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April 2, 2021

Empty Angel

Recently I turned fifty years old, and nothing quite captures how I feel about that fact than a souvenir I dug up from a trip to Maine years ago.
8 min read

Recently I turned fifty years old, and nothing quite captures how I feel about that fact than a souvenir I dug up from a trip to Maine years ago. It is a centuries-old German-style cookie mold depicting an angel holding what I think is a stalk of wheat. She looks like she is flying midair, moving either to or from an assignment. Her wings flare out behind her and she wears two little shoes, so she will be ready to walk (or run) the moment she alights on the ground. She also has a drawstring cinched around her waist, the better, I suppose, to keep her clothing from flapping in the wind as she travels. She does not look like a transcendent angel, the kind who ushers in the dawn with long songs or wrestles with patriarchs all night.

Why do I relate to this divine figure before me? Not for any vain or presumptive reasons. Trust me.

1) First, she is a very small angel. No more than two inches in height.

I’ve been feeling pretty small these days, especially when I compare myself to my peers, most of whom have been practicing their careers for decades now. They have been working as healthcare providers, lawyers, educators, businessmen/women, clergy, artists, and speakers, to name but a few of their vocations. Their office doors bear their names and titles, as do their email signoffs. They earn wages, royalties, and pensions. In my mind, they are official. Legit. Entrusted with important things that can be observed and quantified. There’s no mistaking that they make the world a better place.

In contrast, I take care of my eight-year-old autistic son, who is a joyful, intelligent, energetic, and curious child. My husband and I constantly thank God that his neurodiversity came packaged in these particular traits. But he also has considerable developmental deficits that require constant management of care and extra effort whenever we do just about anything. For example, when I am not engaged in therapy sessions, making picture schedules, or dealing with sensory input issues, I’m doing “regular” mom stuff, like feeding the kid meals, tending to his hygiene, trying to get him out in the world while spending enough time with him so that he knows that he’s loved. As with many special needs children, gains come slowly and with as much repetition as one can muster. And it proves very hard to measure from a daily vantage point. Friends and family who see our son less often note his growth far more readily than we do.

Suffice it to say that I feel pretty invisible as I do all this for my son, as many moms probably do with their children. Special needs moms might feel their isolation even more keenly, as they cannot chat with other parents during therapy sessions as one might on the sidelines during team sports or at the park as typical children play more independently. More than once I have found myself growing silent as conversations go in directions I cannot follow because my child cannot do whatever the other parents are discussing regarding their own kids. At worst, I feel embittered by such exclusions (especially when I’m hearing complaints about problems I would gladly swap for my child’s inability to talk or socialize), but mostly I just feel small. And exhausted. Like my efforts don’t amount to much when brought into the cold light of day that others occupy. Whatever you want to call me—guardian, helper, aide—I am very aware of my limitations as a human mom. I have to work extraordinarily hard to budge the needle of progress but a little.

2) The second reason this angel embodies me turning fifty so well is that she is empty. And by that I mean, someone carved her shape out of dough the way one carves the meat out of a Halloween pumpkin. Her very existence is based on absence. The cookies she produces come from a void.

I have found that one of the gifts of passing through mid-life is objectivity—the ability to watch oneself and notice characteristics and patterns. One friend told me that in your forties that which is not essential falls away. By and large, I believe that’s true, because what’s left after the detritus drops off is more or less the essence of who you are.

What I have come to understand is that I am, at my core, a caregiver. One who is called to take care of the people around her, be they family or friends or others whom God puts in her path. In that, there are many like me. Just go back to the list of my peers’ professions that I mentioned before.

However, what I finally noticed about myself this year is that unlike many of my peers, I do not use formal training to do most of my caregiving. I do have a Ph.D. in Religion and Literature which has informed some of my involvement in my religious community and even this blog. But by and large, the well from which I draw is my personal narrative—usually the most painful chapters of my biography that I have survived and have yielded some hard-won wisdom and hope.

How does this play out? I talk with people who are confused and hurting—sometimes pierced through to the bone with pain. I listen at a very deep level. I try to offer feedback that is both uplifting and practical. I retell different bits of my own story again and again, letting those to whom I speak know that they are not alone, that others have gone through the same darkness and come out the other side. I pray. Sometimes with the person, sometimes for, when I am alone and thinking of them. Everyone once in a while I will send a little gift, just to let them know they are not forgotten. In short, I reach inside where the embers of God’s image glow in me and try to pull out the light that the other person needs.

Unlike some professionals, I do not detach as I do my work. I do not compartmentalize. I do the opposite. Whether working with my son or others who need my help, I pour out what makes me, me. It’s what the world seems to want the most from me at the moment.

And so, at the end of the day—many days—I am left quite depleted. And as I contemplate my hidden, hollowed-out state, I have to wonder: what’s it all for? Will my purpose ever extend beyond fulfilling other people’s needs? Is there any part of my story that’s just for me (the quintessential question of every caregiver)?

And: how do I do a better job of getting replenished? Because there was only One person on this planet who could pour himself out for others so profoundly, day after day. And even He took measures to regroup.

Two Scriptures ring in my mind like wind-chimes in the breeze. I may not comprehend the whole of what they have to say, but I believe they offer a place to start in terms of pursuing wisdom in this area. The first verses are found in Matthew, and they are spoken by Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 (Matt. 6:3-6 ESV)

When I read this passage, the word “secret” jumps out at me. Twice Jesus says his Father sees in secret and once he says his Father is in secret. The same God who notes the fall of every sparrow keeps track of every gift given in his name, be it a physical resource or an ounce of precious energy and time spent in prayer for another person.

Do I remember to look for God when I feel totally obscured by dirty dishes, dirty laundry, cluttered countertops, meals to cook, developmental programs to follow, baths to give, and books to read for the hundredth time?

What would happen if I looked up from my private tar pit of toil and said to the Father:

You seeing this? You here?

Jesus promises reward for such petition. What might it be?

I know I could use the “comfort and joy” we sing about at Christmas. To heal the hurt of being different, feeling less-than. Because being left behind is no joke. I know my son may never catch up to his peers, but I want him to gain enough ground to have a fruitful life in this world. Real friends. Real work to do. A real purpose that he finds fulfilling.

As for myself, I hope God releases some of my more dormant gifts in due time, whenever that may be.

Which leads me to the second Scripture, this one in Exodus:

1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.

2 And the woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was beautiful, she hid him for three months.

3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got him a wicker basket and covered it over with tar and pitch. Then she put the child into it, and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

(Exod. 2:1-3 NAS)

The baby, of course, is Moses, and his mother’s risky gamble pays off. Pharaoh’s daughter eventually rescues the child and raises him as her own—perfect preparation for the extraordinary calling to which he is destined. The mother’s motivation? Her son’s beauty. Interestingly, the Hebrew literally reads: “and she saw him—that he was good,” a refrain that echoes God’s response to His own creation in Genesis 1.

What is going on here? On the surface, something very simple. Moses’s mom doesn’t want him killed according to Pharaoh’s command (a royal attempt at Hebrew population control). But I think there’s something more at stake.

A few days ago, I was waiting in the car with my son out in front of the school. In the morning, his teaching assistant comes out of the building and fetches him at a particular time and we were early. I was turned around in the driver’s seat and was simply gazing at him—his eyes, mostly, which were peeping out over his covid mask. And I thought: “What a beautiful child you are.” In that moment of quiet waiting, I felt profound gratitude well up within me rather than the usual exhaustion, despair, and even resentment that so often plague me as I struggle under the weight of his care.

And I thought of Moses’s mother hiding him and wondered —where would I hide my boy? In my prayers, surely. In my dreams for his future, yes. Anywhere his potential might take root and grow into something lasting in the kingdom of God. On my better days, I gladly give myself to the task of building that little ark and sending it down that river. But, sadly, that’s not every day.

And so I forge ahead, empty angel that I am. Equipped with my shoes, my wings, my drawstrings. Called to deliver the wheat in my hands. Operating on nobody’s timetable but God’s and my own. Somehow, I’ve got to reconcile myself to that.

Maybe you feel so far behind where you should be that you want to quit trying altogether. When you look in the mirror you see nothing good or beautiful staring back. Maybe when you crawl inside your prayer closet you sense no benevolent eyes upon you, no Fatherly ears inclined. If any reward was ever sent your way it got delivered to another house.

Maybe you see no point in asking for anything anymore. It just hurts too much to be disappointed.

I get it. Believe me, I do.

It occurs to me that Jesus did most of his praying alone with his Father. He’s an expert at it. So lately I just picture myself leaning against his chest and letting him carry the weight of all that I would say to the Father if I could. After all, I’m just a two-inch angel—it might be the best thing I can do with whatever reserves of energy I have left right now. Call it meditation, call it centering prayer. Call it putting your own infant self in a basket. Just know that you are not alone. At least one other person on earth knows what it’s like to feel sidelined and invisible.

Come join me and let’s allow Jesus to pray for us together (Romans 8:34). There’s room in his arms for all. He knows what it’s like to have to rely on his Father for his sense of self-worth and purpose. Maybe there’s a thing or two he might teach us.

And may he lead us to the green pastures and still waters that we so badly need on a daily basis. My friend, I hope to find you there, along with all the other empty angels in his care.