Sgt. Matt Cleveland peered through a doorway. A little Iraqi girl with dark, shiny hair and a red dress, no more than 5, smiled back at him.
A camera captured the moment.
Matt's mother, Kathy Cleveland, looks at that photo often when her son is deployed.
"When he leaves, I put it on my desk to remind myself he is doing something good," the Eagan mother explained. "Isn't she beautiful?"
Matt, a full-time soldier stationed at Food Hood, Texas, has been deployed to Iraq three times. He'll leave for Afghanistan sometime after the new year. It weighs heavy on a mother's heart.
But first, he's coming home for Christmas, and the Cleveland family received a little help with the trimmings.
A Christmas Décor franchise in River Falls, Wis., dressed up their Eagan home with tasteful white lights, garland and festive greens as part of its "Decorated Families" program. Selected military families are surprised with a Christmastime makeover.
"For us it's a way to give back and brighten the holidays," said Melissa Crayford, executive director for Christmas Décor. "They sacrifice a ton for the rest of us. It's the least we could do."
When Kathy Cleveland saw the twinkling lights, she cried. This Christmas, there'll be a lot of tears.
It's been eight years since Kathy and Dave Cleveland have had their four boys home for Christmas. So much has happened. Her oldest sons, Chris, 36, and, Jon, 34, have married. Matt, 31, has served overseas.
Their youngest, Geoff, 25, is embarking on his teaching career.
And Kathy Cleveland was diagnosed with leukemia.
Geoff Cleveland nominated his family with Christmas Décor, writing the entry on Veteran's Day. Four generations of Cleveland men have fought for their country, and every one of them has come home.
Dave Cleveland's grandfather served in France in World War I. His father served on an aircraft carrier in the south Pacific in World War II. Dave Cleveland fought in Vietnam and, of course, Matt Cleveland is serving today. He's part of a recovery team that picks up the pieces when a military vehicle is hit or damaged.
"Our family, we've done our share," said Dave Cleveland.
When Matt Cleveland is deployed, his mother keeps a red lamp with a flickering bulb lit until he returns.
The first Christmas he spent in Iraq, the young soldier waited in line for hours to use the phone. In Minnesota, his mother waited for the phone to ring. She spent the whole conversation crying, she recounted. She couldn't help it.
Matt Cleveland volunteered for his third overseas tour, but Kathy Cleveland begged him to stay home.
"He said he should go before someone who has a family," Kathy Cleveland said.
Dave Cleveland said he better understands his son's desire to serve. He tells his son to keep his head down and get the job done. Still, he worries about Afghanistan.
"Matt just has so much more courage than I could ever have. I look up to him," Geoff Cleveland said. "He's my hero."
Geoff Cleveland, who teaches seventh-grade history, admires his family's military legacy and his mother's strength.
"She is definitely the glue that keeps the family together," Geoff Cleveland said.
He recalls writing the nomination for his family: "Everyone is honoring my brother and my dad, but my mom is the true soldier of the family. She embodies the strength and courage to keep this family going," he said.
When Kathy Cleveland was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2010, she kept it from Matt.
"We couldn't tell him for a while; he was overseas at the time, and I didn't want to burden him. He had enough on his plate," she said.
Since her diagnosis, Kathy has continued to work as a secretary at Eagle Ridge Junior High in Savage. She takes medicine each night to keep her cancer in check, but it feels like she constantly has the flu, with nausea and weakness.
"I don't want to change my life as long as I can keep going," she said. "The kids give me boosts when I am down."
For Christmas, she's planning for all the trappings -- a feast of cookies and other goodies, games, a pile of presents, and time with her boys and their significant others.
"It's going to be fabulous," Kathy Cleveland said.
The tree was trimmed weeks ago with elegant white lights and generations of delicate ornaments from both sides of the family.
"It's going to be pretty nice to see the whole family together and have everyone home for the holidays. I know it means a lot to my mom," Matt Cleveland said. "Nothing beats your mother's home cooking. I haven't had that in quite some time. It's just the little, simple things that mean the most."
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.