A woman is hidden behind the white shower curtain. Judging by the sounds, I assume she’s soaping herself. Today is my first day volunteering at the Gift of Grace, a home where Mother Teresa’s nuns and volunteers care for poor women with AIDS. When I arrived earlier this morning, I asked an experienced volunteer named Iris for a broom. Then I felt moved to explain that I wanted to start out doing housework and eventually work my way up to patient care.
"It’s not that I’m afraid of getting AIDS," I emphasized. "It’s just that I’m a bit clumsy and have never worked around very ill people." Iris said nothing but nodded compassionately. It has taken me a while to pick up this broom. When Mother Teresa first sent four nuns to Atlanta about six years ago, my husband and I joined other volunteers in helping the sisters transform a dilapidated house into the Gift of Grace. Since then, my volunteer efforts have consisted in taking the healthier residents shopping.
But I have been eager to move up a rung or two on my mental image of the ladder of volunteering, and that will require me to push myself to do what’s really tough. For me that means working inside the house. Moments ago, one of the little nuns shyly asked me to help the woman in the shower, so I’ve put down my broom and taken up my post in the bathroom. When the woman suddenly draws back the curtain, I’m startled to see her, emaciated, naked and trembling and holding on to a towel rack for dear life. She appears to be waiting for me to do something. When I hesitate, she asks, "Would you dry my back?"
I grab a nearby towel and begin, rather gingerly, to dry her back. Thoughts fill my mind like birds darkening a sky. I’ve never dried the back of another woman, and it’s been years since I towel-dried a baby. Maybe that’s why my gestures seem hopelessly clumsy. After all, I’ve never touched a person who is dying. When my mother was dying from cancer more than 20 years ago, I wasn’t there to help her as she plummeted into the final stages of her illness. Instead, I was in college 300 miles away where I somehow managed to delude myself about the seriousness of her illness.
I am wearing protective gloves, but still an icy current of fear courses through my soul as the towel moves downward over the woman’s rump, her thighs, her legs. My thoughts run to Iris. Even though I met her only a half hour ago, I’ve already gleaned important information about her. She’s a massage therapist. She’s a mother. When her own mother was dying, Iris was there to care for her. Iris is the kind of woman you know you can lean on in an emergency. So when the woman in the shower asks me for help putting on a diaper, I know just what to do. I call for Iris.
She’s there in seconds. I don’t bore her with my excuses—how it’s been years since I’ve diapered a baby and I can barely remember the procedure. I don’t mention the fear that keeps bubbling upwards from some deep, unknown part of me. Iris rescues me cheerfully. One, two, three, the diaper is on. Next she helps the woman out of the shower and into a wheel chair. Naked except for the pale blue diaper, the woman seems to radiate light as she settles into the chair. Her head is wreathed in Velcro hair rollers, and around her neck she wears sparkling, ice-blue rosary beads and shiny medals of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Now another tiny nun wearing the familiar blue-and-white sari of Mother Teresa’s order walks into the bathroom and flashes us a big crescent of a smile. "How are you today?" she asks in a voice thick with the cadences of India. "I’m alive, thanks be to God," proclaims the woman with an even bigger smile.
Now Sister turns to me. "Lorraine, will you help me turn Doris over in bed?" Iris had mentioned earlier that Doris— "rigid as a board"—is in the last stages of AIDS.
All I can think is: "Oh, God, I’m not ready. I came here today to sweep." The words that spill from my mouth are simple: "Sister, I’m not ready." No doubt Sister’s seen my reaction hundreds of times. "It’s O.K.," she says and then rushes off. I feel as if I’ve failed some important test, but I’m not sure who’s grading it. I know I’ve missed my chance to learn something important—not just how to turn someone in bed but also how to take the next step in confronting my horror of AIDS, and of death itself.
Somewhat dejectedly, I take the broom and start going from room to room. In one of the rooms, a black cheery woman in her 60’s is making her bed. Smiling at me with slightly oversized false teeth, she points proudly to a photo of a tiny girl decked out in a ruffly pink dress. "My granchild," she says proudly, and I remark at the loveliness of the child. Then the woman grows serious. "Sister wants me to move down the hall to another room," she says. "But I don’t want to. Four people’s died in that room. It ain’t that I’m afraid of death, no, I’m just afraid of that room."
As I continue sweeping, I realize this woman has cut to the chase. Am I afraid of getting AIDS and dying, or am I afraid of death in general—or what? Is the woman fooling herself about her feelings about the room? Am I deluding myself about my own fears?
My reflections don’t have time to simmer very long. From room to room I go, sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. Soon I’m in Doris’ room. Still and small beneath the covers, with just the top of her head showing, she reminds me of a leaf that the slightest breeze might lift away. Carefully, I sweep around her bed, praying her death won’t be too agonizing. And I pray for myself too: "Lord, help me get to the point where I can say ‘yes’ to turning Doris."
The next day at Mass the priest quotes a passage from Matthew that was Mother Teresa’s favorite: "I was in prison and you visited me. I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me." (Mt. 26:35-36). Of course, now I have to face it. In refusing to help turn Doris, I somehow turned my back on Christ.
But then I suddenly grasp the nature of the real problem. Christ’s words aren’t truly rooted in my heart. How could I turn my back on him when I haven’t yet really embraced him? Yes, I know in a dry intellectual way from the books I’ve read that Mother Teresa mysteriously encountered Jesus in the dying poor. And I comprehend the literal meaning of Christ’s words in the verses in Matthew. But somehow I feel I’ve been trying to nibble on the leftovers of someone’s else’s mystical feast.
Reminding myself that Peter was given a second chance after he denied the Lord, I recall a passage by Anthony de Mello:
I had a fairly good relationship with the Lord.... But always I had this uncomfortable feeling that he wanted me to look at him. And I would not. I would talk, but look away when I sensed he was looking at me. I was afraid I should find an accusation there of some unrepented sin.... One day I finally summoned up the courage and looked! There was no accusation. There was no demand. The eyes just said, "I love you." And I walked out and, like Peter, I wept.
(Song of the Bird, 1982)
Until I can feel God’s love for me on a deep soulful level—love that exists whether I "prove myself" or not by doing volunteer work—I’ll just be going through the motions. I’ll be trying to score extra credit points on an exam I’ve already flunked.
Doris died a week ago after being tenderly cared for by the sisters and volunteers. Although I never spoke with her, I think I learned an invaluable lesson from her. And maybe now she’s praying for me. Praying that I’ll learn to accept myself as the person behind the broom instead of the one at the bedside—but the one he loves just the same.