She Washed My Feet

By Matthew Piling

For as long as I can remember, my mother has dealt with some serious health issues. The chronic combination of chemical-imbalance depression and colitis has often made it hard for her to participate in life on the level that she would like. Not knowing which days she would feel normal and which days would be difficult for her, she would simply do what she could when she could. 

So, when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 17, it kind of just fit in with what we were already used to. Sure, cancer was a more serious condition, but the idea of mom not feeling well for a period was not foreign to us. Because of that, it took me awhile to tune in to how difficult it was for her. By the end of her treatments, its effects were far worse than her previous health concerns had been.

Mom encouraged us to try and live life as normally as possible. So, I decided that I would run for student body office. I put in my best efforts but I didn’t even make it past the first round of voting. A friend who had made it to the next round asked me if I would come to his house to help make posters. Quite honestly, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but I decided I would go and help for a little bit. That evening, I dutifully made a few posters and then decided to walk home. 

The quickest path home took me through a couple of dirt fields. I was wearing velcro-strap sandals and cut my toe on rocks a couple of times. My entire walk home was a huge pity party. In my 17 year old mind, my life was horrible–nobody had voted for me, I had to walk home because I didn’t have a car, and my mom was dying of cancer. (Frankly, she wasn’t dying. We caught things very early and she had a great prognosis, but that didn’t fit my narrative at the moment. I’d bet that, if I had understood the laws back then, I probably would have created my own little thunderstorm above my head.)

When I finally got home, I went up to my parents’ room. As I peaked in, my mom invited me to come sit in the arm chair by her bed. I sauntered over and plopped down. She asked about my day. Because my eyes were dry and tired, I closed and rubbed them as I moaned to her about how terrible my day and my life were. 

After several minutes of me complaining, I felt something touch my knee. I opened my eyes and saw my mother kneeling in front of me. Somehow she had slipped past me into their bathroom and had now returned with a bowl of water and a washcloth. She looked up at me lovingly, slid off my sandals, and washed my feet. It wasn’t ceremonious. It wasn’t with any fanfare. It was just a mother doing what little she could to let her son know that she loved him. 

And, I felt loved. I felt loved like I never had before. My mother and I have always had a good relationship and I have always respected her. But, in that moment, to see someone so frail working so hard to simply serve someone else changed me forever. For the first time, I saw what it cost her to be a mother. The selflessness that I had grown to consistently expect from her took so much more from her than I had ever fathomed. That moment helped me to appreciate everything that she had ever done for me on a different level. Now, nearly 3 decades later, I’m still deeply affected by her simple service (and because of chemo-induced memory problems, she doesn’t even remember doing it).

I wouldn’t wish cancer on any family. It is a horrible disease that no one should have to endure. But, in one of the darkest moments our family had ever gone through, I was given a very special gift. Two gifts actually. My relationship with my mom now has a depth to it that I don’t believe would have been possible without the suffering. And, I’ve been taught that there is good in every situation, no matter how bleak. If we can simply look for the good, God will help us find it.

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Matthew Pilling
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