Minutes before it happened, mother and daughter were clueless. Oh, but they had inklings.
When they finally saw each other yesterday afternoon, after 3 1/2 long years of separation, the result was a torrent of tears, cries of joy and a flood of emotions that confirmed a deep-seated love.
And in a scene for the season, a disabled mother wept while crawling the length of her bed, desperate to embrace her disabled daughter.
"Money can't buy this," the mother said in tears.
Yolanda Massella, 83, of Mt. Lebanon, is bedridden and confined to her bedroom with muscular dystrophy. Her daughter Jacquie Naughton, 59, a mental health therapist who lives in Upper St. Clair, also has MD and must use a wheelchair.
MD refers to a group of inherited diseases that cause muscle weakness and loss. All forms progressively worsen and victims eventually lose the ability to walk. MD has no cure.
The two live close by but have been unable to see one another for 3 1/2 years, all because of 13 steps separating Baywood Avenue and Mrs. Massella's bedroom. They talk daily by phone.
"They are so close but can never touch," said Mrs. Massella's other daughter, Kim Harris of Mt. Lebanon, noting the entire family had become resigned to the dictates of the disease. The last time the two had seen one another was mid-year 2004 when Mrs. Massella was recovering from surgery in a handicap-accessible nursing home.
But Cathy Lydic of Peters, Mrs. Naughton's friend who assists her daily inside her home as her "arms and legs," felt the season was ripe for a reunion.
Using top-secret tactics, Ms. Lydic contacted Peters Police Chief Harry Fruecht, who in turn called Mt. Lebanon police. It was arranged for police, MRTSA Ambulance and fire department officials to be on hand to carry Mrs. Naughton from a van into her parents' apartment.
The Christmas surprise was put into action yesterday afternoon.
Ms. Lydic had invited Mrs. Naughton to a Sunday lunch. But Ms. Lydic told her, as an aside, she first wanted to drop off a coffee cake to Mrs. Naughton's mother.
To avoid frightening Mrs. Naughton, who soon would see police and emergency equipment lining the streets outside her parents' home, Ms. Lydic handed Mrs. Naughton a Christmas note upon turning onto Baywood Avenue.
"In the celebration of Christmas and to our new friendship, I pondered as to the perfect gift for you," she wrote, thanking Mrs. Naughton for her fashion advice and for being a perfect and "loving friend."
"It makes my heart sing to help you," she wrote. "My gift to you, with help from Peters and Mt. Lebanon police ... is to see your mom.
"To spend quality time with your parents and family is what Christmas is all about."
Inside the apartment, Mrs. Massella had mother's intuition. She could hear her daughter Kim moving furniture out of the hallway -- a telltale sign.
"I bet Jacquie is coming today," she kept saying, and even bet her daughter $10 that that was the plan. When someone announced that an ambulance was outside the building, the scheme was revealed.
Ambulance personnel placed Mrs. Naughton in a step chair and carried her up several flights into the apartment, then wheeled her to the foot of her mother's bed.
Mrs. Harris couldn't handle the emotions and bolted into a bathroom for a joyous outburst of tears.
Emotion inside the bedroom was cinematic. Upon seeing her daughter -- with people calling for her husband Tom to assist her -- Mrs. Massella grabbed at the sheets and struggled with determined difficulty to drag herself the full length of her bed to reach her crying daughter.
Then spending 3 1/2 years of pent-up feelings, Mrs. Massella stretched forward to kiss her daughter and whisper "I love you."
Smiling police officers gave each woman a fruit basket, then officials left with promises to return hours later to help Mrs. Naughton back into the van.
So that's how mother and daughter spent 3 1/2 hours together -- one hour for each year apart.
"You haven't changed," Mrs. Massella told her daughter. "You are as beautiful as ever."
Mrs. Naughton could reply only with tears: "I'm overwhelmed," she said. "This is one of the best Christmases I've ever had."
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578.