I am almost finished doing the Christmas pastoral care visits for our church. My dad got here last Thursday and Maria came in last night. My most serious foray into Christmas shopping happened night before last, on my way home, when I stopped at the Dollar store on one of the back roads I use sometimes. I needed to pick up a couple of decorations because it was time for Olaf the pesky elf to get Maria’s room ready for her visit. What Christmas means keeps changing for me and I find myself moving further out to the edges of the celebration.
My dad is more fragile and his situation more precarious. We are making some hard, serious decisions, consulting with immigration lawyers and thanking our lucky stars that if our big rambling farm has anything, it has space.
I am pondering the truth that from the very beginning of our marriage, Sherod and I have found ourselves called to offer hospitality that is not about putting on a lovely gracious dinner with all the finery on display and a delicious meal waiting to be served, and then closing the door and breathing a sigh of relief that our guests have gone home. I retraced our steps in my mind this morning: 6 weeks after we married, we received Sherod’s 14-year-old daughter into our home. There were hard parenting lessons to learn with her. When she moved out after high school, I remember cleaning out her room in Memphis and unexpectedly finding a dress she had left. I slumped down the closet wall and wept. No matter how hard, it was good love.
A few years later, it was time to make room for Maria. We are still making room. There’s the wonder of Christmas through eyes that have not and will probably never stop seeing magic and silly elves who make mischief. There’s the need to match our pace to the effects of so many medications she’s on. We calibrate day to day, and in the first days after she arrives for a visit, hour by hour.
Now my dad. Who does not like hearing aids though he needs them so it feels loud in my house a lot. With him too, there will be much to learn. Unlike with my mom, whose decline I saw only in fits and starts, and then those last two intense weeks before her death, it looks like I, and Sherod, will walk alongside him for the rest of the way, whatever that way may be. I am both thankful and scared. We are up to 14 funerals at Ascension since September 1, and I had two funerals in the past 72 hours. Dying and death, filled with grace as they can be, nonetheless hurt.
I go back to my old standbys, including Eliot’s The Magi, and how in these middle years, where death ends and birth begins is almost indecipherable. I love a good party and some of the parties that we have had in our home through the years have been epic. There was one involving the moon and the Jungle Queen that can still make me grin. But the hospitality I have learned as an adult asks me to open room in the inn for a tired person, or two, or three, who need care, do not bring distraction and don’t want to be impressed but simply loved.
And so out in our farm, we start anew making room for one more. I thank God for knowing now, that hay does smell sweet. That the animals will provide comfort and warmth, especially to an old man whose hands are always cold now. I am grateful for fresh eggs and a husband who reaches out early on a winter morning and holds my hand in the dark as we prepare to tend to our guests.