This time of year, the notoriously festive Victoria Park is lit up to the high heavens. Along the neighborhood’s quiet avenues inflatable Santa’s wave, snowmen bobble, and lights, lights and more lights dazzle.
But outside one house, there’s a Christmas tree that isn’t just there for show. Bedecked in purple ribbon and delicate lights, this five-foot-plus evergreen is more than a decoration—it’s a memorial. This is Andrea’s tree.
The story starts a few weeks ago, when an email appeal for help went out.
In no time, the email—like a modern-day version of the star that rose over Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago—had been seen far and wide.
And, like the star that lit up the east, the email invited the bringing of gifts. Though this time the gifts requested were not Frankincense and Myrrh, but gifts of goodwill towards men.
The story, like the one we all know so well, starts with the tale of an extraordinary child.
Andrea Costain was born with only half of a heart. A condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, Andrea had only two heart chambers, not the usual four.
On September 30, 2011, an amazing 12 years after she was born with a death sentence diagnosis, Andrea Costain passed away.
“It wasn’t even a heart-related issue. It just happened so fast, everybody was shocked,” remembers Andrea’s mother, Lena Costain.
For 12-year-old Andrea, what started as a stomach bug, turned out to be a bacterial infection that went septic. Just a few days after showing stomach flu symptoms, Andrea was gone.
Though only on this earth for twelve years, those 12 years were far longer than doctors ever projected her to live.
“We didn’t know about her heart condition in utero,” says Andrea’s mother, Lena Costain, remembering the birth of her second child, and only daughter. Costain adds, “she was transferred to the Miami Children’s Hospital, and they told us she wasn’t going to survive.”
But, 12 years ago, Costain’s friends refused to just give up on the tiny infant.
“My friend Patty said, ‘there has to be hope.’ And, she did the research and found a doctor in Philadelphia who was willing to take Andrea’s case on,” Costain remembers.
In the next two years, tiny baby Andrea would go through four open-heart surgeries. With each one, mother Lena Costain would pray and hope the worst didn’t happen. And each time, Andrea pulled through.
Ask anyone who knew Andrea and they’ll tell you that any deficiency of Andrea’s heart was purely a physical one. Emotionally, Andrea’s heart was larger than life.
“We didn’t put her in a bubble, we lived life with her,” says Costain, adding, “She never complained. She had it pretty rough, but she really didn’t realize how rough she had it.”
More than anything, Andrea just wanted to be a kid. Costain remembers one incident right after Andrea had undergone a procedure to put rods in her spine to help correct her scoliosis.
“One of her friends was having a gymnastic party, and there my husband is, flipping her around, I was horrified, but that was Andrea.”
Family friend Edie Peterson remembers Andrea as being “the biggest trooper.”
“She just always wanted to be a part of everything. I remember being at Blizzard Beach with her and she wanted to go on the rides. She loved to just be part of the group,” said Peterson.
Andrea loved being a normal kid. But Andrea loved many things. She loved people, the family dog, her friends and church, and, like any kid, Andrea loved Christmas.
“She loved the Christmas lights,” remembers her mother. Growing up in the Victoria Park neighborhood, it’s hard not to. During the month of December, every time they would come home, Andrea would request that her mom drive her down a different street in the neighborhood so they could see the lights.
Just a few short months after Andrea’s death, this December—traditionally the darkest month of the year with its short days and long nights—would be especially dark for the Costain family.
And then, on the first of December a tree showed up in their front yard. The tree had a few decorations, some purple ribbons, an angel on the top of it, and a purple letter “A” decoration. Also on the tree was a “believe” plaque that bears the poem:
I believe that if you give, even just to one,
That gift will grow in magnitude before the day is done.
I believe that comfort comes from giving part of me,
And if I share with others, there’s more for all so see.
I believe that love is still the greatest gift of all!
Lena Costain sent an email out to her friends, thanking them for the tree and asking who had done the good dead.
No one stepped forward.
The next day, another ornament showed up on the tree, and the next day another. But these were not ordinary ornaments. Each ornament came with a note describing a kindness done in memory of Andrea. Day after day the ornaments arrived, with kindnesses—both small and large—documented on them.
“No one will own up to being behind it,” says Costain, adding, “but at this point it doesn’t really matter whose idea it was, it’s just so wonderful.” Costain adds that the tree has really given the family something positive to focus on during the difficult Christmas season.
“I check the tree every day, and I just think, who is getting help today and how is Andrea’s life making a difference today.”
And each day, Andrea’s life makes more and more of a difference. According to Edie Peterson—who denies being involved with the organizing of the tree—the project has grown way beyond the original organizer’s intentions.
“There are people I don’t even know emailing me about it,” Peterson exclaims, adding, “We might have to get a bigger tree.”
The original plan was to have one new ornament with one new nicety delivered each day. There are now far too many people who want to participate to limit the good deeds to just one a day.
But Peterson isn’t surprised.
“The whole family has touched a ton of people in this community. There were like 1,500 people at Andrea’s funeral” says Peterson. She’s quiet for a moment, then adds, “I miss her a lot, we all miss her a lot.”
As dusk falls on the Costain’s family home, the lights on the block slowly flicker on. Lena Costain goes out to check the tree, saying, “Today’s ornament hasn’t arrived yet, I can’t wait to see what it is.”
For Lena Costain, the tree is just another sign that God puts people and friends into our lives to help us through times of need.
“The message I’d like to share is one of divine intervention,” Costain says, adding, “When we don’t have the strength to carry on, God puts people into our lives to help us. That’s the real message. Christmas isn’t about presents, it’s about people helping each other out.”
Costain goes out to check the tree again, half an hour later. The day’s ornament still hasn’t arrived, but she’s not concerned.
She knows that at some point tonight some Good Samaritan—whom she may or may not know—will come, bearing a tiny tiding of comfort and joy. And she knows that these small ornaments, with their handwritten notes attached, offer daily proof that Andrea’s 12 years mattered. But more importantly, she knows that Andrea’s life continues to matter to the needy individuals whose lives are being touched each day in loving memory of one extraordinary child.