As of this writing, I am on day 3 of a 6 week stint at a pulmonary rehabilitation facility.
The woman who mops the floor of my room is so fair and blonde as to be practically transparent. I am somehow embarrassed whenever she comes in and has to clean around me, and I hope to compensate for this weird power imbalance by being excessively friendly, and she’s kind enough to indulge my need for small talk. She has a thick eastern European accent and far away, sad eyes hidden behind blocky glasses. As she wipes down the plastic casings of the rails on my bed, she says, “Look, you see?” I don’t, and have to look closer. “My superior leaves little marks with a pen so she knows if I have cleaned properly or not. You see it now?” I nod as she wipes it away and say something I think is funny and disparaging about her superior. “No, it is her job, the cleaning must get completed and she must make sure it is so. We all must do our jobs.”
I feel like a child in the face of those words. This middle-aged woman who used to be a professor of accounting in the former Yugoslavia, now in a scratchy blue uniform cleaning floors in a hospital a million miles from all that she had known and loved and earned. My heart could break for her– her country vanished, her life now so improbable and alien. And she looks at me. She knows what I’m thinking, or at least she thinks she might know. She pauses for a moment, “It is true that life is hard, but we must live it, no? We must live it,” she says, as if we had both been forced to leave our native land.