Dispatches From Next Door: He sweeps the fear away

Jean Azor
Jean Azor
Published April 3 2013
Updated April 3 2013

TAMPA — The alarm blared just after 6 that morning, but Jean Azor was already up. He showered, then rushed into his closet. He pulled on a pair of black slacks and a beige polo, his uniform at St. Joseph's Hospital. Behind his bed table, a newsletter was pinned to the wall. A photo on it showed him crouching next to a little boy with blond hair and blue eyes. Jean glanced at it and smiled, as if he had a secret. "I know he's coming," Jean said in a thick Haitian accent.

Jean is 33. In 2007, he moved to the United States with a dream to become a nurse and support his family. He came from a land of givers — relatives who had raised him and parents who always shared what little they had with neighbors. But Jean spoke no English and had limited schooling. He worked at a restaurant until, in 2010, he got a job at St. Joseph's. He took out the garbage for $10 an hour and was soon promoted to janitor. He sent thousands of dollars home for his siblings' education, for their house lost in the earthquake, for his daughter, now 9, whom he sees every few years. But his dream remained unfulfilled. As he passed by with a broom, Jean smiled at patients and sometimes said hello. He wasn't helping them, though. Not in the way he wanted to.

In fall 2011, Jean came upon a sobbing toddler in the hall, a tube hooked to the boy's chest. His skin was pale, his head bald. Jean, 6 feet 3, leaned down. "Why you crying?" he asked. The boy, no taller than Jean's knees, stared up. Jean learned that Renton Bryant, then 2, had a blood disorder that required chemotherapy. Jean stayed with him for an hour. They high-fived and played peek-a-boo. When he heard Renton's parents, originally from Canada, speak French, Jean sang Frere Jacques. Before Renton's next visit, his parents tried to explain why he must go. He needed medicine, they told him. "No," Renton said. "I'm going to see my friend."

Jean came to nearly all of Renton's appointments, even on days off. He held him after surgery. He watched his hair grow back. Together, they cleaned the floors.

On that recent morning, Jean swept and mopped as fast as he could. Just after 9, he spotted the family and popped outside. Renton charged him. Soon, Jean's name tag was clipped on the boy's blue-striped polo, and he was lugging an orange caution cone over his shoulder. He plopped it on the floor and tottered behind Jean's cleaning machine, which Renton called the "Zamboni." With his friend holding the throttle, Renton straightened both arms and pushed. Half an hour later, Jean went with him to the checkup. The nurse weighed and measured Renton. She asked him to sit. He handed Jean a bag of Cheez-Its and an apple juice box, then climbed on his lap. The door closed. Renton knew what it meant. His smile faded. He eyed something in the nurse's hand. "Is that a needle?" he said. It was. She asked him for his finger. Renton turned to his friend and whispered: "Can you hold my hand, Jean?"