Three or so years ago, my local newspaper held a Christmas story contest for all ages. This was my first time entering and I won!
The story, The Christmas Awakening, theme centered around how society sometimes judges by appearances alone.
The Christmas Awakening is about a young woman who is so caught up in her own problems that she refuses to give much attention to the kind, homeless woman who tries to be her friend. The busy young woman looks upon this poor soul a nuisance. Until one day something happens and the young woman learns there is more behind the cover of homeless person.
Here is a little treat for you my loyal readers:
The Christmas Awakening
Sometimes work is just overwhelming.
Ringing phones, fax machines, and an endless procession of chattering people traversing the halls all of it coming together noisily and slamming into my brain leaving my head feeling as if it was being split into.
Then again, this was everyday life at Daniels & Stevenson where I have worked as a paralegal for the last five years. This particular day was like any other, but it was a day that would leave me changed forever.
It was in the fourth hour of a nine hour workday when I left for my daily coffee run.
The snow was falling lightly blanketing the ground. The air was crisp, and with all the Christmas decorations adorning the city, I felt myself slowly getting into the Christmas spirit.
I began to whistle an old-fashioned Christmas tune.
My daily coffee run, which had me picking up coffee from the gourmet café two blocks from the office, always took me past a run-down brick building.
A former government building, that was now a homeless shelter.
I dreaded walking past that place because of one woman who insisted on bothering me whenever she saw me.
Thus it came as no surprise when on that day, the same woman interrupted my whistling and immediately dampened my mood.
“Come here Kirsten,” she called. “I want to speak with you.”
I kept walking, desperately trying to avoid her.
“Kirsten,” she called again, “come here.”
I tried harder still to ignore her and kept my head high, staring straight ahead, but it was no use. Her weak frail, squeaking voice pierced my soul and pulled me back in.
Finally, I relented and stopped.
“What do you need, Madeline?” I asked impatiently.
“I just want you to stay and talk for a while, that’s all.”
“We go through this everyday, Madeline. I am on my way to run an errand for my boss…”
“And if you are not back in ten minutes,” Madeline finished for me, “she will fire you. I know the drill, Kirsten. However, you could make an exception. It is only two days until Christmas.”
“Madeline, what exactly is it that you want from me?” I asked. “You know that I am busy. I have bosses that I have to answer to if I am late. Yet, you stop me everyday. Tell me for once, what is it that you want?” My voice grew harsh and angry, my tolerance waning.
Madeline took several steps back away from me and hung her head. Her dirty and tangled brown hair fell around her equally dirty face.
Madeline usually does not look directly at me. Instead, she looks away as she talks to me, but today was different and before she turned to walked away from me-in defeat, to rejoin her friends’ on the shelter front steps for a smoke, she gave me a long haunting look.
Shaking that thought off, I continued on my way, she stared at me with her icy blue eyes that seemed to see right through me, as though she was sending me a message.
I do not know why, but I could not get that haunting look out of my mind.
Every time I tried to concentrate on something other than that look, Madeline’s face would reappear before me. Thoughts of her kept me from sleeping.
I guess it was the lack of sleep and my lack of ability to think about anything else prevented me from seeing what should have been obvious.
The next day on Christmas Eve, I again went on my daily errand. As I was walking back from the coffee shop, I was feeling extra jovial about the fact that Christmas Day was just twenty-four hours away, and that I be home with my parents eating a huge turkey dinner. I began to sing “I’ll be home for Christmas,” to my self.
Midway through the chorus, I lost my footing and went skidding and sliding on an invisible patch of ice. Before I blacked out, all I remember was seeing five steaming hot cups of coffee go flying into the air.
When I opened my eyes again, I was greeted by the fuzzy image of woman patting my forehead with a moist cloth and a frail squeaky voice calling my name.
“Madeline?” I asked hoarsely. I tried to sit up, but the searing pain in my head and back stopped me.
“Don’t try to get up, Kirsten, you took a pretty nasty spill out there, you need to rest.”
“Where am I?”
“You are with me, at my home.”
As my vision began to adjust, I noticed that I was lying down on a lumpy, worn out mattress, covered in a thick velour blanket. I scanned my surroundings.
Several white candles placed throughout the small room, lighting.
A small table, that looked to be well used, occupied the centre of the room along with a vase of roses.
There were also several pictures displayed here and there of what I assumed were pictures of family members.
“Where are we Madeline?” I asked again.
Madeline handed me a glass of water from the pitcher she was holding. Surprisingly, both the glass and water were clean.
“This is my home,” said Madeline. “I found this place six years ago when I first found myself on the streets. This is behind the same café where you go to get those fancy coffees. This used to be a storage centre for the government building that is now the shelter. No one knows this tiny space exists, but me…and of course some of my friends, who come here to crash from time to time when the shelter becomes too full. It’s not fancy, but it keeps me out of the weather.”
I began to feel dizzy, so I lay back down, grimacing with pain.
“You have a mild concussion, and will be black and blue for a few days, but by next week you should be fine.”
“How do you know I have a mild concussion?”
“I saw you fall right on your old noggin, and I used to be a nurse.”
This information caught me by surprise.
“Do not look so surprised. I did have a career, just like you, before I landed on the streets. I was not born and bred homeless you know.”
I felt my cheeks blaze red with embarrassment. I guess I had taken for granted that Madeline was just some lazy and useless person who had chosen to live on the streets, as a burden to society, rather than someone who used to be a working, contributing citizen like myself.
“I-I did not mean…”
Madeline waved her hand to dismiss my blunder and smiled. “That is all right Kirsten. I know the stereotype that people, who are not homeless, put others like me into. We are too lazy to get a job, and stop being a burden on society, or we are too drunk or hopped up on drugs to even care. You forget that most of us are out here through no fault of our own.”
“How did you end up out here?” I asked.
“I worked as a nurse at St. Joseph’s for thirty years, as a post operative nurse. Then, when the government cut back on health care a few years ago, and closed beds, I was one of the senior nurses to be offered an early retirement package. I lived on that for a while, but as the cost of living grew higher, I quickly found myself unable to keep up with my bills. I could no longer afford to pay my rent or to buy food. I tried applying for every possible social assistance program out there, but always failed to qualify. I was disillusioned and desperate. I had no family or friends who were in a position to help me, so I ended up here. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Her story tugged at my heartstrings and I began to cry. My eyes were beginning to open to the reality of this woman who I had so easily dismissed.
“Madeline, ” I said through a teary voice. “Why did you bring me back here to tend to me, after I have been so horrible to you?”
Madeline laid her withered, wrinkled hand on my arm and again gave me a warm smile.
“My dear Kirsten, I saw that you were hurt and brought you back here to tend to you until you were well. I could never leave you in your hour of need. This being Christmas, or not.”
“I guess that is your nurse’s instinct kicking in.”
“Partly. However, I help you, or anyone else who needs me, because it is the right thing to do as a human being.”
I grew curious then. “Madeline, why did you always pick me to stop and talk?”
“Simple, you have a friendly face and a friendly demeanor.”
“After the way I treated you, you still believe that?”
“Of course! I know you are a good person deep down, Kirsten. You are just like everybody else, afraid of what you don’t understand.”
I was beginning to feel better. Looking down at my watch, I realized that it was getting late and I needed to get home to pack for my early morning trip to my parent’s house outside of the city.
“You have to go, don’t you?” asked Madeline.
“Yes, I’m sorry, but my mom and dad are expecting me in the morning for Christmas. I still have to pack for my early morning drive out of town.”
“Then you better get going. Just take it slowly. You are still in pain.”
“I understand. I promise to take it easy, nurse. Madeline?”
“How can I every repay you for rescuing me out there?”
“Come and visit me once in a while, that’s all I ask.”
“I promise I will.”
“Good, now Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Madeline.”
Later on that night, as I very carefully prepared for bed, I thought about Madeline. Here was a woman whom I once passed over as worthless and annoying, a burden on society who bothered me everyday, and who probably only wanted money to buy drugs or booze.
The truth though is that Madeline only wanted what we all want: to be treated like a valuable human being and to have companionship for, someone to simply be… a friend. So, while I have been doing everything in my power to avoid her, Madeline had only been offering the precious gift of friendship.
Ironically, it had taken being knocked unconscious for me to finally wake up and realize that.
Now it is my turn to return that gift.