Karen sits beside her tree 

Written by Louise Gallagher.

On the Ninth Day of Christmas, Karen shares decorating her Christmas Tree.

She hasn’t had a Christmas tree in four years. Not because she didn’t want one. She never gave up wanting one. She didn’t have one because for four years she didn’t have a home to put one up in.

This year, she does. This year, she has a place of her own.  This year, she has a tree.

It’s not a large tree, but in her one bedroom apartment, it fits perfectly. “I love the smell,” she says as she ties another silver ball onto a branch. She breathes deeply. “Oh wow! This is so exciting.”

I am sitting in a chair watching her, chatting, attaching hooks to each ball in preparation of its placement on the tree. My co-worker, Jordan, is holding a video camera, capturing the moment, silently observing the magic unfolding, of lights being strung upon the tree’s branches, of decorations being hung.

I had chatted with Karen the day before when at Sundial Apartments, an apartment building the DI owns in the downtown core. I was organizing clients for a photo shoot for a new brochure that is being developed to assist in fund-raising for the building. The goal is to pay off the mortgage so that the DI can convert more apartments into affordable housing units as residents move out and suites become available.  Karen had agreed to have her photo taken for the brochure as a way to give back to the agency that has, as she describes it, ‘saved my life’.

I knew Karen when she was staying at the DI. A tiny birdlike woman, chronic health conditions, addiction,  a messy divorce, life missteps left her without a home, or the ability to work. In her weakened state, she became one of those who ‘fall through the cracks’ and end up on the doorstep of the shelter. Struggling with recovery from her addiction, dealing with her health issues, she couldn’t seem to find a way to keep a roof over her head.

And then, in June of this year, Karen got a place of her own. A one bedroom apartment to call her home.

As I watched Karen carefully place decorations on the tree, I was moved and touched and reminded of the delicacy of this thread called the human condition. A thread made up of tiny moments that link us to the wonder, and sometimes sorrow, of being human, of being part of humankind, alone, yet not alone. Together, yet separate.

Karen’s tree was a gift. A gift from a woman she met during the summer while in hospital for six weeks receiving chemotherapy. The woman, Judy, was in the next bed. For six weeks the two women from very separate and different walks of life connected. They talked and shared and when Karen got out of hospital, Judy took it upon herself to create a welcome home for Karen in her new apartment.

And that’s where the magic kept unfolding.

Being released from hospital into homelessness is one of the tragedies in our social fabric. For Karen, being released back to the shelter was a given. Until management at the DI stepped in and made it possible for her to get the keys to her own place.

We provided the basics, furniture, dishes, but the place still lacked that feminine touch, that sense of — ‘Karen’. And then Judy, who owns a design company, stepped in and ‘prettied up’ the place. She held a house-warming for Karen, inviting her lady friends to come and create a place of comfort and beauty for this woman she’d met while lying in a hospital bed, recovering from her own serious medical condition.

I sat and watched and chatted with Karen  and I knew it was there. In that room with us. It was palpable. The spirit of Christmas. The best of our human condition dancing in the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree that was a gift from a stranger who has become a friend and who continues to take the time to ensure this woman for whom life has not been easy, finds a less stressful, more beautiful path.

“What does having your own place this Christmas mean to you?” I ask Karen as she tosses tinsel and reminisces about Christmases past.

“It means I get to spend it with my daughter. We get to be a family.”

And there it was, all over again. The meaning of Christmas shining in the light of one woman’s eyes filled with wonder as she decorated a tree and dreamt of spending time with the ones she loves. And in the wonder of the moment I am reminded  once again that Christmas is not in the baubles and glitter, the gifts or the Christmas cards strung along a mantle. It’s right here. Right where we are. It’s a place to belong. To be welcomed. To be together. A place where family meets and connects to what makes magic happen — our human condition shining in Love.

It is Christmas. No matter where we are, no matter how far from home we have strayed, may we all come home to the heart of sharing peace, love and joy at this special time of year.