I do not know all the things she has suffered.
But when she comes to the door, looking empty, I think of something Mother Theresa once said about seeing Christ in His most distressing disguises. I look in her face, and I see Christ. And I wonder, Can she see Him now, as she looks in mine?
The first time I met her, she barely spoke a word of English, but her deep brown eyes danced with hope. She smiled, her face soul-beautiful, all light. Somehow, she had landed in big-hearted Texas, had been loved and established there, and this after escaping horror in the Congo, bringing her daughters halfway around the world on nothing but grace, running to save them from war and rape and suffering the likes of which most of us have never seen nor ever wish to know. Her cheeks are mottled, in some places blackened, and I don’t know why.
From Texas, she made her way here to join the growing community of her own people, people who speak her language, who know the reasons for her scars and her escape. Her daughters walk tall and lean, gorgeous and elegant, and the most I know is that she’s lived to save them.
It feels like we fill up her tiny home the minute we walk in. I had been told that she’d been surrounded, wrapped up, by her Congolese friends, that they kept vigil with her in accordance with their customs. But we arrive in the middle of the day, and the rows of black metal chairs filling the small space are empty. I feel the mourning shared here, as though it still sits in the chairs, still breathes.
I reach for her, wrapping my arms around her shoulders. ”I’m so sorry. So, so sorry.” There is nothing more to say.
Her eyes tell the story of deep grief, glistening teary, and she nods. The first time she spoke to us as sisters, sitting in a classroom with Bibles spread open on our laps, she wept. She worked to find words then, moving her hands, saying what she could, accent heavy. ”My mother…please…pray. Sick…very sick.” Tears rolled over her cheeks, and she wiped at them with the back of her hand, but she didn’t try to hide her pain.
“Her mother is still in the Congo,” another friend filled in, a sister of mine with a heart wide open, who had embraced and loved and established solid relationships with this mother and her girls from the first day God brought them among us. She continued, pulling tissues from her purse, pressing them in sister-hands, rubbing her other hand over our sister’s back. ”She has been sick and they worry that she’s not getting the care she needs.”
I did not know then that this poor woman, her mother, had suffered in war camps, that her body had already survived much more than perhaps it should have.
She takes the container of chili from Zoe’s hands, and we follow her past a few palettes of bottled water stacked at the entrance to the kitchen. Two people sit stoically against the back wall of the apartment, smiling faintly at us before returning to practiced and deliberate solemnity. Riley sits a bag on the only empty space on the small kitchen counter. The kitchen space is only big enough for two people standing tight, and we have to turn around to let our friend back out. Immediately, I wish to multiply what I’ve brought, that the bag and the container might not empty but always fill. It’s not enough, I keep thinking. It’s not enough.
I reach for her again, maybe a little too roughly, feeling as though we trample on the holy and sacred, as though our presence here is bulky. I do not want her to take care of us nor turn her attention toward our comfort, not even for a moment. I do not want to intrude any longer on her remembrance.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to her, “my heart hurts with you.”
“I know,” she says, looking deep, showing me all her empty.
A church in the Congo had paid to send her mother here, and since they did not want the older woman to travel alone, they had also paid for our friend’s daughter to escort her grandmother to this new home. The two women—one young, one old—had come home just over a week ago.
Our friend had not seen her mother for eighteen years—eighteen years of traveling, running, escaping, surviving. Eighteen years, and they had finally embraced, mother reunited with daughter, each understanding the pain and mother-love that had separated them for so long. I thought of Jacob coming at last to Joseph in Egypt, the lost son now nearly a king, wrapping arms around a grief-shrunken father, the two of them weeping openly “for a long time.” And then these the words of the father, “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive (Genesis 46:30).” I imagine this mother felt ready to die too, having at last seen her daughter and granddaughters still living, still breathing, still with hope.
For three, maybe four days, the mother and her mother slept in the same bed, arms holding, reaching. I think of how I used to crawl into my grandmother’s bed, rolling my body into hers. I think of how it feels when Mom and I are on a trip and we sleep side by side, how we pat each other in the middle of the night, aware and loving. And we don’t even know the ache of those years apart.
The older woman’s breath came too shallow. They noticed this the first night. She struggled, body weary. At last, they took her to the hospital, where doctors operated on her scarred heart. But it was not enough. Her mother left them just days after she’d come, just days after mother eyes fell again on daughter’s face.
“That house is sad,” Zoe says, as we close the door behind us and walk up narrow steps to our car. The rain falls, wetting our cheeks.
“Yes, it is.” I have no more words, just my mother hand on daughter’s back, our feet quiet on wet ground.
I drive away, shaking my head, still wishing I could open my heart up right in front of her, still thinking, It’s not enough.
Oh, Lord, please, could she somehow have seen your face instead of mine? That would be enough.
And then we walk in the door, and my daughter looks deep, and she says, “So maybe tomorrow, when I wake up, you could still be in your pajamas, drinking your coffee? Maybe we could sit together? Maybe snuggle up on the couch?”
I would like to tell you that I put the pieces together, that I’m quick that way. I am not.
“Well, I don’t know. I’ll probably have been up a while by the time you get up.”
She spreads her hands flat on the kitchen counter top, suddenly studying her own fingers, those palms she’s always opening up to me still, well past baby and into her girlhood. ”I’ll wake up earlier,” she says through her teeth, tilting her head to one side.
And this is how I come to see her reaching—the tilted head, the eyes steadfast on those hands that need to touch me.
I stand watching, thinking of all the time of these last days, all our talking and being. I think of the hugs she grabs in the kitchen, the way she lifts my arm up to her shoulders sometimes when we’re walking side by side, the way she thinks of one last thing to say, one last moment she needs. And I think of my Congolese sister, showing me her empty, when I can’t even see the full in front of me. Why does it take loss to open our eyes to what we have?
Lightly, I lay my hand on the top of Zoe’s head and slide it down to her cheek, until she looks up and sees me. ”I don’t want you to feel like you need to wake up early just to be with me,” I tell her. ”We will have some time like that, snuggled up.”
“Maybe next year. Because you’re always so busy.” She says the words quickly, before she can regret them, and they cut, knife sharp.
She looks down again when she sees my surprise.
“Zoe, I’m not too busy for you.” I say it tenderly, gasping, wondering if I have been too busy. But we’ve spent so much time together these last days. I hear the echo of her voice, always asking me to sit with her. And I know that Love makes her want more of me, the same fierce Love that brings mother and daughter together again after 18 years, the same Love that grips and wails, in hard shock over death. The only thing my daughter fears—and this a wealth of grace–is that one day I won’t be here.
“What if,” I say it slowly, drawing her chin up, “what if tomorrow afternoon we have a date? We’ll snuggle up on the couch and watch a movie together?”
And just that quickly, the shadow lifts, and her smile lights. ”Okay,” she says, and soft, thin daughter arms wrap tight around mother’s waist. I see then, that she wants not just my time but my intention to be with her, to stay there. And I think again of what Mother Theresa said, about seeing Christ in all His distressing disguises, for this is what He asks of me too—not just my time, but my intention; not just the soul, but the body too. He asks for everything, and always, not that He takes, but that I give freely. I look in my daughter’s face, and I see Christ. And I wonder, Can she see Him too, when she looks in mine? Because He is the one she really needs.
There was a time, early on, when Moses fell to the ground before a bush on fire that would not burn up, because he was afraid to see God (Exodus 3:6). But that was before he really knew God well, before they spoke “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend (Exodus 33:11).” And by then, by the time Moses erected the Tent of Meeting an intentional distance outside the camp, the love between them ran so deep that the only thing that really frightened Moses was the idea that God would not be with him. By then, the only thing Moses really wanted was more of God. By then, instead of hiding his face for fear of seeing, Moses begged to see more. “Now show me your glory,” Moses breathed, after the two of them had settled the matter of Presence Abiding, after God said, “and I will give you rest,” though Moses had not known to ask for that (Exodus 33: 18).
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. …But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live (v.19,20).
And so, it wasn’t God’s face Moses actually looked upon as they spoke, but the radiance of it, the reflection of His goodness passing, the echo of His name, the certainty of His presence. And it was the radiance of God’s glory that the people saw too, in the face of Moses, as he stepped back outside the tent, though Moses was unaware of it (Exodus 34:29,30). And so, it is written: Our faces also reflect God’s glory as we are transformed, with ever-increasing glory, into the exact likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Knowing well the need of this place, He made it so that we would see more of Him by looking at each other. He made it so that we would feel Him touching by wrapping our arms around each other. He made it so we could know still more of His love, His grace, in the loving each other. Oh, yes. We do need each other.
Spirit, let us be truly hidden, so that only He remains to be seen (Colossians 3:3).
Because in this loss-scarred, thirsty, needy life, only He will ever be enough.