Beside the dying, nun stands vigil before the long sleep

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.”

A sister with the Servants of Mary, Socorro has spent many of her nights and dark, early mornings in the homes of the dying. Each night, a volunteer picks her up around 7 p.m. and drives her to her destination: a tiny stucco house just a few miles from the South Los Angeles convent.

The congregation was founded in Spain in 1851. As nurses, they worked during cholera epidemics and wars, and later in Mexico during revolutions. Now, more than 2,000 sisters work in 128 convents throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

The sisters prefer to minister in patients’ homes, but also work in hospices, orphanages and hospitals. And when needed, they take care of their own.

Many of their patients are immigrants, others born and bred in Los Angeles. Some pray to another God or to none at all. To the sisters, it doesn’t matter.

A tumor embedded itself in Calderon’s brain. Three years ago, doctors told her she had six months to live. She had a stroke about two years later. She can’t walk. Calderon’s sister does almost everything for her, until late in the evening when the nun arrives.

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.”

Almost 30 years ago, a teenage Maria Roman went to a retreat hoping to persuade her little sister Sofia not to become a nun. 

Sofia wanted to explore her options for a religious vocation and Maria, then 18, wouldn’t have it.

“You know, you can never go out if you become a nun,” Maria warned her.

Sofia begged her older sister to go with her to the women’s retreat in their native city of Puebla, Mexico. It was the only way their father would let Sofia go. Socorro said she couldn’t bear watching her sister cry so she said yes.

More than 100 girls attended the retreat, but there wasn’t enough food for all of them. They slept crammed together as if in barracks. The morning showers were frigid.

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.”

Within a year, Maria would become Sister Maria Socorro, joining the Servants of Mary.

On a Friday night, Socorro asks Esperanza Calderon whether she’s cold. She smooths two diaper pads covering the sheets and tucks the frail woman in.

Afterward, she reaches into the leather overnight bag she brings to each home she visits. She pulls out a blood pressure monitor and wraps a cuff around Calderon’s skinny arm.

Minutes later, 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.”

Sometimes, she said, her patients ask her questions she can’t answer. Why me? Why am I suffering? “God has a better purpose for you,” she tells them.

She hopes that she can help them die with dignity. She has seen men and women too afraid to sleep, afraid that they won’t wake up. One man struggled to breathe at night, grunting in pain under an oxygen mask. He tugged at his clothing and yanked at the mask’s tubes.

Socorro hears the blankets rustle as she speaks. Calderon opens her eyes, which scan the living room in the dark, searching for the nun. People don’t like dying alone – and dying, by its nature, is a lonely labor.

Around midnight, the nun tells Calderon’s sister to get some sleep.

Beneath the dull light of the cabinet behind her, she cracks open her Bible, asking God to watch over Esperanza Calderon’s soul. In the living room, she is surrounded by a crucifix, an image of Jesus and statues of the Virgin Mary.

After she finishes meditating, she begins to sew the handkerchiefs used to clean and cover the Communion chalice in church.

At 3 a.m., Calderon wakes up to use the bathroom. Socorro helps her to the commode beside the bed, then tucks her back in. As Calderon falls back to sleep, the sister opens her copy of a book written by Pope Francis.

The sun hasn’t peeked over the horizon when she reaches the front stoop at the convent just after 5 a.m. Socorro greets her sisters, then stops by the chapel to pray the rosary. She helps prepare breakfast and cleans up around the house, finally crawling into bed around noon.

At night, she’ll stand vigil again.

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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