One day, I hope you are given this same sweet gift my parents have given me—the ability to close the biggest chapter of my life thus far with a heart full of the most precious memories and the desire to follow in the footsteps of two of the greatest people I’ve ever known and loved.
That happened for me this past week. There are so many thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced since we lost my mother suddenly just a couple of years ago. Knowing my dad was battling a terminal cancer diagnosis, the realization became a lot more apparent that, one day and a whole lot sooner than I had ever planned, I’d walk out of “my home” for the very last time.
I couldn’t fully grasp the journey that would unfold leading up to the weekend before last, but in the back of my mind, I knew it was coming. I dreaded it.
I’ve always been a sentimental person, and I love my family fiercely. I was never able to be a one-night-only visitor when I moved away from home, either. I needed my mama and my sweet dad and I needed time to sit and relax with them, to watch Blue Bloods (one of my dad’s favorites), or the Hallmark Channel during Christmas. I needed the time to spend with them riding up to “Amish country” and hitting a junk store or two on the way home. And, no matter how much time I took off to visit with them, it never felt like enough. Our time visiting together was full of warmth, peace and a whole lot of cutting up. We knew how to have a good time—often at the expense of one another, all in the name of a little innocent fun.
When Mom passed away, the relaxing visits couldn’t happen anymore. I become one of Dad’s caregivers, living two hours away from him, and there was always something that needed to be done when I came to stay. It hurt because I wanted nothing more than to be able to sit and visit with him for a couple of days.
It was just different, but even with the differences, I still got to bond with Dad in a way we hadn’t bonded before. We talked every night right around 8:30 p.m., and if he and I were out running errands, we’d often stop for a milk shake or banana split—two of his absolute favorites. I learned a lot about him over the last couple of years: his childhood, his cheeky sense of humor, and his ability to endure what seemed like the impossible with the most positive, content attitude I’ve ever known.
He was precious to me. At the end of April, he was placed on Hospice care and I had to confront the reality of what I had known was coming. It was pretty brutal, too. In many ways, Dad’s battle with cancer was unlike many others. He lived with a stage IV cancer diagnosis for nearly 5-1/2 years and worked a full-time job while tending the farm during the evenings until just a couple of months prior to his passing. Everyone loved him, and he loved everyone back. In all my years as his youngest, I never once heard him say anything negative about another person, which is what made the last couple of months so brutal. He was the kindest person I have ever known, and he was living through the hardest situation.
When we walked out of that last appointment with his oncologist, I was a mess. I didn’t want to be on this side of his cancer, and I wanted more time with my parents. But Dad—he was smiling and walking with the same bounce to his steps as he always did, and he softly told me he felt he beat cancer because of the time he was given with us. On the morning of my husband’s 39th birthday, less than 24 hours after I had left my dad’s from spending a week with him, my aunt called to let me know he was gone.
Losing Mom and losing Dad were both extremely difficult in their own ways, one of them for being so sudden and the other for being long expected. With each trip I made to Tennessee, I did everything I could to “soak up” every minute, living in every moment I had with Dad while also knowing that every time I left, it could be the last time I’d ever be in my childhood home with one of my parents.
Unless you’ve lived through similar experiences, it’s impossible to understand every thought and emotion a person goes through when they’re in their early thirties, looking ahead at an entire future without the comfort of “home.”
I’ll be the first to tell you, I know my home now is with my husband, Bennett and Kendall, our less-than-perfect and always up-to-no-good dogs (emphasis on the dogs), in this sweet, quiet little Mississippi town, and while that is true, the home you create when you have to be the adult with all the answers is very different than the childhood home with parents who will love you even when you get the answers wrong. Being responsible for making sure everyone is fed feels different than having a mama who will feed you from the moment you walk through her door and ask you to sit in her lap while she sings the same song she sang to you when you were little.
When Dad passed away, that became the end of the “era” of my childhood home and life as a daughter, a caregiver, and a girl going home just to spend a few days with her parents. During the four months since, I’ve been living life in the epilogue—the tying up of loose ends phase: packing up my parents’ things, sorting through all the clothes that can be donated and doing everything in my power to not become an emotional hoarder who keeps every item with a sentimental memory attached to it.
One thing I’ve learned since the process of cleaning out my parents’ house began is that my mama was prepared for any & every occasion she ever met, and when I say “prepared,” what I really mean is that she packed enough stuff to fill a 4,000 square-foot house into 1,500 square feet and somehow managed to keep it all organized. While we’re on that topic, one little side note I’d like to make is I feel like somewhere, somehow, my parents have likely shared a few laughs about the task they left behind, and I can hear Mom saying “it’s payback for all of those times you didn’t put away your laundry when I asked.” In all fairness, she’d be fully justified in saying that, too.
This last weekend, I finished the job.
Most of the rooms are now empty, and what’s left has been set out to display for others to come see if there is anything they could use or would like to have. I’ve heard lots of well wishes through this project, too, with lots of people mentioning how difficult they know this process has been, and in some ways they're right, but it's not been because of all the things inside the house.
I’ve laid my hands on countless items over the last few months that bring back certain memories, and surprisingly, letting go of it hasn’t really bothered me. If anything, it’s taught me how little the “stuff” matters because no matter how much or how little you have, one of these days, someone is going to be going through it because you can’t leave this world with it. Instead of the stuff, it’s been seeing the rooms empty that has hurt so much.
25 years. That’s how long this sweet little house in the middle of the Tennessee country has been where I call home, and as I stood inside its bare walls, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the purposes it served during my life—back to when we were once a family of six living in 3 bedrooms and 1,500 square feet.
As I stood in the kitchen, I remembered how, when we were little, Dad would serve chocolate chip pancakes every Sunday morning before worship services. I stood in the room I shared with my sister and remembered how much I couldn’t stand the Boys to Men song she had recorded on a cassette tape. If I asked her how she felt about sharing a room with her little sister, I’m sure she’d have similar thoughts. That room became mine when my other sister moved to college and then my brother’s when I got to move to the big room.
I remembered the brown shag carpet that covered all the floors when we first moved in and all the transformations that took place between then and the pretty little farmhouse it’s become. As I was sorting through the things in the barn, I remembered when we got a couple of baby goats who were still on the bottle. I say “who” intentionally; they were treated like people. We had several dogs, too: Lucy & Ethel, our Beagle sisters we got when I was in elementary school, and Ace, the dog I brought home from a high school baseball game while also promising Mom I’d find him a home. Little did she know I didn’t mean another home. Ha! He was Dad’s favorite buddy, and Ace lived until just a month before Mom got sick.
When I left for college, the house was the place I’d return to when I needed a good home-cooked meal, courtesy of my mama, and every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d take off a few extra days so I could spend several curled up on the couch watching Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel, just to hear my Dad say “well, I already know how this one is going to end” just a couple minutes into the movie.
I loved my home. I loved everything about it. It wasn’t fancy. We weren’t wealthy, and we spent every holiday packed fairly tight in that house after my siblings began getting married and having children. But, every single one of those 25 years I was blessed to call that house my home—every one of them gave me more good memories to hold on to than many receive in a lifetime.
As I was making one last walk through the house, it hit me; that’s what hospitality is all about. It has absolutely nothing to do with the stuff in the rooms or even the house itself. It’s about the people. The ministry that can be accomplished inside of a home. The memories that can be created by something as simple as annoying Boys to Men music or chocolate chip pancakes on a Sunday morning. It’s the stories told. The insane amount of laughter experienced when 5 kids, 4 spouses, and 7 grandchildren tuck themselves inside for a holiday weekend full of games and movies on the Hallmark channel. It’s the thousands of meals we shared as a family along with the meals my mom cooked for those in need. It’s the hardships we overcame…together.
And when there’s a sudden loss of “Mom,” it’s the togetherness that continues to make sure "Dad" is taken care of. It’s the moving forward with loss while counting every blessing in the time still spent surrounded by those you love. It’s being able to stop for a milkshake on the way to put new flowers on a loved one’s grave because with hospitality, sometimes grief and joy must come together for a purpose. It’s the years served as the place of rest for the kid in high school who might bring home lots of smelly “strays” after soccer practice and that same place of rest for the child who’s off to college.
And when someone is living in their final days, hospitality is spending every morning surrounded by your siblings during breakfast like my sweet dad got to have with all of my aunts and uncles. It’s spending the last 24 hours of life like my dad did: live-streaming the homecoming service while worshipping and taking communion with your children.
That’s hospitality. Every bit of that is hospitality, and I felt every one of those moments as I walked out of my childhood home the weekend before last. It might sit nearly empty now, but it was never about the things inside in the first place. It was about the people—and the memories, and that’s not anything I could ever lose.
As you live through the days and feel like life is nothing but a list of ordinary routines, please hear me when I say what you’re doing matters. It matters greatly, and it will continue to matter long after you are no longer here. It doesn’t have to carry an expensive price tag to be considered hospitality. It doesn’t have to have any monetary value at all.
Memories are priceless.