ANTIOCH -- A couple weeks before Christmas, on a family visit to a hardware store, 2-year-old Matthew Ouimet met Santa Claus for the first time. Before he and his family left the store, Matthew spotted a display of toy tools.

"He wanted them so bad," said Kristi Ouimet, Matthew's mother. "We said, 'No, sweetheart, that's something you're going to have to ask Santa for.'"

So Matthew returned to the hardware store Santa, cut to the front of the line and, with arms extended, announced, "I want the tools please."

The visceral appeal of a plastic hammer notwithstanding, Matthew was destined to receive a far more important gift this year: the knowledge of what a real holiday season is like.

Matthew Ouimet, 2, plays at his home in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Matthew is still recovering from a liver and kidney transplant at the
Matthew Ouimet, 2, plays at his home in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Matthew is still recovering from a liver and kidney transplant at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital on June 4-5. He recently broke one arm, then the other, as his bones are brittle from doing dialysis prior to the transplant. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Born with the genetic condition Primary Hyperoxaluria Type 1, which leads to a buildup of oxalate crystals that damage small organs, Matthew was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure in July 2011 when he was 5 months old. He was hospitalized for two weeks, then placed on six-days-a-week dialysis at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco. That continued for 22 months while he awaited a life-sustaining liver and kidney transplant.

For the first two Thanksgivings and Christmases of his life, he spent four hours tethered to a dialysis machine. Because of the unrelenting schedule related to his care (including nightly peritoneal dialysis administered at home), Kristi and her husband Kelly scaled back on the decorations and low-keyed the holidays.

"Honestly, Christmas was just another day," Kristi said. "We'd open packages. We'd see people. Yea, merry Christmas and good will, blessings. I felt them, but (dialysis) was our life. This is what we had to do."

This year has been different. Matching organs were found late last spring. In a 13-hour surgery on June 4 and 5, Matthew received his transplant. Six months later, his parents say he is acting more like a typical 2-year-old.

"This is the first time we've gotten back into the spirit," Kristi said.

Even during his first real holiday season, Matthew's medical care is ongoing. He was hospitalized at the end of September with a blood infection. He was hospitalized again at the end of October when concerning lab results prompted doctors to biopsy his liver. There was no sign of acute rejection, but he has had three procedures to enlarge a bile duct, the most recent on Dec. 18. A follow-up procedure is scheduled for January.

He still has two feeding tubes, one into his stomach, the other into his intestine. They don't slow him down much. On Oct. 13, Matthew fell and broke his left arm. The cast came off Nov. 14. Three days later, he fell and broke his right arm. Kelly Ouimet said they have been told that Matthew's bones have been weakened by dialysis, but will eventually regain full strength.

The Ouimets spent a relatively quiet Thanksgiving at home with their extended household: Kelly, Kristi, Molly (10), Patrick (8) and Matthew; Jordan and Jessica (Kelly's daughters from his first marriage), and Jessica's baby daughter Jayden. It was a meaningful day in more ways than one. In October, the Ouimets met Maggie, whose son Brandon was the deceased donor whose organs Matthew received. Kristi texted Maggie on Thanksgiving.

"It was a hard day (for her)," Kristi said. "She said it was the first time they'd been together and he wasn't there. We put on the DVD she gave us of Brandon's memorial service. We all watched that. It was rough at times. It was awesome at times. And it was an appropriate time to have everybody together to do that."

Kristi Ouimet, shows her son Matthew, 2, Christmas ornaments on the tree at their home in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Matthew is still
Kristi Ouimet, shows her son Matthew, 2, Christmas ornaments on the tree at their home in Antioch, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. Matthew is still recovering from a liver and kidney transplant at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital on June 4-5. He recently broke one arm, then the other, as his bones are brittle from doing dialysis prior to the transplant. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

For Christmas, the Ouimets pulled decorations out of storage. A huge tree, surrounded by a pile of wrapped presents, was set up in the living room. An inflatable Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer was placed in the front yard. Liberated from the 95-mile round trips to UCSF, Matthew and his family have been able to make time for simple joys. Meeting Santa was one. Another was a photo session with the kids in front of the tree, during which Kelly broke out a bag of large marshmallows and incited a "snowball" fight.

Then there was the midmorning assembly at Cornerstone Christian School during which Molly and Patrick were named to the honor roll and both received special awards -- Patrick for his character and Molly for her love for Jesus. It was the kind of event Matthew and Kristi wouldn't have been able to attend while he was on dialysis, and it got Kristi and Kelly to thinking about how well their two older children have handled the attention Matthew has required for most of his life.

"We worried about that, and we talked about it in the beginning," Kelly said, "how we can't stop their lives because of his condition. If we have to be at the hospital or a procedure or whatever, they need to understand that. But every chance we got to include them in it, or to make their life as normal as possible, we took."

Kristi credits their extended family -- grandparents, aunts, uncles -- and the community for supporting Molly and Patrick when she and/or Kelly have been committed to Matthew.

"Never once have they said, 'Well, Matthew gets this,' or, 'You're too busy with Matthew,' or any of that," she said. "They just love him so much, and each other. They've always had this really close bond. We want to make sure they keep that."

If Wednesday dawns as expected, the Ouimets' house will thrum with the blissful chaos of excited children, extended family and drop-in friends -- just like the Christmases they used to know. With multiple family members having worked in law enforcement, they have grown accustomed to dealing with disparate schedules (Kelly, who works for the Antioch Police Department, will get home from his graveyard shift when everyone is waking up Christmas morning). They've opened presents at 3 a.m. They make a habit of leaving a couple empty chairs at the table for on-duty officers who can't make it home for Christmas dinner. Years when Kelly's children were with their mother, they had more than one Christmas.

"To us, it doesn't have to be on the day," Kristi said. "As long as we're together. But we're going to try tradition this year and actually do it on Christmas to see how that feels, and see what the big deal is all about."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.