Helping Luci lower her daughter down into the bathtub, I prepared for the big splash. The tub is conveniently placed at waist height for the mothers of our Santo Niño Project in Anapra, Mexico, to assist their handicapped children without bending over. Nena is a big girl, turning 15 next month. The syndrome from which she suffers has caused mental regression and progressive motor impairment due to frequent seizures. As Nena heaved down into the water there was indeed a huge splash. Luci smiled and poured cups of warm water over Nena's head before applying the shampoo. Her daughter paid little attention, lost in her world of repetitive hand movements that made little spurts of water up into her face.
I am always amazed at the way the mothers care for their special children. Many of them never receive the positive reinforcement of even a smile of recognition or a spontaneous hug. Their children do not cuddle or coo. But with extreme fidelity these mothers attend to the unspoken needs of their daughters and sons.
On this day as Luci continued with Nena's bath she suddenly stopped. "Madre Janet, will you keep an eye on her for a minute?" she asked while she hurried away. She went in search of baby wipes and not finding any in the box by the tub she retrieved an old striped T-shirt from her bag. Using her teeth she quickly tore it into several rags and then she was up to her elbows in the bath water, cleaning up a bowel movement in progress. Nena continued her splashing, completely undisturbed by Luci's maneuvers, and Luci's expression was just as tranquil. She finished bathing Nena while telling me about her son (in prison), her younger daughter (having early adolescent behavior problems), and being turned down for a Saturday/Sunday assembly line job because of poor eyesight.
"In about 10 more work days — I think that's next Friday —I can call immigration to see if they approved my border crossing card renewal," she continued. Several months ago a border agent stopped her at the port of entry because her card was damaged. Nena had chewed on it. Luci was given a warning and told that she had to apply for a new card — the process taking several months to gather the documents and money required. Luci crosses from Juarez to El Paso, Texas, purchasing items for neighbors and friends for a small delivery fee. This is how she supports her family, in addition to the small stipend she receives as a mother-therapist at Santo Niño.
Luci called one of the other mothers to come help us situate Nena in the sling for the hydraulic lift to get her out of the tub. It required the three of us to get her to a standing position and then onto the table where Luci gently massaged lotion all over Nena's body. She diapered her daughter and propped Nena's heavy leg on her thigh and struggled with the socks and shoes. She was done and I was exhausted by her effort. Luci helped Nena to her feet, beaming into the distant eyes and carefully arranging her wet hair. Nena drooled and then smiled. Luci lit up and kissed her.
I've pondered this encounter for days. I have decided that especially during this Year of Mercy I need Luci and Nena in my life. What have I witnessed? Looking at Nena through Luci's eyes I see how God looks at us. I see love that cannot be diminished or increased no matter what we do — or don't do. Love that cleans up our messes without comment or complaint. I am reminded of Colleen Fullmer's song, "Washerwoman God." "If You didn't clean the mess, where would we be?" And aren't we all Nena in our need for such tenderness and fidelity? Luci, like Jesus, shows me the compassionate gaze of God.
I also need Nena. She cracks open the carefully constructed sense of self that I present to the world: confident, capable and in control. She mentors me in how to receive mercy. Nena doesn't have much of a vocabulary but depends on her mother to understand beyond words. Luci knows all the nuances of Nena: water, Coke, coffee, bread, hot, spicy . . . and she responds to each need. Nena is content to contemplate the same page of a book or play with a broken xylophone for an hour or more. No matter how bored I become with the activity, Nena can find something new to fascinate her. One thing is for certain: Nena will fall down. Her poor balance and frequent seizures take her to ground regularly where she must wait for someone to come and help. These falls frighten her and Luci's reassuring, "Don't worry . . . you're alright . . . nothing happened," bring her to her feet no matter how often she falls. She dries her tears, wipes her nose and the endless stream of drool from her lips. Nena allows all this loving kindness. She allows and allows.
I allow myself to be carried along in this stream of mercy, caught up in the compassionate gaze of God. I consider how it flows both ways. God's tender love in both Luci and Nena allows each to give and receive. Each is the face of God for the other. Nena's un-self-consciousness makes her gift less obvious but no less real. In her God pours forth mercy on everyone she allows to respond to her needs. The Merciful One reaches out to us in such as these whom we presume to say we serve. When I see with Luci's eyes, I recognize and touch, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, "Jesus in his distressing disguise." When I see with Nena's eyes I allow my own limitations to be an instrument of God's mercy.
I usually feed Nena her lunch when we eat at Santo Niño and Luci joins us at the little folding table reserved for Nena's use. After all the work of bath time, I was worrying over the food that despite my best efforts was falling onto Nena's clean clothing. Luci was filling me in on the struggles of one of the other mothers when suddenly Nena gave a kick that overturned the table. The food and drink went flying. I was retrieving the utensils and trying to avoid stepping in the mess when a mop appeared out of nowhere. Luci gently pushed me out of the way saying, "I've got it, Madre!" If God doesn't clean up the messes of our lives, where would we be? I am amazed at God's mercy to me, that I can learn from Luci and Nena what it means to be held in the steady gaze of God's love.
[Sr. Janet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she now serves with her sisters at Proyecto Santo Niño, a day program for children with special needs in Anapra, Mexico, as well as ministering with young adults in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.]