The people in front of us scooted over in the handicapped pew in Mass this morning to make room for a tiny, stooped, elderly woman with a walker. Her daughter guided her carefully to the front of the church and moved the walker out of the way. The people in the pew started to move down further so that she could sit when she turned to leave.
The Mother’s arthritic hand fluttered outward in the direction of her middle-aged child, and her faint whisper of a voice said, “Please stay with me.”
I closed my eyes and silently begged the daughter to give in, instead, with and exasperated sigh she hissed, “No. I’m not staying. I’ll be back in an hour to get you. You’re fine.” She spun quickly and determinedly walked to the nearest exit.
Her mother had no idea she’d gone. She reached again in the direction where her daughter had last been, and softly pleaded, “Please?” When she realized that she had been left, she reached up and, with her fingertips, gently stroked along the contours of her face. Tears misted across her sightless eyes as she reached forward to find where her walker had been placed.
I leaned forward and asked her, “Do you need help?” When she didn’t respond, I repeated myself a little more loudly, and then asked a third time louder still. At last she heard me.
She half-turned in my direction and stated matter-of-factly, “I can’t find my walker. I think it got misplaced.”
It was inches beyond where she had been reaching.
Blind, nearly-deaf, and very nearly unable to walk; she sat alone at the end of her pew, standing or kneeling whenever she sensed movement in the Sanctuary. She knew the Mass by rote memory, and was following along as best she was able. The woman beside her raised and lowered the kneeler, and I reached out gently to let her know she should sit when she stood by mistake.
When it came time for Communion, she knelt down and placed her hands in front of her in anticipation of the Eucharist. She waited patiently, but when the usher approached her, he was asking her to sit down and let the other people out rather than bringing her the Host. “Why should I sit?” She asked in confusion. “I’ve never taken Communion sitting down. I’ve always knelt.” But by then the usher was gone, and there was no one to answer her.
It was absolutely heartbreaking.
She dabbed at her eyes with her fingertips, and I sat sobbing immediately behind her. I reached out instinctively to touch her shoulder and offer what comfort I could, but she flinched away in confusion. It was emotionally devastating to behold.
I fought with myself to not judge her daughter. I don’t know them or their circumstances. This may be the daughter’s only free hour of the week. She had left her mother in a place where she knew she would be safe, and was taking a much-needed breather. Maybe she was an atheist or a Protestant, and found the idea of Mass personally off-putting, but had found the strength and Grace to make sure that her mother attended anyway. I thought of a dozen reasons and more of why she might have left her alone this morning, and more. The reaction of the people around her showed that this was something they were used to seeing.
And that made it so much worse.
I glanced down our row at the six children we still have living at home, and I silently begged them “Please, don’t ever leave me this way. Please don’t leave me blind, deaf, crippled, and confused sitting alone and helpless at the end of a pew. Please remember the woman I am now, giving my youth and my strength to you as my gift. Please remember the woman who chased monsters from under your bed, and held you for hours when you were ill. Remember the mother who baked cookies, and tickled you until you were breathless. Remember the safety of curling up within the safety of my arms. Please don’t forget how I loved you with all of being – madly and wildly.”
“Please, whatever you do, don’t leave me trapped and alone in the silent darkness wondering where and why you have gone.”
And I began to think then, of my own mother, and how I am teaching my children by example. Every time that I sigh and roll my eyes because she’s calling on the phone to clarify something for the hundredth time. The way I allow myself to be frustrated with her slow and awkward gait instead of walking slowly and patiently beside her. That I sometimes wish we could have holidays with just us, enjoying the quiet routine of our everyday lives.
Every time that I have abandoned her just as the daughter in Mass did this morning.
Each and every one of those times, there is a child nearby who is listening and learning from my example. Learning how they will someday treat me. And it was crushing to realize that all the things I hope for, I do not do myself.
Somehow I’ve allowed myself to stop seeing my mother, and see instead only the old woman she has become.
I’ve somehow forgotten the way she would swing on the swing beside mine for hours, the two of us scream-singing Shirley Temple songs to the clear summer sky. I forgot the curve of her body, and how I would curl into on late nights after having a nightmare, finding safety in her embrace. The girlish-ghoulish grin on her face as she told campfire ghost stories with a flashlight held under chin. The young, strong woman who would grab tightly onto my hands and spin us both until my feet lifted from the floor and I felt as if I could fly.
She was young once too, and gave herself over to the raising of my brothers and me. She had dreams that she set aside or delayed because we were her whole world, just as she was, for many years, our whole world. Selfless and thankless. And I have repaid her by pushing her out to the periphery of our busy lives when she should be in the middle of it.
I called her on our way home and invited her down in August to celebrate our son’s 14th birthday with us, and I offered to help her set up a Skype account. She may not live nearby, but that’s no reason for her to not be an integral part of our lives.
Because she deserves to be.