Fall and winter are my favorite times of the year. I am the person who shows up at the pumpkin fields before they have even started to harvest them and I climb to the top of the mountain each year to cut the tallest Christmas tree that my vehicle can hold. The change in weather definitely refuels me, helping me to see the lights that shine all around us. This season, in particular, we needed to see the lights. If you've ever been to Hospitality House, you might have noticed, just to the right of the front doors, a small garden area with plants, an angel with a broken wing and an iron bench. This is our memorial garden, a carved out space to remember and hold close the lives of those who left us too soon. Some of our residents have drifted away from or have been without family for years and some consider the people of this house their only family now. Some left this world without any means for a proper burial, so their ashes remain with us, in a place where people knew them, knew their names. Multiple times each year, our staff, those friends who live alongside and some caring community members would gather to honor a life by singing songs, telling stories, grieving together, and finally lighting a candle in memory. The year 2021 proved to be different. People often come to us in a fragile state. They have been living without much needed care for their physical health and mental wellbeing. For those seeking our help, these are vital services that Hospitality House provides. Still, the toil is great on the body, when you have gone without proper care for so long. This year we saw it more than ever. We thought it would be the coronavirus that took lives before we could get vaccinations in arms, but we were wrong. The losses began in the spring with six deaths from various medical and mental health issues. We struggled to keep up with the memorials, to take time to gather and remember each life, lighting a candle to show that their light was important to us all. There was little time to remember in the midst of active COVID outbreaks inside the building and the growing number of people living outside who also needed our care.
By the fall, yet another round of loss took place when a man in his mid 40’s, who had been chronically homeless for years, unexpectedly passed away. He came to us straight from major surgery, needing a place to recover. Under normal circumstances a patient like this would go to a rehab center to regain their physical strength and receive follow-up care. This is often not the case for people who are uninsured and do not have a home to go to following a major medical event or even a mental health breakdown.
Like so many others do, this man’s follow-up care would depend on our staff and volunteer medical provider. This man was resilient though, and with care and support, he recovered and began the steps to move into one of our permanent supportive apartments for people living with a disability. The week before he was due to move in, he began to have chest pains and was hospitalized again. This time, he never came home, he lost his battle to another heart attack.
I don’t often go into such detail about a client’s health, but I think it is important for us to remember how fragile life can be and how quickly that can change forever. In our work we see every day, that the choices, trauma and rough circumstances that people live in take a deep toll on their wellbeing.
As the season changed to winter, we realized that we had been so overwhelmed with the work and care that we had not been to the memorial garden in awhile. It had been three months and during that short time span, we had lost eleven more lives. So, we paused to honor the lives of those who left us too soon, with a memorial for those eleven people who we had cared for. Lighting a candle in the garden for each one, widening the circle around the angel with the broken wing, so that their lives were honored and recognized for the light they gave to all of us.
Sadly, this last week of the year, we have two more candles to light. This small symbol helps us remember that their lives were important. It is a reminder that we all have work to do, helping to improve the lives of others; hopefully enabling them to gain strength to live out longer days and giving them more time to shine their light.
Tina B. Krause
Hospitality House of Northwest N.C.