For five years, she washed my mother’s feet. Every day.
She washed her feet, her legs and arms, changed her sheets and her dressings. Fed her, read to her, prayed the rosary with her each night. When my mother could no longer walk or talk or even recognize her, the woman continued to wash her feet.
Her own story is enough to take the breath away. She was the wife of a successful contractor, with three healthy children, a lovely home. A gregarious woman, a fabulous cook and hostess, once the kids were in high school and moving into their own lives, she took up real estate sales.
Then her oldest son went in for a routine doctor’s visit. A heart condition. The doctors went in to perform a routine valve surgery. Her boy died on the operating table, at 19. The worst event a mother can imagine, the death that Mary had endured, found her.
The once joyful kitchen fell silent. The garden grew fallow.
When she emerged from her grief, she was a changed woman. The only work that made sense to her, the only thing that gave her a reason to live, other than her surviving children and her husband, was to be with the dying.
She commenced a life of prayer and tireless service. Still the same gregarious woman, a lover of flowers and holidays, she drove dozens of turkeys and Easter baskets to her inner-city church, bought X-Boxes and high-end gifts for needy children, cooked up oceans of tomato sauce from her revived garden.
And she washed my mother’s feet.
“Love one another as I have loved you,” John tells us that Jesus said.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter Triduum.
Until I watched this woman perform the same acts of love on my mother — with patience, kindness, dignity — I did not truly understand this commandment.
Tonight, Christians everywhere enter the time outside of time, the sacred journey of transformation, tracing Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus knew that we need to be reminded. If we lose the language of service, we let drop the thread of compassion by which we weave one another into the communion we call Christ.
Soon I will enter my church, with its soft glowing tapers. I will eat at the table, the blessed bread and wine. Then slowly I, along with my fellow worshippers, will make my way up to the pared-down altar, remove my shoes, be given a towel, and kneel before a bowl of water. We will each take into our hands the feet of an acquaintance — and across the screen of our memories will flash the first time we washed an infant, or the glass from a cut, or the tears from a loved one’s eyes. The time a sad, lonely child was invited to join the team. The time the shy, underachiever was given a prize. The times, the many times, the woman washed my mother’s feet.
It is a small thing, really. But imagine kneeling down on a subway platform to tend to an old drunk who has fallen. Or stopping on snowy highway in rush hour traffic to help a lost soul who is wandering there, in danger of being killed. I am grateful to know by name people who have done just this.
Kindness and selfless service seem to demand of us these “times out of time,” when we can set down the dissonance of the daily and take up our inner lives with complete attention. I don’t know if the woman who washed my mother’s feet was a regular listener of NPR or reader of The New York Times. I don’t think she kept avid track of unfolding world events. But she knew where to find a physical therapist in a flash, how to outfit a bathroom for wheelchairs, how to talk a raving, panicked woman out of the parking lot and back into her apartment in the middle of the night, how to help a family come together around the shattering that dementia can cause.
She wasn’t a martyr. She got her hair done. She loved jewelry and manicures. But she knew from her own loss that the life in time is held — at its best, closely, lovingly — within something much larger, and that we reach that larger place through the language of service.
Very soon, the altar will be stripped bare, the candles will be extinguished, and we will sit in darkness. In silence, the clergy will depart the chancel. And we will be alone, the way we are alone in the first hours and days of a loved one’s death.
As I step back out into the world in time — dark, outside and within — what I will call to mind will be her, washing my mother’s feet.