I ran into an old friend last week. We talked for several hours. It brought back so many incredible memories for both of us. She had recently lost her adult son to cancer and was afraid that she was about to lose her adult daughter to a serious surgical procedure. The doctors put the daughter’s odds of survival at “7 in 10” chances.
My children are grown and out of the house into successful careers of their own. They’re incredible people and I couldn’t be prouder of them. The mere thought of either of them dying before I do, sends horrible chills down my spine. Both of them dying before me is simply too much for me to think about.
Sometimes, when people we care about are hurting, the only thing we can do is simply help them to cry. There is no consolation for a mother who has lost a son to cancer—even an adult son. And, how horrible and helpless she must feel at the prospect of losing her daughter—even an adult daughter.
When my children reached their teens, there were times when I felt like a second-class citizen. At times, I didn’t even think my children knew I was around for anything other than paying the bills and getting them to their appointed places on time.
I was in a real funk one week-end and a woman friend of mine—she was a nun (Sisters of St. Joseph) at the time, handed me a written piece titled, I’m Invisible.
I don’t know who wrote it, but I’m sharing it with all of you. Here it is in its entirety. Even though it was written for moms, I think it an appropriate piece for loving dads, also!
It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I'm on the phone and ask to be taken to the store.
Inside I'm thinking, “Can't you see I'm on the phone?” Obviously not. No one can see if I'm on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I'm invisible.
Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I'm not a pair of hands; I'm not even a human being. I'm a clock to ask, “What time is it?” I'm a satellite guide to answer, “What number is the Disney Channel?” I'm a car to order, “Right around 5:30, please.”
I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated summa cum laude—but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again.
She's going … she's going … she's gone!
One night, a group of us was having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in.
I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself as I looked down at my out-of-style dress; it was the only thing I could find that was clean. My unwashed hair was pulled up in a banana clip and I was afraid I could actually smell peanut butter in it.
I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, “I brought you this.” It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe.
I wasn't exactly sure why she'd given it to me until I read her inscription:”To Charlotte, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.”
In the days ahead I would read—no, devour—the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing truths, after which I could pattern my work:
· No one can say who built the great cathedrals—we have no record of their names.
· These builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished.
· They made great sacrifices and expected no credit.
· The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.
A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam.
He was puzzled and asked the man, “Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it.”
And, the workman replied, “Because God sees.”
I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, “I see you, Charlotte. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does.
No act of kindness you've done, no sequin you've sewn on, no cupcake you've baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can't see right now what it will become.”
At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.
I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on.
The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.
When I really think about it, I don't want my son to tell the friend he's bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, “My mom gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.”
That would mean I'd built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, “You're gonna love it there.”
As mothers, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we're doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.
I am their father, not their mother, but I love my children with every bit of the same fervor…more than my own life. I would spare no amount of effort to make sure they remain healthy and outlive me.
I didn’t build these two cathedrals singlehandedly, but I was a working partner in their construction. They have turned out to be fantastic people. To me they are my emissaries to a time I will not see.
Even though my friend knows that I’m here for her, I know that all I can do is put my arms around her and help her to cry.
But, here’s the REAL tragedy. Whenever children precede their parents in death, it cancels out their emissary mission. And, there is no telling the potential loss to the human race.
Have a great week. I’ll be back next week. If I can remember to do it, I’ll tell you about that meeting I spoke of last week.
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.