She was looking at her fingers.
I was zeroed in on my laptop with my own fingers flying over the keys typing an email when I glanced over at my mom sitting next to me on the couch. Her hands. She stretched her fingers out turning them over and back again and again periodically wincing at both the pain and sight. She looked at me and said softly in Korean, “They look strange, don’t they?”
Mild arthritis has started to bend her fingers with joints and knuckles swollen and angled in unnatural ways. And looking at them tonight I felt my heart soften towards her. A rare moment.
I’m normally a complete brat towards her, and when she’s been with us for any amount of time long enough for us to fall into familiar family dynamics and roles, I turn into … Well, I might as well say it. A bitch. A complete, bonafide, grade-A bitch. I can’t help it. I’m impatient and easily frustrated with her. The nagging. The questions. The over-reactions. The way she is seemingly ubiquitous and always in the way of the fridge, bathroom, or my favorite spot on the couch. I can tell the husband is embarrassed by my sudden reversion back to obnoxious adolescence.
She’s been with us now for the last two weeks because of the early arrival of baby #3 by unplanned c-section. Remembering the difficult recovery – particularly those first few weeks – with the twins two years ago she insisted on coming down early. And I couldn’t say no, in fact, I would be stupid to be less than eager to have her help. She’s still relatively young at 58, and has the energy of a spring chicken the way she frantically races around the house attempting too many chores at once. But once she arrives and the days go by I start to get annoyed. I can’t help it.
No human relation gives one possession in another – every two souls are absolutely different. In friendship or in love, the two side by side raise hands together to find what one cannot reach alone.” ― Kahlil Gibran
Tonight, though, as I look at her fingers I think about all that those hands have done not only these last two weeks but my and her entire life. When she was young her family ran a hotel in Seoul, and she cleaned and helped maintain it. When we immigrated to the US she joined a group of the ladies from the church and sought employment at an electronic manufacturing company soldering tiny little wires and bits together on an assembly line. And then it was work at a dry cleaners. And then more cleaning gigs. And the ministry of the Deacons at the church. And eventually becoming a pastor’s wife – probably one of the hardest, most high pressure jobs for a Korean woman. Hours of painstaking work cleaning and cooking and then rubbing my feet after they swelled up like doughy pillows with the twins’ arrival. All that work both small and big done by those hands over the last many decades.
So I look at her hands again, crooked in almost impossible ways, and I think that they are actually the most beautiful fingers I’ve ever laid eyes on. I remember what she once told me – that everyone has some struggle, and everyone needs and deserve some tenderness. Of course, it’s ironic that I would not recall this sage advice in my interactions with her, but seeing her worn hands, and the way they softly rub Baby #3’s back, I am actually leveled – surprisingly, not by guilt as I maybe would expect – but by gratitude and compassion. I am who I am because of her hands.
It conjures up the first time I served communion to the mother of an older woman, “Barbara,” in my congregation. Barbara had invited both myself and the senior pastor over to her home to break bread one last time as her mother’s health was declining, and she was clearly not long for this world. I watched her take a piece of bread in one hand after the words of institution, and bend her head near her mother’s ear saying, “Mom, Mom. Here’s the bread.” Barbara put it on her mother’s slightly outstretched tongue. And then with the small plastic cup, “Mom, Mom. Here’s the juice.” And she stuck her pinky in there a few times and dabbed her mother’s tongue with it. And watching it, I lost all sense of professionalism and wept quietly. My mind flashed forward to the future, and what it would be like to do this with my mother, to care for her in this way, a tiny glimmering of the way she sacrificed her own flesh and blood for me over and over, an ordinary, but exquisite, and oh-so-undeniably true image of this holy sacrament.
I’m still always surprised…how much marriage, and then especially parenthood has made me see these truths a little more clearly. I never expected these seasons to really have such a huge impact on shaping my outside relationships. The dynamics between parents and children run such a wide spectrum, and I am totally aware that I am one of the fortunate ones with a decent, if not really comfortable relationship with my folks, especially by Korean standards. But, I admit, that I don’t act like I know it. I’m more inclined to be indignant – actually, full of road-rage and unnecessary curses – towards daily little impositions, those interruptions, and those who I feel like have wronged me or simply got under my skin. But, after the birth of #3 – the incredible and lovely gift of this one – and then watching my mom handle me with care, and care for my children – I’m feeling more convicted by how important it is to enter into every moment with that same tenderness shown to me by my mother, that same gratitude and compassion. Everyone has some struggle, and everyone needs some…grace. And those that may need it the most are possibly the ones that are the nearest. This kingdom-compassion isn’t only for the strangers but so for the ones who are invisible and taken for granted in other ways. God, help me to see and feel this and to love better.
“…now that I am a mother, I understand what Mother’s Day is about: it’s about looking through our lives and recognizing the act of mothering everywhere we see it, and more than that, recognizing that when any of us mother– when we listen, nuture, nourish, protect–we’re doing sacred work.” ― Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way