Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit during the 1950’s and 60’s, one couple stood out as being different from the rest of us and to my mind, they were very exotic. Unlike our other neighbors, this couple had no children and the woman worked in an office downtown. The man was Hollywood handsome and she reminded me of Marilyn Monroe, with her bleached blonde hair and stiletto high heels.
Then one day, when I was a young teen, this glamorous woman came to our kitchen crying to my mother. She had a black eye and bruises on her arms. I started to leave the room, but my mother told me to stay.
The story I heard that day destroyed my illusion of idyllic love and fairy tale romances. It was a story of betrayal and beatings that had been going on right before my eyes, but I had been blinded by their public image and my imagination.
I remember my discomfort at hearing our neighbor’s heartbreaking story, and I was angry at my mother for forcing me to stay and listen. It was only much later that I realized my mother was using that incident as a teachable moment; she wanted me at the kitchen table to open my eyes to a reality I had not be willing to see.
From that day on, I understood that no one knows what happens behind closed doors, that the impression people create for the public may have little to do with reality.
At the same time our neighbor dashed my dreams of romantic love, my mother was caring for my uncle who was dying from cancer. He had undergone a series of operations over the course of several years and my mother was his primary care giver. Plus, she had two babies during those years, so she was caring for three people who needed lots of attention.
I don’t know if any of our neighbors knew what my mother did for my uncle, how she sponge-bathed him and changed his bandages after surgeries. Or how she listened to him crying in pain and gently assured him things would be okay. My mother gave everything of herself for my uncle’s well-being and her selflessness was a sharp contrast to the selfishness of the man who beat his wife.
At Mass recently, the priest preached about agape love—what Jesus meant when he talked about “laying down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). These two memories came to mind—that couple from my childhood and my mother’s care for my uncle—the juxtaposition of what passes for love and what is truly love.
I wonder if agape love is everywhere, but we just don’t see it. We hear lots of stories of the cruelties people inflict on one another, but how often do we hear about the self-sacrificing love that happens in homes in every neighborhood every day.
My mother’s sacrifices for my uncle, who was my father’s brother, shaped my understanding of Christian love. And over the course of my life, God has continued to teach me more about what love—true love, agape love—is. It often isn’t glamorous, but rather it is sacrifice and devotion that sets aside one’s own wants and needs for the benefit of another.
Madeline Bialecki grew up in Detroit and recently returned after living in Philadelphia for twenty-eight years. She began writing about her spiritual journey and faith life after the death of her best friend in 2012. She likes to read, knit, bake and garden. She shares her spiritual journey here.