All day yesterday she was on my mind. I kept wishing I could take her hand in mine for just a moment. When I last saw her, diminished as we all are by the starched white sheets and odd angles of a mechanized hospital bed, I was afraid to take her hand because it looked so small and frail. I didn't want to be there saying goodbye for the last time in a hospital room overlooking the flat roof of a parking garage, and I didn't want to leave.
We all knew then--we suspect Miss Anne had already sussed it before the CAT scans and the blood tests and Xrays told us that the cancer had already won the war for her life. Her family took her home for in home hospice--a modern day version of how we used to die if we had a choice, at home surrounded by our loved ones.
Home was important to Miss Anne--not that it was a castle or had all the latest gizmos or the newest colours on the wall or the biggest TV. Not that kind of home. A home where she made people genuinely welcome. Hospitality. It is a word like so many that has been jargonized. Hospitality
has become an industry--a commodity that can be produced and sold and enhanced and re-valued. But the simple virtue of being open to people cannot be commoditized and rebranded and repurposed.
To be accepting of oneself, and, thus, of others, is a great act of grace. There was a world of faith and love in a pot of Miss Anne's collard greens. She welcomed me into her home on nothing more than the fact that her daughter had befriended me. I stood awkwardly at first in her living room--neither of us knowing quite what to say or do but within minutes that unease had begun to be replaced by an understanding followed by a genuine affection.
I remember fondly the many meals around her table and I am pleased to say that at least once she came to my house. It was a stretch. In America there is a world of difference between neighbourhoods. It was easier for me to go into hers than for her to come to mine. I was honoured. I wish there could have been more times. But she reached out even when I was away. Once she believed me when I said how much I loved her greens, she never let me leave without a plate of greens and corn bread and whatever meat she had cooked. It was a pleasure beyond the food to come home late at night after a hard working day and see that plate in my fridge.
And she came to my wedding, which was even more of a stretch than my neighborhood on the north side of the city where we both lived. My wedding was in southern Indiana, which, for a black person, connotes more danger and exclusion than I even care to think about let alone to describe here. Suffice it to say, she came and I was very glad to see her.
Somewhere through the years--more than 10 now of knowing her and her family--I became her other daughter. We all had a laugh about it, which is often the way of dealing with serious matters; I was her Scottish daughter. Whatever else people may have thought of it did not matter. If Miss Anne welcomed me, then that was enough. Her hospitality came from a strength of character forged through hard times and faith in better ones.
She has passed along that strength to her children and grandchildren. Losing her is softened somewhat by the knowledge that her gifts will live on in her children and grandchildren. I am honoured that I have been able to be part of their family now for many years--and hope to continue it for many more. I have struggled since I came back to think how I would honour her memory. Beyond the cards and the flowers, my gift has to be something more enduring: I need to pick up the tradition of hospitality that she shared with me. Like all gifts of the spirit, it comes without a price but at a cost.
I described hospitality as a simple virtue. It is simple in its execution, but like so many vocations, it requires practice and effort. To be open to people is to be open to the injuries they inflict on our notions of ourselves--intentionally or inadvertently--as well as to their heartsickness and missteps. That will be the challenge for me, but anything less would not be enough to honour Miss Anne.