Mr. Tomasso Aldini became the most successful surgeon in Le Centre Hospitalier de Bayeux in Normandy, France, in 1946. He had been born to a well known family in Italy. Considered medical royalty, he was wealthy, highly esteemed, amazingly talented and very reserved. He stood in the surgical wing preparing for his next case. Tall, upright, square shoulders, dark hair, impossibly dark eyes, and a strong cleft chin made him a striking picture in an otherwise sterile environment. He stood watching the buzz of activity on the floor. Nothing really registered except one nurse. The petite yet dynamic Esperanza Catherine Rose Balderes.
Nurse Esperanza Catherine Rose Balderes came to Normandy from Castile, Spain, where her father owned a large sheep ranch. He also bred the most highly prized Burgalese Pointer dogs in the Kingdom of Castile. While the Balderes family were not wealthy, they were comfortable financially. Esperanza was educated at the finest Catholic girls schools where she excelled. She felt that coming to Normandy to work at The Bayeux would be good for her medical training and her faith. She very much enjoyed working on the surgical floor, she came to be in demand. Helping the doctors, other nurses and the patients. Most people gravitated towards her energy and enthusiasm and her unique appearance. Her beautiful red hair highlighted her hazel eyes, and lovely smile. Mr. Aldini could not take his eyes off of her. Her petite stature radiated joy.
Recently Tomasso Aldini had not been a happy man. He had his family name, recently returned to his faith, and became a popular surgeon in post WW2 France. The Bayeux, had been a place of healing since 1644. Tomasso wanted to work where he could do the most good. Yet he’d felt the weight of the family name, and their secrets around him at all times. Everyone knew the public face of the Aldini and Galvani family. They knew the advances in medicine and science made by Giovanni Aldini and Luigi Galvani. However, they did not know of those who used their “surgical skill” to line their pockets with money by making promises they could not keep. His own father, before he was forced to retire, began a surgery where he attempted, and largely failed, to repair “defects'' his wealthy patients felt were embarrassing. Facial tics, skin problems, scars, birthmarks, even attempting to cure baldness. He gave fair warning that the surgery was not guaranteed to be effective, but the patients had been desperate or vain enough to go through with the surgery. Tomasso had no idea how disastrous some of these surgeries were until he found his father’s medical case files. Though he was not the only family member to engage in less than ethical practices to hold on to the family wealth. The famed Count Antionio Aldini failed to be a paragon of virtue in his day.
The worst moment in his entire experience as a surgeon came the day he found himself face to face with one of his Father’s former patients. The nurse brought her to Mr. Aldini’s consulting rooms. While taking the patient’s case history, he learned that this woman was one of his father’s very last patients. Hoping that the son could correct the damage done by the father, this gentle soul lifted her veil to reveal a horrible scar down the side of her face from a botched surgical procedure to remove a birthmark from her face. Tomasso hurriedly asked the nurse in the room to look after the patient while he went to find two of his colleagues. A swirl of emotion hit him. Anger, revulsion, most of all he felt great sorrow for what this woman had suffered. He scoured the hospital for two colleagues, both of whom were expert in treating battle scars during the war. Maybe they could help her. He did not train in this area of surgery, and he felt a conflict in operating to repair an egregious error by his own father. After his shift he would need to speak to his priest, a man he considered more than just a spiritual advisor but a friend. Father Jerome was his own age, intelligent, thoughtful and didn’t judge Tomasso based on his last name.
While searching for his colleagues Mr. Aldini literally ran into Nurse Balderes. Apologizing profusely, he said that he was searching for M. Simenon and M. Herǵe. Esperanza pointed him in the right direction. He thanked her then in a bit of a clumsy way asked her to meet him at Columbus Café for a coffee at 6:00 in the evening to make up for nearly running her over in the corridor. She smiled broadly, blushing slightly. She answered that she would like to meet for a coffee, but it would have to be at 6:30 instead because she must be at church until 6:00. They fixed the time and parted in different directions.
Father Jerome met Tomasso Aldini at the church Rectory instead of the church as Father Gabriel was hearing confession. They would be uninterrupted In the Rectory garden. Father Jerome could see that his friend was deeply vexed. He expressed concern over the state of his friend’s agitation. While the two men drank tea and ate cakes provided by the housekeeper, Tomasso related what had happened to him at his rooms in the hospital. While Father Jerome knew that the senior Aldini had done some things that were unethical, to say the least, he really had not understood the full weight of his friend’s distress until now. The shock of seeing this patient in person must have been overwhelming. He felt such sadness as he watched Tomasso tell his story. What could he do but listen. Tomasso told Father Jerome of his meeting with Nurse Balderes at the café and of the blunder that preceded the meeting. The priest let out a chuckle. Father Jerome added that he thought a social outing with someone of Nurse Balderes nature might be just what the doctor ordered. He suggested they might meet her at the church. The men had just reached the doors of the church as Esperanza walked out of the building. Father Jerome greeted her then bid them both good evening.
Tomasso was generally dressed in a tailored suit even when “off duty”. Propriety was important for a young surgeon. Nurse Balderes looked even more beautiful with the sunlight playing off her red hair. Her pale green dress and hat made her eyes appear more green than usual. She smiled as she greeted him. He mentioned that he’d had a meeting and was glad that he had met her at the church. He asked if he could walk with her to the Café. She assented as he offered her his arm. After all, stone paths have been terribly uneven since the war. It was merely a polite gesture to offer her his arm. At least that is what Esperanza told herself. The bombing left Normandy’s streets in a shambles.
The owner of the Columbus Café came out from the kitchen to meet Tomasso and Esperanza at the door. He was a gregarious, balding man as round as he was tall. The café itself was subtly elegant. Soft lighting on the walls illuminated lovely oil paintings. The crisp, white linen table cloths were a contrast to the deep indigo paint on the walls. Diners sipped out of delicate china cups while the waiters moved silently about the room. The owner ushered M. Aldini and la mademoiselle to a table in the corner. He showed Esperanza to a chair, but surprisingly did not offer a menu. He asked M. Aldini what he would have to eat. Tomasso chose two coffees and two canelé with chantilly cream. The man took the order and left in a hurry to bring their coffees.
Making small talk Tomasso asked Nurse Balderes how things had concluded at the end of her shift. She replied that the rest of the afternoon was uneventful. Esperanza wondered to herself if he was always this uncomfortable talking to women. She added that she was always glad that her shift was uneventful because her patients were stable. He allowed a smile to escape his lips. Thinking this very likely the first time she ever saw a genuine smile on his face, she smiled in return. She had the kind of smile that caused her nose to wrinkle. Tomasso was enchanted.
Changing the subject, Esperanza mentioned that it was the first time she’d ever been to this café, as their canelé arrived at the table. The waiter set their order in front of them. There was enough chantilly cream to float a small boat in a separate bowl with her pastry. Her eyes must have told the story because Tomasso laughed. He assured her that the portions were always that large. This is why the café was his favorite in the city. Esperanza really did enjoy hearing his laugh. It was exactly the kind of laugh one would have expected a man of his nature to possess. Esperanza let out a little giggle. She informed Tomasso that she had not seen that much cream since her grandmother made Crema Catalana for the Bishop on St. Joseph’s day. They both started in on their dessert though Tomasso had a hard time looking away from that charming face sitting across from him. In his heart he knew that this was the woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Though he dared not admit it to himself. With his family background it was hardly likely a woman like Nurse Balderes would marry him.
Tomasso didn’t expect to enjoy the evening so much. He had planned to have a pastry then politely leave. However, during the evening as they sipped coffee and talked about their homelands. He realized neither of them had eaten a proper meal. He ordered bread and cheese. Esperanza ate gratefully, she was very hungry. Tomasso noticed how she talked with such fondness about her father’s ranch and the dogs that he bred. She missed her mother and younger siblings. Tomasso spoke of his school days and his mother who had been a surgical nurse during WWI. He talked about her bravery, wisdom, kindness to others and her gentleness as a mother to him and his brother, Dante. Esperanza noticed that he only spoke once of his father simply stating that he was a busy man. As she watched his face, she saw a flash of hurt in his eyes or was it anger? Or both? It was clear to her that this was not a happy relationship.
All evening Tomasso kept thinking how utterly perfect this happy accident turned out. Nurse Balderes was so much like his own mother in personality. She was intelligent and had a wonderful sense of humor. She made him laugh more than once. (and also blush more than once) Her laugh was intoxicating. She dazzled him with how much she knew about medicine, how practical she was about the everyday things and how passionate she was about acts of mercy through the church. He had told her that he had not always been a person to faithfully attend church. That changed when he moved to France and met Father Jerome at The Bayeux. Much to his own surprise he felt compelled to tell Nurse Balderes that he had not been happy with the direction of his life. Therefore, the church and in particular Father Jerome had become a source of meaning and peace. She said that she also found the church a source of peace. She said she’d come to The Bayeux to serve humanity and the church. He confided that he admired the joy that she radiated. She was very taken aback by his honesty. He was usually so enigmatic.
Esperanza asked Tomasso why he was pursuing medicine. What compelled him to be a surgeon. It was her opinion that it was not because he came from a long line of scientists and doctors of medicine. He asked her why. She told him that he had distinguished himself from the other surgeons. He was compassionate, showed empathy but was always very professional. He gave families unwelcome news himself instead of waiting for the nurses to do this unhappy job. It was his turn to be taken aback. He had no idea the nurses even paid attention. After all he had not finished his training to be a surgeon. Why should they notice? She seemed to read his mind. She wanted him to know that the nurses certainly paid attention after all they put the lives of their patients in the hands of a surgeon, not to mention their own careers.
They had been sitting at the table for nearly 2 hours. The evening seemed to fly by for both of them. Tomasso inquired about when Nurse Balderes would need to be back to her dormitory. She said she didn’t live in the dormitory, she had quarters in the convent. She acted as their nurse in return for her room and board. Furthermore, she said she very much enjoyed saying in the convent. It was much like her living quarters at school. It was contemplative and the nuns appreciated her diligence in keeping them healthy. While she did not have a curfew it would be best if she were home soon. She needed to sleep. Somehow Tomasso was not surprised she lived with the nuns. It explained how she managed to stay so focused. He almost wished he could live in the rectory with Father Jerome and Father Gabriel or perhaps the monastery but of course this was not permitted. The hospital had put a lot of money into training their surgeons therefore they must stay in the apartments built for the purpose.
Tomasso paid the check then introduced Esperanza to M. Riopel. She said she was very pleased to meet him and hoped that she would see him again soon. M. Riopel said he would see her on Sunday for Mass.
Tomasso asked Nurse Balderes if she would like to have coffee or a meal again sometime. She replied that seeing him again socially would be a pleasure however, he should tell Father Jerome so that he’s aware that one of the lodgers at the nunnery is seeing a parishioner. She had to be scrupulously careful about her reputation. Not only for the sake of the nuns with whom she lived but also for the sake of her career. There are always jokes about doctors or surgeons and nurses with whom they work. It’s almost cliché. She did not set out in nursing to become a cliché! She genuinely liked Mr. Aldini both as a surgeon and as a person. Furthermore, she enjoyed his company.
As they walked to the convent Tomasso was quiet. She held onto his arm again this time he was much more relaxed. For her part, Esperanza was surprised by Mr. Aldini’s attentiveness to her and to everyone he encountered during their time at the café. She was expecting him to be as aloof as he was at work. To her, it seemed as though he just did not feel worthy of the attention of the people with whom he worked. Not what you would expect from someone who came from the Aldini family. There was more to the story of his life, she was sure.
As Tomasso felt Nurse Balderes small hand on his arm he noticed she wasn’t as tentative about taking his arm for support. The sunset was just ebbing away as they came to the convent door. The gold light from the sun was captured in her red hair. Nurse Balderes was even more fascinating than he thought she would be. She had a kind of fierce compassion the kind you only find in those truly dedicated to the medical field. In his world there was a routine, a sameness to every single day. In two hours Esperanza Balderes not only broke the routine, Tomasso knew that no day in his life would ever be the same again. He was relieved and terrified at the same time.
It had been a chance encounter that brought Nurse Balderes and Mr. Aldini together. Tomasso Aldini may have found that one woman could understand him and the predicament of his family. Esperanza Balderes could see that Mr. Aldini would be a constant, powerfully quiet influence in her life. Someone who might provide balance to that intensity that often got carried away. She’d needed that strong person to help her realize her goals without losing herself in the process. Both would find that life had much more to offer them in the future