Christmas of 100 gifts: Strangers step up after year of heartbreak

This was a dark year for Vanessa Morey when she lost her mother, Linda, to terminal brain cancer at the age of 64, but 100 gifts — courtesy of loving friends and kind strangers alike — made Christmas Day 2019 a thing of wonder and hope.

Vanessa Morey (center) with her son, Asheten Larson, and daughter, Aliyah Larson in their Brainerd apartment. Morey was the recipient of a over a 100 gifts -- many of them anonymous -- to create a "Christmas Explosion" that honored her mother, Linda, who died of brain cancer in October. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Morey

In the coldest depths of winter, during the darkest time of the year, Christmas Day often has a way of taking the world when it’s at its most inhospitable and creating something joyful and filled with light.

This year, that interpretation of Christmas comes in manifold meanings for the likes of Vanessa Morey. In the Morey household, there hasn’t been much reason for happiness, thankfulness or good cheer in 2019, but in the final months of the calendar, in the days leading up to the grand yuletide holiday, Christmas found a way.

At this time last year, Vanessa’s mother was a devoted grandmother whose life revolved around her two children, Vanessa and Brent, and their respective families. Vanessa described her as a constant presence in the lives of her grandchildren — a steady source of love and support for her daughter and Vanessa’s son and daughter, from the moment they were born.

Ten months later Linda Morey was dead, suddenly taken at the age of 64 by an inoperable brain tumor that announced its presence with a stubborn headache. Ironically, the headache had nothing to do with the tumor, noted Vanessa — that had more to do with Linda’s bad sleep habits and a penchant for consuming large amounts of caffeine — but an obligatory MRI was in order and both mother and daughter agreed.

The results: a tumor, buried deep in Linda’s brain, that was smaller than half a centimeter in diameter.


What followed was a whirlwind of doctor’s visits and examinations conducted by specialists, a rapid succession of appointments that became increasingly dire and anxious with each development, from brain scans and biopsies, to brain bleeds and white blood cell counts, to the inevitable — treatment.

While surgery or chemotherapy was not an option, and radiation was a gamble in terms of short-term life expectancy, Linda embarked on a host of experimental solutions that were more effective, if harsh in their side effects.

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Vanessa Morey (left) and her mother Linda Morey share a photo during Linda's final illness. Linda was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor in late January and died Oct. 22. As a memorial to Linda, more than 100 gifts were sent to Vanessa's home -- many of them from anonymous strangers -- to decorate and bedazzle her apartment with a "Christmas Explosion." Photo courtesy of Vanessa Morey

“Everything happened so fast after that,” Vanessa said. “Although it was so small, it was already Grade IV Glioblastoma. It was inoperable. Terminal.”

Linda’s losing battle to death — hard fought and, yes, at times brutal — can perhaps be best understood in terms of her life. It was a tumultuous one, characterized by points of horrific childhood abuse, which haunted Linda during stretches of mental illness; dysfunctional relationships colored by addiction; or the ups and downs of obesity and weight loss.

Yet, through every chapter of her life, Linda remained a kind soul and an incorrigible prankster with a sarcastic streak, but in all that, she was an eternal optimist.

When she learned of her imminent death, Linda placed her fate in the hands of God and trusted him to see her through, Vanessa said. She remained that way — stubbornly positive, fiercely holding onto each moment with her family, until she died Oct. 22.


“I had a lot of friends and family that surrounded me,” said Vanessa, who noted Linda’s passing has been particularly difficult for her 13-year-old son Ashten, who shared a close bond with his grandmother. “But, I was always worried — I’m a recovering drug addict. My mom watched me get clean. I made a promise to her. And I didn’t want to fall back into that.

“So I let certain people that I know I was scared of feeling all that pain. After the funeral, when everybody’s gone, that’s when I’m most vulnerable,” Vanessa said.

It was around this time Vanessa’s good friend Leanne Larson of St. Paul took her aside and comforted her:

“‘Don’t worry, I’ll check up on you,’” Leanne told her, according to Vanessa. ‘“I won’t leave you and we’ll make sure you keep your promise to your mom.’”

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A display of decorations, ornaments and figurines gifted to Brainerd resident Vanessa Morey by friends and kind strangers. In the wake of her mother's death Oct. 22 from terminal brain cancer, Vanessa wanted to create a "Christmas Explosion" in her memory and the intervening weeks were filled with gifts to make that dream a reality. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Morey

Leanne did more than provide a shoulder for Vanessa to lean on, as Vanessa would learn weeks down the road. One of Linda’s timeless joys was Christmas — a favorite of hers, exemplified by her enthusiasm for the holiday each year and a particular fondness for Santa Claus.

At one point, Vanessa confided in Leanne that all she wanted was to make her apartment a “Christmas explosion,” or an extravaganza of decorations, lights and festivities her mother would have relished.


“I told Leanne, I want Christmas, everywhere. I want to celebrate with my kids and I want to be happy. That’s what she would have wanted,” Vanessa said. “Four days later, I started getting packages in the mail. I had no idea they were coming. No clue. I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know where they were from. But, they were addressed to us, they said ‘Happy Christmas Explosion, in memory of Linda Morey.’”

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An assortment of gifts for the Morey household -- a handfull of more than 100 -- given to Vanessa Morey and her family by friends and kind strangers alike to commemorate her mother, Linda Morey, who died Oct. 22 from terminal brain cancer. Photo Courtesy of Vanessa Morey

The gifts kept coming and the gifts kept piling up. Every day — four or five or six gifts. First 10, then 20, then 30 and 40. Decorations and ornaments of all kinds and descriptions — Christmas trees, Santa Claus, snow, angel wings — to fill every nook and cranny of Vanessa’s apartment. More than 100 gifts, all of them personalized as a memorial to Linda, virtually all from anonymous sources.

Ashten and Aliyah Larson pose with gifts sent from well-wishers and kind strangers to their mother, Vanessa Morey, to create an extravaganza of Christmas spirit -- a "Christmas Explosion." Vanessa said the more than 100 gifts served to comfort her in the weeks after her mother's death from terminal brain cancer and reaffirmed her faith in human goodness. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Morey

Vanessa described it as a dream come true for her mother. And, in its own way, it served to reaffirm Vanessa’s faith in humanity and the value of small acts of kindness that often pass unnoticed through everyday life.

“It left me speechless,” Vanessa said. “You hear about bad things everywhere and people doing horrible things to each other, but there’s still so many amazing people with such big hearts. It was a bright spot, for me and my mother.”


GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at .

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