrived, he told them what he had seen and gave them his maternal grandmother's phone number and address.
This is a Christmas story. It's about a little boy who still misses his father terribly. It's about a grandmother trying her best to fill that void. And it's about a parochial school embracing the little boy and his grandmother with heartfelt compassion. Most of all, like all true Christmas stories, it's about the healing power of unconditional love.
Hours after Atkins was shot, St. Martin's principal, Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig, and two priests from the parish visited David's grandmother Alice Jackson. They reassured Jackson that if she wanted David to continue at the school he loved, they would find a way to make it happen.
"David wanted to be in school," Hillig said. "It felt stable at a time when nothing else felt stable to him. And we wanted him here."
Jackson, who did not have the financial means to pay for David's parochial-school education, was relieved.
"This is where his father wanted him to be and I wouldn't want to change it," Jackson said. "Besides, David did not believe his dad was dead. He kept asking me when could he go see his dad in the hospital, and I was running out of answers for him.
"He was the same way after his mother, my daughter, died," Jackson said. "He wanted to know why was his mother not here? We told him that she was sick and that God took her when she couldn't bear being sick anymore. But at her funeral, he said that wasn't his mother because his mother was in the hospital."
Two days after his father's death, David returned to Natalie Ryan's first-grade classroom. He hugged his teacher, just as he always had.
"I didn't know what to do at first," Ryan remembers. "His first day back, David was so open about telling people that his dad was shot. We knew his dad's death hadn't hit him yet. He's such a great kid. For the next couple of weeks, he was like the same old David.
"But every once in awhile, he'd get upset," Ryan said. "He'd talk to me about how he would get scared at night and couldn't sleep. Sometimes, we would sit and have lunch together and he would talk about some memories that he had with his dad. David talked about his dad as if Mister Atkins was still alive."
This year, as he faces his first Christmas without his dad, David, now 7, is having a rougher time. After months of psychological counseling, he realizes that he will never see his dad again.
"I tell him, 'Your mom and your dad are up in heaven, watching over you,' " Jackson said. "David has his good days and his bad days. Sometimes, he just gets angry and he doesn't know why. I believe he's angry because his dad isn't here. He always asks me why did the bad man kill his dad. That is what he always calls the man who did this."
Earlier this month, police arrested fugitive suspect Amin Ingram, 19, who is in custody, and charged him with the murder of Atkins, 43, during what police characterized as an apparent robbery. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for March.
Jackson said that family members try to do some of the things with David that he used to enjoy with his dad - playing sports, visiting Sesame Place and Dave & Buster's. "His Uncle Darnell took him to the Phillies championship parade," she said.
Her granddaughters, Shakia, 18, and Quya, 21, who live elsewhere, spend time with their brother, David. And there are always some of Jackson's 18 other grandchildren in her house for David to play with. But St. Martin's remains a powerful, reassuring presence in David's life, and in Jackson's.
"They've been there for me since David's father was killed. They visited me right away. Jessica has been my right hand," Jackson said, referring to the school's parent-involvement coordinator, Jessica Baskin Taylor, who sat with Jackson during a recent interview. "Anything I need, I can call her and she's there. Anything David needs, I can call her and she's there. All my children want to know, 'Who's this Jessica you're always talking about?' "
Jackson and Taylor share a knowing laugh, like the close friends they've become since Atkins died.
"As soon as I heard about what happened to David's dad," Taylor said, "I knew David needed to get intensive crisis counseling right away. I called everyone I could. Alice called everyone she could. No one would see David without Alice getting legal custody first."
With the considerable help of Joan Esmonde, an assistant district attorney in the child-support unit, Jackson cut through a sea of red tape to get Jackson in front of a Family Court judge, who granted her legal custody of David on April 18.
Arlene Pagan, the crisis-care coordinator at the Medical Examiner's Office, helped Jackson get state-funded victims' compensation to pay for David's weekly psychological therapy.
David's dad had worked two jobs - security at the Wachovia Center and maintenance at the Spectrum - to send his son to parochial school because he had been a product of - and believed in - Catholic education.
St. Martin's set up the David Atkins Memorial Fund to pay for David's tuition, uniforms, school transportation and other educational expenses through eighth grade and beyond. Sister Cheryl is hopeful that contributions, which already cover David's immediate future, will one day ensure his high school and college education.
The fund even paid for David's most prized possession, his school jacket. Jackson said that she knows that David's dad, who graduated from Roman Catholic High and took David to morning Mass at St. Francis of Assisi next door to the school, would have wanted his son to have the jacket.
Smiling and shaking her head, Jackson said that David has insisted on wearing the fall-weight jacket even during recent frigid days. "I tell him, 'David, put your heavy coat on. It's winter.' He tells me, 'I'm not cold.' Then, he says, 'Can I wear my sweater under my jacket?' "
When the Christmas-shopping season began, Stephen Fromhold, who teaches at St. Martin's, told his mother, Susan, who has coordinated holiday "family adoptions" in St. Mary Magdalene parish in Media for almost two decades, about David and his grandmother.
His mother added David to her church's Giving Tree, a ministry in which St. Mary Magdalene families anonymously buy Christmas gifts for families in need.
So David will find presents under his tree on Christmas morning.
And thanks to his extraordinary support network at St. Martin's, he will return to school after Christmas break knowing that he will find the warmth and security and trust he feels when he hugs his first-grade teacher, something he still does even though he's a second-grader now.
"I'm so grateful that everyone at St. Martin's is here for me and David because I don't know what we would do without them," Jackson said. "David's dad was a good father. He was a good man. This is what he would want for his son. St. Martin's is making his wishes for David come true." *