It took me completely by surprise. Two ladies came in and sat down at a table not far away from me. One was elderly and frail, and the other, I think, was her daughter.
She settled her mother at a table, helping her into her seat, tucking her walking frame out of the way behind her chair, and then she went to fetch coffee and cake.
I watched the old lady as she breathed out the exertion of the walk across the cafe from the lift and looked around her. She hadn't put in her teeth today, and so the lower half of her face was soft and misshapen. Her hair was thin and wispy and her skin translucent and spotted with age. Her eyes were pale and vague.
Her daughter came back and unloaded a tray onto the table. She placed a milky coffee in front of her mother and sat down heavily as if she was weary. Then she reached over and cut the older lady's slice of carrot cake into cubes with the side of a fork. The old lady smiled and said something and began to eat her cake with a trembling hand.
I found I had tears on my face. It wasn't just the tenderness of a daughter for her mother, and it wasn't just the frailty of the old lady. It wasn't the obvious enjoyment of a slice of cake, an outing with her daughter. It was something more.
It sounds obvious, but it hit me powerfully.
That old lady was young, once.
She was fit and vital and energetic and on the ball. She had all her teeth, all her hair and all her faculties. She cut up cake for her daughter.
And now she's old; now the world sees her walking with assistance, hesitant and frail. The world sees a walking frame and a hand on the elbow and a mouth of gums. It sees dryness and transparency and confusion. It sees not-yet-but-soon. It sees and it assesses and it discards.
I know an elderly lady with a pacemaker and a history of cancer surgery and a limp who's out of breath with a bag of groceries, and she used to be a speed skater. I heard that for the first time and I raised my eyebrows and laughed. Why? Because I see an old lady.
We look at people and we think that we see them. I looked at the lady in the cafe and I saw dependency, difficulty, age and infirmity. I have no idea what else there was. That lady might have been an acrobat, an actress, a solicitor, a campaigner. She might have written bestselling books, or painted pictures, or made stained glass. She might have walked the country to raise money for charity, or jumped from a plane with a parachute, or been in the running for a Nobel prize, but I saw that her daughter cut up her cake for her and that her hand trembled as she raised a bite to her mouth.
We think we know what we see. What do people see when they look at me? They see an overweight middle aged woman who doesn't want to be looked at. They see a woman who hurriedly brushes her hair and puts on some make up in the morning then rarely checks it until she takes it off at night - and yes, she wonders how long it's been smudged. They see my shape, my clothes, my expression, and they think they know who I am. They don't see what's inside.
They see a harassed mum, rushing round the supermarket, waiting at the school gates, frumpy in jeans and cardi. They see the heavy woman in the queue favouring her left leg because her right hip hurts, if indeed they see me at all. Why should they? I don't have arresting beauty or youth or really anything that catches the eye. Why should anyone even notice me?
They don't see a heart that burns for you, Lord. They don't see the ideas, the hopes, the dreams, the intensely important things that only you see. They don't see the essence of me.
I am full of protestations that there is more to me than meets the eye. And I saw that old lady and wondered who she was, who she used to be, and then realised that I'd done exactly that thing: she is still the lady she used to be. She's still the girl who walked down the aisle with that young man. She's the mother who rocked her baby all night. She's the woman who cooked and worked and laughed and loved.
And dreamed dreams. I'm sure she still does. I hope she still does.
We think we know who people are, and we make our instant judgements based on the little we see. We accept or reject with so little information. We look and look away.
But there's so much more. Everything that's important is invisible.
In this world, we decay. Lips get thinner, waistlines fatter. Eyesight fades, hearing declines and soft, smooth skin discolours, dries and wrinkles. In this world we shrink as we age, and our value diminishes until our worth is negligible. Not so with you.
What comfort that is. What a comfort to know that you see beyond the obvious; you know the soul deep inside. We are not defined by the world's assessment of us. That when the outside of us lets us down, as it always, inevitably will, we are still precious. Still valued. Still seen.
I am so much more than the woman surreptitiously wiping away tears in a cafe. That lady is so much more than a walking frame and a tremor.
I hope it was good carrot cake. I bet it was not as good as the one she used to make.