The Office Cleaning Lady

“You, baby?” she asked me in her broken English.

At first I wasn’t sure exactly what she was asking. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know her name. She and her family have cleaned our office for several years now. I think it’s a family- a husband and wife with two teenaged kids. One of the kids sits in the waiting room and plays on her ipod; the other helps take out the trash. They are always friendly, greeting me with broad smiles and asking politely if they can empty my trash can.

I only run into them if I’m at the office late enough. My last patient is usually scheduled at 4pm and they come after 6pm. I commonly spend a fair amount of time after I’m done seeing patients catching up on my notes from the day, calling patients back and reviewing results. Leaving the office at 5pm is a rare treat.

Today I found myself the last person in the office, everyone eagerly taking off to attend a work party. I heard the familiar sounds of our cleaning crew walking the hall and knew how late it was without checking the clock. The woman, the one I have designated the mother, leaned into my office and said as she reached for the trash can,

“You, baby?”

I let the question settle, marinating in my mind with all possible meanings. But I knew what she was asking.

“Did I have the baby?” I confirmed her question.

She nodded her head vigorously, sweetly, still smiling her excited smile. In the past few years, this woman has noticed me as much as I noticed her. She watched as my belly ballooned- clearly big enough to silently announce my expectant status, but not too big because I’m tall and I had no fluid. And then I disappeared from her evening cleaning rounds for several months. Now that I am back, she recognized me without my protruding belly. She asked such an innocent question in those two words, expecting a happy answer. It’s a question I have gotten numerous times now, and I almost hate answering it. Not because of the pain it causes me. It causes me no more pain to talk about my baby. Saying the words “my baby died” doesn’t make her more dead or make me suddenly remember that she died, as if that were something I could ever forget. I hate answering the question because I know I’m about to disappoint someone.  Her polite interest and good memory will be rewarded with a sad story and the awkwardness that follows.

“Yes.” I responded when she nodded her head.

“Boy or girl?” she continued.

“A girl,” I said with a smile. Maybe it will be one of those conversations that just end there.

“Ooo!” She cooed excitedly, “How old?”

“She would have been six months.”

“Six months!” The glimmer of excitement that comes with talking of a new baby was still in her eye. I could tell she only understood the time frame and the subtlety of the past tense was lost on her. I could have left it at that, but I pictured future encounters where she would ask again about the baby.

“She died,” I said gently. It took her a moment to understand. It was a rare treat to observe the transition from lighthearted excitement to surprise and sadness on someone’s face as she absorbed the news. The language barrier gave me a few extra beats to watch as understanding dawned on her.

“oh…sad,” she said and her broad smile turned into a genuine frown. It was almost cartoonish in how pronounced it was, but it was still natural on her truly expressive face. She smiled big and she frowned bigger.

There were few words between us, but there was understanding.

This interaction was neither good nor bad for me; it just was. I told this to Chris when he picked me up from work. I just needed to share it.