I have been thinking a lot about this blog post for the last few weeks. How best to thoughtfully write and share it, and also what the message of this post is really all about in the end. Thankfully, heading to dinner on a busy city street last night, we walked past a construction site with some graffiti spray-painted on a makeshift plywood wall. And like a gift from Heaven, I knew the answer was right in front of me.
I flew here to New York City yesterday to do some press for my new book Once Upon A Farm which comes out in stores this morning (I’m also going to be sharing a few songs and stories at the new Opry City Stage in Times Square this evening). I’m excited and thankful that release day for my new book is finally here. Partly because it has been finished and in the works for some time, but even more so because there are some parts of our story that I’ve been wanting to share for a good while, but haven’t had the chance to until now. This book gives me the opportunity to not only tell those stories, but also to try to give them some context.
When I first started working on the book, I knew it was not only going to be filled with stories about our life and the journey we’ve been on like my first book This Life I Live was, but this one would also include the lessons I’ve learned along the way, and the ones I’m learning still. I was most of the way through the writing of the book when the chapter that I’m gonna share with you below showed up. Writing it was fairly easy, it was the living of it first that was considerably tougher. I wrote the chapter sitting in the old recliner in my and Joey’s bedroom in an hour or so, but it took me almost a year and a half to live it out and to have some perspective on it, before I ever typed a word. The moment that chapter was complete I had a feeling that it was going to be what the book was about. Actually, it’s not. It’s only a small story in a book of many stories that I’ve worked hard to take the time to recall, capture and share in print. But it’s the one that has, and probably will, garner the most attention. Mostly because the subject matter in the chapter is very complicated and more than a little controversial in today’s world.
A short time later, when I turned the completed book into my publisher... like mine, their first reaction to the chapter was less than ideal. But they and I believed that keeping it in the book was not only okay and the right thing to do, it was potentially important. Not just to my family, but to other families out there who might somehow find a blessing in us sharing what we’re learning as we work through a challenging topic.
As I mentioned, the book comes out in stores today, but it doesn’t come out “in stores everywhere” like my first book did. This time, even though I’m still a fairly conservative Christian man sharing my story of love, life, and hope as it unfolds, this book isn’t available in most Christian bookstores. My guess is, it’s because of the same challenging chapter in it. The chapter about my middle daughter Hopie. About change. And about faith. And ultimately about love.
In a different chapter of the new book, I share the story of how my oldest daughter Heidi says she’s an atheist and has no interest in organized religion. For some reason, they are fine with that. But the chapter about how my middle daughter Hopie says she’s a Christian, but disagrees with some church doctrine, is somehow unacceptable. That seems so strange to me.
I get it though, this is tough stuff... because they have their beliefs and want to stand by them. And I want to honor that. But honestly, what is it that they would prefer I do? Shun my daughter? Or not share something that we as a family are going through, just because it’s challenging and divisive?
As you will find, if you have time to read the chapter below, or are able to pick up the book and read the whole thing... I don’t have any answers to the hard questions in life. I’m clearly not a Biblical scholar and have no assumptions about what might be right or wrong for anyone except for myself. I am just a father, trying to love his kids. All of them. Trying to be more than I’ve been, so that one day my children might be encouraged to be more than what others might say or think they are too.
The truth is, loving my wife Joey was fairly easy. Being part of that love story wasn’t actually that much of a challenge. Because she was so amazing and everything about our faith and choices aligned just perfectly. This new chapter though – not just in the book, but in my life – has been a bit more challenging for my heart and my character. I’ve still got a long way to grow, but I believe that I’m getting there. And I can’t help but think, in the end… how can we lose if we choose love?
Chapter 3: “A BIGGER LOVE”
… love is bigger than fear.
“It was a day or two after we buried Joey. And I was sitting at the kitchen table with our middle daughter Hopie. She was twenty-seven years old at the time with beautiful brown hair and soft green eyes. She’d been taking care of our farm for the last six months or so while we had been gone. While we’d been at hospitals in Chicago and Atlanta for cancer treatment and then in Indiana when the treatments had stopped working.
Hopie had made trips to Indiana every chance she could, for as long as she could, to be with Joey. Some trips she made with Heidi, and some alone, by herself. Once she stayed for a month. Helping with Indiana. Helping with Joey.
But that was in the past now, and we were all at home, back in the farmhouse in Tennessee. Everyone except Joey. Through the kitchen window, I could see the field and the cemetery where her wooden cross stood.
“Is there anything you want to tell me?” I asked. Hopie was sitting in the seat at the table where her mother always sat. To the right of mine. The kitchen, just like the house, was clean, and fresh flowers were on the table. All Hopie’s doing. She wanted things to be just right when we got home.
“No,” she answered. Her smile as big and kind as ever.
Hopie has a special gene in her that the rest of us weren’t given. She is filled with joy all the time. Even when she is upset or heartbroken or scared . . . she radiates joy like no one I’ve ever known. From the time she was little, Hopie would brighten every room she walked into. Always rooting for the underdog and the misunderstood, she loved everyone the same, no matter who you were or where you were from.
In my first book, I talked about how strong she is. How much weight she carries on her shoulders without anyone ever knowing and how she keeps her feelings inside. So deep that at times even she doesn’t know what she’s feeling or how to respond. Without me knowing it, that weight was about to come crashing down along with a bunch of feelings that I never even knew were there.
“Are you sure?” I asked again. Her right leg crossed over her left, nervously wiggling back and forth (a Feek habit all of us have).
“What are you asking for, Dad?” she answered, her smile only slightly fading.
“The truth, Hopie,” I said. “Just tell me.”
Her eyes started getting red, and tears started to fall. A big, big deal for Hopie, who almost never cries. Her hands were shaking now, and a lifetime of secrets were upon her.
“You won’t understand,” she answered through her tears. “You’ll judge me.”
“Just tell me, Hopie,” I said again. “It’s okay.” And she did.
She told me that her friend Wendy is more than just her friend. And that they had been dating for almost a year. And she was in love. I’m not sure what I was expecting her to say, but I wasn’t expecting that. A tear started to fall from my eye now.
“See, you’re judging me,” she said. And without even knowing I was,
I was. She could see it on my face, see it in my eyes. “I wasn’t gonna tell you right now,” she said, “you’ve been through so much.” Immediately turning her pain into compassion for me and for Joey.
What happened next, I’m not really sure. We talked. We talked for a long time. I said some things I shouldn’t have said. Reacting. Trying not to react. The worst of it all, though, was my first reaction. My gut feelings down deep inside. Didn’t she understand that I had a two-year-old baby, for God’s sake, and I had just spent the drive home from Indiana and the last five months before that thinking about how I was going to need to protect the baby now more than ever? From hurt. From pain. From sin.
My conservative Christian faith was the first part of me to judge Hopie. To want to push her away. To withhold love from her. And she could feel it. See it in my eyes. And in that moment we had a conversation without any words.
Am I still going to get to be..., her eyes asked, around my baby sister? It’s the question that she was probably the most worried about. That, and Will you... still love me?
My eyes were hardening around the edges, just like my heart.
Probably not, they said, as I looked away. More ashamed of what I was thinking than of what she had shared with me.
A few minutes later she went her way, and I went mine. I was shocked, and then again I wasn’t. I had a dream in Indiana. A dream about this. Or something close to it. And I had called Heidi and asked her about it. And being the big sister she is, she said I didn’t have anything to worry about. Looking back now, I see she was protecting Hopie. And me. Hopie because this is not how I needed to find out about something so important. And me because I had enough on my plate to worry about at that moment. That was in the last two weeks before Joey passed away and our hearts and minds were working full-time just to process all that was happening there, let alone what might be happening somewhere back at home.
I put it out of my mind. Sort of. I returned to Joey’s side and pretty much stayed there until the drive home two weeks later and the following funeral here at the farm. But it had stayed with me. In the back of my mind. While I held Joey’s hand and she took her last breath, and it followed us home in the truck that night when we made the long, cold drive from Indiana to Tennessee.
And here we were. And there it was. The truth.
The truth that she could not... that she would not... tell her mother. No matter what. Hopie wouldn’t hurt or scare her, and it would’ve been a lot for Joey to process there at the end. It would’ve been tough on her anytime, but in those last months and weeks, it probably would’ve been especially hard.
And so Hopie kept the truth to herself, just like she always had. Sometime during that time at the kitchen table, she told me about how she and Wendy had met and how there had been other girls. Other relationships. But she never told Joey and me. Instead, she went along with us rooting for her to marry our friend’s older brother or date some guy that she and we knew wasn’t right for her, for different reasons.
I can honestly say that in all those years before this, it had never occurred to us. To Joey and me. Not really. That doesn’t mean we didn’t think about all the possibilities of why Hopie was so awkward around boys when she was younger and was awkward still even in her twenties. But we never seriously gave it a moment of thought. We just kept praying that God would send her the right man, someone who would treat her well and love her for who she is.
And He did. Only it wasn’t a man. It’s Wendy.
On our anniversary this year, Hopie called me. I was pulling into a restaurant to have breakfast with two of my buddies after dropping off Indy at school, and my cell phone rang.
“Hold on, guys, it’s Hopie... she’s calling to wish me a happy anniversary,” I told them. And she was. And she wasn’t.
“Guess what?” she said with so much excitement in her voice she sounded like she was in the car with me. “Wendy asked me to marry her...”
No, actually there wasn’t silence. I loved her too much to do that to her.
“Congratulations, honey!” I said. “I’m so happy for you.” And the truth is, I was. And I am still.
A lot has happened in the year and a half between those conversations.
There’s been some growth and some aha moments. Mostly on my end. We’ve had some hard conversations. A dinner once, where I asked Wendy about her past and what her plans were for the future. I fired questions at her for an hour, and she answered each one honestly and sincerely.
“I love your daughter,” she said. And she did. I could see it in her eyes. And she is a good person. No, she’s a great person. She’s not kind and good just to Hopie, she’s that way with everyone. And theirs is, strangely, a normal relationship. Hopie is the emotionally secure one in the relationship, and she encourages Wendy not to hold things in and to get out of her comfort zone. Wendy encourages Hopie to be more than she thinks she is. To be all that God made her to be.
Hopie is a Christian. She loves God and wants to honor Him. The same way she wants to honor Joey and me. But if you ask her about the rules of the church and their stance on people who are gay or lesbian, she will be quick to tell you, she doesn’t agree. Just like she’d be the first person to stand up for a little girl with Down syndrome when other kids try to tell her she’s less than they are.
Hopie has made me rethink everything I’ve ever thought when it comes to some things. And in other ways I’m still right where I always was. First off, I’m not the judge. That is not my job. I’m Hopie’s father. My job is to love her. She gets to make her decisions in life. All of them. I can approve or disapprove, but it’s her life, and she has a right to live it as she chooses.
And as far as the church goes, I am not the judge there either. My faith says that it’s wrong. That it’s wrong for me. And so I will live my life trying to live what I believe. But Hopie’s faith is her faith. It is between her and God and no one else. You and I can try to judge her and condemn her or anyone else, but, honestly, we don’t have any right to cast the first stone. At least, I don’t. Not with all the stones I’ve thrown in my life.
And so we are going to have a wedding here at the farm. Around Halloween is what I hear. And I’m going to be excited about it. It will be a special day for someone who is special to me and her someone special. That is all I need to know.
I choose to love her. To love them. Period. End of story.
Lastly, I’d like to share one more thing. A week or so ago, the nice folks from CBS Sunday Morning came to the farm and did a story about me, and our family, finding our way forward since Joey’s been gone. It aired on Father’s Day. I’m proud of my girls for sitting down at the table and sharing their hearts, not just in front of the camera, but also with me on a daily basis. And for understanding when it takes me a little time to understand where they’re coming from.