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Broken Thermometers


Editor’s Note: Missioner Maeve Gallagher reflects on how all of our experiences shape who we are and no matter disjointed these experiences may seem at the time, they all fit together to form the people who we are today.

Several months ago I found myself at a public hospital in the heart of Guatemala City, sitting at the bedside of one of Valley of the Angels’ young girls. When the nurse came around to take her temperature, she placed an old-fashioned thermometer under her tongue and walked away. In the minutes that followed, the little girl accidentally dropped the thermometer. We watched it shatter on the ground, little glass shards becoming invisible on the white tiles and tiny droplets of mercury scattering across the floor.

“It’s okay,” I reassured the girl. “I’ll clean it up.”

I grabbed our roll of toilet paper I brought (the public hospital doesn’t provide patients with any bathroom necessities) and wet a few pieces with water. The glass stuck to the tissue, but the mercury refused. My mind flashed back to a story my mother told me once, how as a child, she would roll the little balls of mercury toward each other, fascinated by the silvery beads’ fluidity and movement. That memory was immediately followed by a flashback to my 9th grade chemistry class where I learned that mercury is a poison and definitely not a toy.

With a bit of toilet paper in between my fingers I repeatedly grabbed at the tiny balls to pick them up. Mercury, apparently, is not attracted to toilet paper, so after a few futile attempts I walked over to the nurse’s station where two women were standing.

“Sorry to bother you, but my friend accidentally broke a thermometer and I can’t pick up the mercury.”

“Did you try it with a tissue? If that doesn’t work then just leave it there. The cleaning staff will get it later,” a nurse answered.

With my fingers I rolled the tiny balls together until they made a bigger blob under my chair.

Recently a friend of mine and I were talking about how our life experiences have shaped us.

“Our lives are like a broken thermometer,” she said. “When you play with all those little mercury beads they bounce around, but then, all of a sudden, bloop!” She smashed her hands together. “They form into one ball without you realizing it. All the pieces are separate until something makes them come together, and then they fit together so well you can’t tell that they were once apart.”

Everything I’ve experienced, both the good and the bad, have helped form who I am today. Each awkward, wild, painful, and joyful event has a part in our formations. Sometimes we wonder why something is happening to us and it’s not until days, or even years later that we realize how those experiences fit into our life story. In our lives, the mercury balls are always rolling and multiplying and they can seem impossible to manage.

A lot of times it feels like we’re running in circles, trying and failing to catch these silvery beads of experience and organize them in a way that makes sense. However, clarity comes in those moments when everything stands still and they all fit together to form a beautiful and cohesive image.

Reflection question: Have you had a mercury thermometer experience? How can you remind yourself of these times of clarity during the times when everything seems unclear and disconnected?

Maeve Gilheney-Gallagher is a returned lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service who served for two years at Valley of the Angels orphanage in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She currently serves on the FMS Board and works as the Global Solidarity Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Mission. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Dan, and three-legged dog, Lola.