Her poodle, Biscuit, was leaping for joy at the sight of her, but 8-year-old Caly Miccicke couldn't manage a smile.
"Do you want some help?" asked her father, Sal, who stood in their driveway by his wife's car.
Caly, in the backseat, shook her head. "Owwwww!"; she cried, and leaned back, clutching her belly.
Refusing all offers of help, Caly took three minutes to climb out of her mother's van Thursday evening, and two more minutes to inch across the driveway and toward her house, where an inflatable Santa waited on the front lawn with outstretched arms.
Having a youngster in the hospital can be a poignant reminder to parents of just how fragile and precious their children are. No one may know that more than the Miccickes of Bethlehem, Pa., and the Van Nocker family of Edgewater Park, whose son is fighting for his life.
"Going home. That's all we want," Caly's mother, Amy, had said that afternoon, gazing down at the hospital bed where her little girl lay in green pajamas.
Two days earlier, doctors at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children had performed major abdominal surgery to repair the tubes that drain Caly's damaged kidneys.
Her "bilateral ureteral reimplanation" appeared to have gone well, the doctors said.
"I really miss my family," Caly said as she stabbed at the cubed melon on her lunch tray. "I haven't even seen Rowen," her younger brother, she said.
Three days had passed since they arrived, hopeful that the surgery would put an end to the four years of painful urinary tract infections that had stunted the growth of her kidneys.
Her mother was staying with her around the clock, sleeping on a cot next to her. But with home 80 miles away, there was little prospect of visitors. Making crafts - another plastic penguin for Rowen, perhaps? - and spending time in the playroom with the other sick children would have to fill the normally happy days leading up to Christmas.
Then, shortly before 3 p.m., came a surprise.
A man in a white lab coat strolled into her room. "I see you've got your Christmas green and red on," he said, pointing to Caly's red slippers and green pajamas.
It was Robert Steckler, her surgeon, there to check on her progress. Chart in hand, he drew the curtain around her bed and bent over her.
Twenty minutes later, her mother stepped out into the hall, wide-eyed. "I think she can go home," she said.
Steckler followed her, smiling. "We'll try to get you out before rush hour," he said.
Ninety minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., mother and daughter were in their minivan, headed up Germantown Avenue for Route 309 and the long drive to Bethlehem.
It was a crowded, stop-and-go journey, and by the time they pulled into their driveway two hours later, Caly's incision "hurt a lot."
But the pain subsided quickly after she settled into an armchair by the fireplace. There was even a letter from Santa telling her "what a good child you've been," and letting her know his elves were busy making the gifts she had asked for.
So, when 6-year-old Rowen leaned in to give her a kiss and got his candy cane stuck in her hair, Caly didn't mind.
She was home for Christmas.
Three days in the hospital just before Christmas might seem a long ordeal to most youngsters. But time has lost much of its meaning for 3-year-old Kyler Van Nocker, whose life has oscillated between home and hospital since July.
Two weeks ago, he underwent a 10-hour operation to remove the remains of a metastasized tumor - a stage-four neuroblastoma - that has threatened his life for much of the last year. He went home Friday.
"Do you hear all those birds?" his mother asked him Saturday morning as they sat on the front porch of their home. "I think they're coming from that bush."
Kyler, who lay wrapped in her arms in a blue blanket, opened his eyes, nodded, and closed them again.
Somewhere out there, Santa was cruising the streets in a big red fire truck, tossing candy to children.
Kyler's brother Kaden, 4, his cousin Aurora, 5, and his sister Anelise, 21 months, were waiting with him.
Ten minutes earlier they had come rushing outside at the sound of Santa's siren. But then his fire truck made a right turn and headed west down Franklin Street, away from them.
And so now they waited, Kyler's blue eyes opening, his hopes rising, each time the siren whirred in the far distance. It grew fainter and fainter, then disappeared.
"Looks like he'll be a while," said his mother, Maria. "Want to go inside?"
If Christmas is a time of hope, few families are feeling it quite like the Van Nockers. "All we can do is hope," said his mother, Maria, 36.
Against the odds, his surgeon at St. Christopher's, Gregory Halligan, saved his tumorous kidney. Its continued functioning should improve his chances of recovery.
But for Kyler, "home for Christmas" does not yet mean home for good.
Next month he faces the first of two complete bone-marrow transplants using stem cells extracted from his body weeks ago. He is the first child to pass through St. Christopher's new bone-marrow transplant unit.
If the recent surgery and the six grueling rounds of chemotherapy he has undergone since summer have destroyed most of the cancer cells in his tired body, the transplanted stem cells just may jump-start his immune system and put him on the path to recovery.
But that path will take him in and out of the hospital for many more months to come.
"How do you define 'winning?' " wondered his father, Paul Van Nocker, one day last week, as Kyler lay in his room at St. Christopher's transplant wing, steering a remote-controlled Tyrannosaurus rex around the floor.
"Is it beating the 30 percent survival rates, so that he lives to be 70 or 80?" he asked. "Or do you take joy in every moment of every day he lives his life?
"What keeps us going," he said, "is every day seeing that crooked little smile."
After coming into the house, Kyler dozed on the living room couch, waking from time to time to watch a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon or make his T. rex roar at his baby sister.
"I hope Santa didn't forget us," his mother said after about a half-hour, peering out the picture window.
A neighbor stopped by with "monster" peanut butter-oatmeal cookies. Two men from the Knights of Columbus dropped off a box of food. Kyler studied them silently. Still no Santa.
Then, after 20 more minutes, an "Rrrrrrrr" sounded down the street.
"It's him," said Maria, scooping Kyler up in his blanket and carrying him out to the curb.
The other children waved and shouted "Santa!" as the fire truck slowed and Santa, standing on top, tossed hard candies their way.
Kyler watched solemnly in his mother's arms as his siblings and cousin and Aunt Amanda laughed and scrambled around the driveway, picking up the pieces.
Then he broke out in a crooked little smile.