The Los Angeles Times hears the voices: A nun, a dying woman and prayers that last forever

On one level, it was a simple assignment. The metro desk at The Rocky Mountain News had received a call about a wedding that was sure to be poignant. The bride had cancelled her church rites several months in the future so that a simple ceremony could take place beside the deathbed of her father, whose cancer had taken a sudden turn for the worse.

My editor's instructions: Make me cry by the third paragraph or you're fired. His advice: Look for crucial details and let their voices tell the story. One symbolic detail was the copy of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" on the father's nightstand.

I thought about that story, which generated more letters from readers than anything else I wrote in Denver, when I read the Los Angeles Times feature that ran the other day with this headline: "People don’t want to die alone. With Sister Maria standing vigil, they've got company."

There isn't much I can say other than this: Listen to the voices and pay attention to the crucial details in this very human, yet deeply spiritual, story. Here is the overture:

Esperanza Calderon stared at Sister Maria Socorro with half-closed eyes. The nun hunched over her as she reclined in a living room chair, wrapped in a blanket and slowly but inexorably dying.

As the 70-year-old woman’s sister clasped her hand, Socorro held a book open across her palms. Together the three women prayed.

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof,” the woman followed along in Spanish, her voice fragile. “But one word from you would be enough to heal me.”

At the heart of the story is the humble work of the Servants of Mary. Readers are informed, early on, that the congregation was founded in 1851 in Spain and has worked with the dying in a wide variety of circumstances, including Mexico's bloody revolutions.

Today there are 2,000 sisters in 128 convents in the Americas, as well as Europe, Asia and Africa. The sisters work in hospices, hospitals and other settings -- but prefer to serve in their patients' own homes. Many of their Los Angeles patients are immigrants.

The story notes that Sister Maria Socorro arrives at this tiny house in South Los Angeles around 7 p.m. each evening. The vigil begins.

The key details are simple and direct. The voices tell the story.

The woman’s first name, Esperanza, means “hope” in Spanish. Socorro means “help.”

“The bed is the cross,” said the 46-year-old nun, who is also a trained nursing assistant. “Christ is the patient.”

Before getting Calderon to bed, Socorro gives her Communion. She reaches into a bag and pulls out a white handkerchief embroidered with the image of a red cross, a chalice, wheat and grapes -- signs of the Eucharist. She unwraps the cloth and opens the small golden box it encases, reaching for the host.

“Esperansita,” she calls Calderon, who lifts her mouth toward the wafer in the sister's hand, and intones: “The body of Christ.”

Behind this ministry is the nun's own story, which began when she attended a church retreat in Puebla, Mexico, with 100 other girls. Her goal was to talk her younger sister out of becoming a nun, but things didn't work out the way she planned.

On the last day of the trip, as they sat in a pew for Mass, the priest began telling the Biblical story of the boy Samuel, who heard someone calling his name one night. He got out of bed and ran to the priest, Eli, but Eli told Samuel that it was not he who had called the boy.

This happened several times, the girls at the retreat were told, until Eli told Samuel that it was God speaking to him. Finally, when he realized he was being called, the boy spoke with God.

Socorro said the story she and her sister heard that day affected her deeply.

“That passage was for me,” she said. “God was calling me.”

This is the kind of human story that, at first glance, seems easy to tell. But the simplicity is deceptive.

The key is the fact that the nun's voice never vanishes, even when the reporter turns what must have been lengthy direct quotes into simple paraphrases that keep moving the story forward. Then the symbolic details and actions, described for readers, are woven into the narration. Like this:

... The nun and Calderon’s sister stand over her bed, heads bowed as they pray three Hail Marys. Yolanda Calderon kisses her sister on the forehead.
Socorro said the quiet before dawn breaks gives her time to pray and fortifies her to face death every night. Like other sisters in her order, she only stays with each patient for a month at a time. To stay longer could allow the women to become attached to their patients -- and vice versa.

“You get to know them,” she says. “I cry when they pass, or when I am comforting the family. It’s normal. It’s human.”

Dying, readers are told, is "a lonely labor." Long ago, I read a survey -- I think it was research by Father Andrew Greeley of Chicago, the often controversial sociologist and novelist -- that said the No. 1 fear among American Catholics was dying alone in a hospital.

In a way, that is what this story is all about. The hard question that is never openly stated: Who waits with the dying, in our culture today? Who does this work with love, looking beyond the grave?

The story ends just before dawn, after hours of prayer and reading, when Sister Maria Socorro. She finally gets to sleep around noon, before the cycle starts all over again.

There isn't much else to say about this piece, other than this: Read it all.

FIRST IMAGE: From the website of a Catholic hospice ministry.

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