A Profile of Character: The Unseen Acts of Service from My 72-Year-Old Mom

"It will only take a minute," she remarked before offering a litany of reasons why she should go, why she could go. Why it would be okay to go. We stood together in one of several patient rooms inside the ICU, tucked into the interior burrow of the hospital. The lack of an outside window exacerbated the stale white walls and the artificial glow of florescent bulbs. The lack of natural light, confused day from night and night from reality.

My father lay on the bed before us, in and out of a murky mix of awareness and sleep. Rousing, stirring, a day in and day out cycle of varying states of awareness all blending and blurring into one never-quite-defined continuous existence. He would lay there for 14 days, becoming increasingly unsettled, uncomfortable; before causes that baffled teams of doctors would ultimately, eventually, and always far too soon, take his final breath. Deep within our subconsciousness we knew the possibility. One always senses the nearness of death in the staleness of hospital corridors. Perhaps we even knew it was to be our reality this time, though one rarely vocalizes that sentiment for fear it will dampen the perception of hope and faith.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said softly as she prepared to go. She gathered her things – an assuming jacket, a practical handbag she’d likely had for years. I took the opportunity to stress again that she didn’t need to go. The uncertainty and anxiety of the situation that was our life at that moment bred discontent and momentary impulsive aggravation. Someone else could go. She was always going somewhere to help someone, ten thousand unseen acts of service and this time, with my father, her husband of almost 45 years, lying there before us, someone else could go. But she was asked, and had committed, and so she went. It was a simple request really. A ride for someone in need. Not a lifelong friend. Not a neighbor. It was someone she barely knew. Ten thousand acts of selfless service to thousands of people she barely knows. A simple ride someone else could have given in this moment. She could find someone else. They could find someone else. Someone else could help. They would understand. Was my mother herself not now in need and yet still she goes to help others? But the weight of my logic, my emotion in that moment, never dissuades her from helping those in need. Someone needed help, and so she gave no heed to her own needs. She gave no heed to heartache and anxiety and stress. She simply went and quietly, always quietly, performed the simple sacrifices that place others before herself.

On another occasion a neighbor returns home from a long day at work. She remarks hurriedly that she had asked her husband to mow the lawn while she was away and he hadn’t gotten to it as she surveys the still uncut grass. But it would not prove to be apathy or dilatoriness that led to his inaction. A massive heartache in their home had taken his life in the hours between her departure and return from work. The neighbor would eventually leave that evening to stay with nearby friends for the night. The next morning, without appeal or application, without fanfare or hype, my mother would mow the neighbor’s lawn before her return. My 72 year-old mother pushing a lawnmower that it might lighten in the smallest ways the burden of loss.

And still there would be more service to render. There was blood from the fall that hadn’t been cleaned. Quietly, selflessly, faithfully, on her hands and knees my 72 year-old mother would take a cloth and a bucket of water and clean so a grieving and addled wife wouldn’t have to.

The vividness of this moment, the sting it leaves on my heart, leaves me amazed at the depths of her humility and dedication to others. Here is a woman, who has suffered acutely from arthritis over long periods, on her hands and knees in the service of others. With each pass of her cloth across the hard grey cement does she not feel the pain and discomfort in her knees and hands? In this private moment does she not wince in agony as the physical limitations of her body stab at her? This woman has worn herself out in the service of others, and here we find her on her hands and knees.

For my mother, service is not boxes to be checked. While we might say, “we’ve done enough,” for her “enough” doesn’t exist because there is always service to render. Her life has been a constant and continuous outpouring of selfless service. Of quiet acts. Of doing and going before one can be recognized or thanked or cast into the limelight. Her’s is a life filled with unsimple acts done simply.

If I have done anything good in this life, if I possess any remotely redeeming feature or characteristic, it is completely attributable to my mother and the example she constantly provides. I aspire to be like her. To service continuously. To do so quietly. To quickly and constantly, invariably and unmovingly, serve has she has. Without hesitation, without consideration for herself.