A Leading Actor Learns to Love the Supporting Role


Photo by Paz Arando

I have been thinking about Mary and Martha lately.

You know the story: Martha is the sister who “complained to Jesus” and Mary is the sister who choose the better part, as Jesus explains. I have always hated that pericope. I guess because in my mind, Martha was the responsible oldest sister. She was the one accountable for getting the house ready for Jesus.

Can you imagine the preparations?!

The cleaning, the cooking, the landscaping, the washing…all the things needed for a guest to feel comfortable in one’s home. As an oldest daughter, I totally identified with Martha and totally understood why she asked Jesus–in sheer frustration–to get Mary to help her with the work, instead of entertaining Jesus. And for the longest time, I felt that Jesus was wrong to chide Martha. Couldn’t He see how she was trying to show her love for Him? I thought, it’s easy for people to hang out all day but when dinnertime comes and there’s nothing to eat and you’re sleeping on dirty sheets, I bet you’d appreciate Martha then…

See, I always thought I was a Martha. The responsible daughter. The hard-working daughter. The obedient daughter. So, you can imagine my surprise when I realized that I was actually Mary. The epiphany came to me about 13 years ago when my Dad had 2 back-to-back heart attacks. My heavily pregnant little sister jumped into action. She transformed into this person that I had never seen before. She handled the doctors, navigated the health care system, doled out the medicine, put the schedules together for Dad. She saved my Dad’s life.

And me? I made Dad laugh and did what Misty told me to do. I shockingly realized that she was better in this area than I was. That she was the general and I was the foot soldier. It took some time getting used to this dramatic shift in roles but it was a defining moment for me. Sometimes–I realized– it was better to follow and not to lead.

And you know what? Being Mary–instead of Martha– was AWESOME. I told Daddy jokes, bought him cute PJ’s to wear in the hospital, listened to his stories, and just enjoyed him. Did I feel guilty that my little sister was doing the unglamorous part of caregiving? Yep. I did. But it was so lovely not being the responsible sister that I managed to circumvent my guilt…

Fast forward to when my mother was sick with lung cancer last year. I still became a foot soldier when I came to SC from DC to help with my Mom. My sister and my Aunt Ethel were the generals. They were the ones who did the caregiving for my Mom 24/7. They were the true sheros.

They washed her; they fed her; and they clothed her. They did her laundry; they coordinated her doctors’ appointments; they made sure she had enough oxygen; and they traveled two hours for a visit with her oncologist. And they did this every day…without me.

They were the Marthas. They were the ones doing the un-fun parts of caregiving. Like Mary, I got to come in, help, and then leave. For them, caregiving was their reality.

Photo by Varshesh Joshi

And so, with that understanding firmly in my mind, I remembered my role when I went home. I was the supporting actor in a long running sitcom. My job was to make the stars of the show look good and not mess up the plot.

But I also tried to make the most of my time there…

So, I would sometimes stay in the bed with my Mom, fetching her soda and candy. We would watch “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” on the Food Network. I would paint her nails and put lipstick on her. We would look through my Facebook page and she would see all my pictures.

We giggled and gossiped. We ate cookies in her bed wearing our PJ’s.

She asked me how I was dealing with my recent divorce. She asked me how strong I felt emotionally and spiritually. She told me how much she enjoyed me and how beautiful I was. She worried that I didn’t have a strong enough support system in DC and warm enough clothes for the coming winter. She even asked me if I could buy her some hair, like mine (since the cancer had taken away hers): “Acacia, is that 12 inches? Yeah, that’s the length I want.”

And when I balked at something my Auntie wanted me to do, Mom told me to shut up and do what I was told.

And I did.

Did I clean the house? Yep. Did I put up Christmas decorations as my Auntie Ethel requested? Yes. Did I do errands for my sister and help her with grocery shopping for Thanksgiving? Of course. I happily did all those Martha-like things.

And those things are needed and required and worthy…like Martha is.

But after those tasks were done, I hopped into bed with my Mom and made her smile and laugh. Because Mary’s role–my supporting role–is also worthy.

Because every leading actor needs and deserves a strong supporting actor to make their great work even better…

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5 thoughts on “A Leading Actor Learns to Love the Supporting Role”

  1. As the eldest of four, I know the time when I truly was Martha — no time to be Mary running my mother’s household as she worked long hours to put four children through private school. She worked two jobs, and I, Martha in my responsibilities, did as I knew to do…all the right and responsible stuff: cooking, cleaning, laundry, paying household bills and looking after my siblings — ensuring homework, and other tasks were completed. “You’re not the boss of me” I heard, however, I knew that I WAS indeed “the boss” in my mother’s expectations, and like Martha, I did the right things.

    Now however, a TRUE shero/general emerged, and that is my younger (number two) sister, Sheila. As mother of four adults, three teens still at home, grandmother of five and foster mother/grandmother to an army of foot soldiers who call her home their home — Sheila commands…everything. A spotless home, a feast prepared at the proverbial drop of a hat, Sheila can pull the troops together in a flash. She puts a call out and everything needed to furnish a new home comes together; she moved a dying woman from a lonely one-bedroom apartment to a warm and caring home with 24-hour caregivers until that woman died, knowing she was loved. She threw a homegoing party for her with everything short of a marching band. She recently said to me, “I love having a big sister, not sure how I feel about being the big sister.” Sheila rarely gets to be the Mary that I get to be. I come home from “Down Under,” and I’m the guest. I get to hold court as Mary, telling jokes, making people laugh with all kinds of stories of my adventures, and Sheila as Martha ensures that all is done. Our mother is getting older; we can tell. I’m so far away, and Sheila does it all. She keeps me updated about all that is unfolding, but it is she who is running the show. Like the author in this piece, I do as I’m told…I am the supporting cast member that makes the lead player the star that she is. And I am ever so grateful to be a supporting cast member to the lead in this story of our lives.

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