Life in tandem

We are still basking in the joy of the canonization of Charles de Foucauld. Today, on the anniversary of his death, we’re celebrating his life and welcoming his message which is both still relevant and disconcerting: “be poor in everything, be brothers to the poor, friends of the poor,” because “true wealth lies in that mutual love which makes us willing to bear one another’s burdens.” That’s what Pope Francis reminded us of recently, and it’s what L.Sr. Flor experiences in the course of her days…

I leave the house around 7 am with my bicycle. In wintertime, it’s still dark. At that hour there are small groups in the street: people who’ve spent the night trying to get warm and, often, sharing alcohol or drugs…Once I hurried by, uncomfortable. I heard a big “Good morning Little Sister! Blessings!” and I left the place happy and peaceful, carrying and passing on the blessing which changed my way of seeing that day.

I work for a contractor company that supplies cleaning services to the hospital. There are two of us working in the intensive care unit. I’ve already worked with numeros ladies from Chile, Peru, and Haiti. Thanks to them I’ve learned about the realities of life for very simple families from different countries. It’s very enriching, and so different from what we are told in the news. Together we work twelve hours for two consecutive days, and then have two days off. We get to know each other, each one’s personality and ways of doing, and bit by bit we start to trust each other.  I used to work together with Vero and several others, and we’d share the work and at the same time the story of our lives; we’d laugh, joke, and share more serious confidences as well. We got so used to being together that we could guess what the other one was doing, and what would be the best way to help each other. In those days we put our whole heart into what we were doing; we didn’t make comparisons among ourselves because we were sure that each one was doing a good job and being generous toward the others. We had good relations with some of the others too, but we started being more clear about dividing up the work in order to be more fair to each other, and also so each one could do things her own way and take responsibility for her own work. Like everywhere there is a certain amount of intrigue going on, tattling or telling stories to the boss in order to make oneself look good. That bothered me in the beginning, but finally I realized that in the end it was more important to just go on doing my best and keep the peace. The ease which comes from being an “old-timer” well known by the others gives me a certain freedom and peace of mind.

As cleaning staff, particularly since we are employed by an outside firm contracted to the USI, we’re at the bottom of the personnel ladder. To some we are still invisible.

Thank God, it didn’t last too long. Little by little I became “Aunt Flor” as people say when addressing their elders with affection and respect. I am touched when I see the nursing assistants who have finished bathing their patients collect items that might have fallen on the floor so we won’t have to come back and clean again. Others, seeing us cleaning the corridor, take the long way around in order not to walk where we’re working and leave footprints.

Certain parts of the day involve doing almost the same thing over and over. After we greet each other we start the monotonous routine, cleaning the same 10 or 11 patients’ rooms. Many of the patients are sedated and so there is no possibility of greeting or chatting with them. I tuck a little moment into the monotony for saying a poor little prayer, like a rosary…since I obviously won’t have time for a whole hour of prayer in the chapel before or after my workday. There are situations, moments of encounter, that engrave themselves onto my heart, becoming presence, supplication, or gratitude.

It’s not that we do extraordinary things, but there is some kind of magic in transforming a chaotic environment into a pleasant, ordered space, clean and above all hygienically safe. Sometimes I introduce myself to the patients as “the killer.” Their eyes open wide, and I explain that I’m a killer of germs.

Another great power we have is to say hello, congratulate people who are making progress, express affection, send some “good vibes,” all of which can also be therapeutic.

I see many patients who are younger than I am. I realize (and the pandemic absolutely helped me in this regard) that it is a sheer grace that I am alive, and that I have a reason to be so. There is no time to lose, not today, not at this moment.

At the same time, of course, there are gray, tiring days—how often it is others who give me the courage to go on, the joy, the energy! …with an unexpected greeting, a gesture of affection, a little joke. It’s like they open the eyes of my heart which had shut in on the darkness…

L.Sr. Flor