Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Home of the Dying

I had about an hour last night where I lay awake in my bed, unable to fall asleep after checking A's blood sugar at 2:00 AM, then staying up long enough to make sure it went up to a good level before I went back to bed. All I could think about were the pictures of the Home of the Dying that I had looked through earlier in the day. So, I'll reflect a bit with you all- and this one is pretty far off from the funny/humiliating experience I posted about yesterday. Just be warned that this is pretty raw and a bit gritty. If you want rainbows and sunshine- this isn't the day to read my blog. This is one of those that is based on the thought that the difficult experiences in life are often the ones that shape you most:
During 2 months spent in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1998, I toured Titagar on my 22nd birthday (a Missionaries of Charity run leper colony outside of Calcutta) and spent a series of days working in one of Mother Teresa's homes, The Home of the Destitute and Dying (Nirmal Hriday- meaning Pure Heart).
The home is an old, abandoned temple. Mother Teresa sought permission in the 1950's to use it as a hospice type facility for the poor. It practically shares a wall with Kali Temple (Kali is the Hindu goddess of death). How ironic, that a home to rescue the dying would be smack next to the temple celebrating and worshipping the goddess of death. This photo is of the roof of the home of the dying with linens drying in the sun, with the top of Kali temple just behind it.The building is divided into several large rooms. The men and women are in separate areas, for purposes of dignity and privacy. Male volunteers help the men, female volunteers help the women. Cots line the walls. These beds have vinyl covered foam mattresses on them (which had to be a wonderful comfort to the aching bodies of those that lay in them, considering that many of these people had been sleeping on the streets). Some of the people here regain strength and health and are able to go home, or move on. Others die, but die with whatever dignity and peace can be offered, and are surrounded with love as they pass.

This photo is taken from wikipedia of the men's area. The rest of the pics are a bit grainy, but are my own.

It is a home where the destitute are brought. Many here were found dying on the streets. Some are in late stages of diseases and are brought by family that can do nothing to help them. Others are merely too poor, low caste, or too disabled to receive medical care or feed themselves. This home made clear to me the heart of Mother Teresa, and the Missionaries of Charity. There is nothing boastful about this place. Nothing bold or blatantly evangelical. It is love, in one of it's purest and rarest forms; servanthood. Love for the unlovable, hurting, diseased, and cast out. And it is love that looks past caste or religion, in a nation that has a hard time looking past those divisions.
My first impression of the ladies I was helping, was that they must have looked similar to what those who survived the holocaust looked like. The second observation was that no matter how much I wanted to hear their stories, I didn't speak their language.
The sisters and volunteers that work here daily are amazingly selfless, tireless, and focused. They care for those they serve by preparing, and often hand-feeding them hot meals, washing linens/clothing daily, hand-bathing and helping the men and women use the restroom, dosing medications, administering physical therapy (so many of the women I helped had such atrophied muscles that it was painful for them to attempt to straighten their limbs). They know the men and women by name, and treat them with such respect, attention and care.

I don't remember exactly how many days we worked there. Maybe a week. But so many things struck me to the core. As you can see from the two pictures here of us holding the women, they would hold you back. Tightly. How often are they actually 'held' and not just 'lifted' to go to the shower or bathroom? One of the girls on our team actually got Tuberculosis on this trip. That's how real the death/disease is in this place.
I would go through those days, mostly subsisting on the mental level necessary to help out. I was completely in shock, having come from my wealthy, suburban, clean, and medical-care-abundant, American life, expecting to 'give my heart out to the poor.' I think that's why they have volunteers rotate duties/jobs at these homes. They rotate you through so that you're doing various tasks all day long (laundry, cooking, dispensing medication, showers, hand feeding some of them, bathroom assistance, etc.) - but I think it's so that you don't melt down from the overwhelming need that is so constant. There is a forced tea break as well- and I think that break has very little to do with nourishment for the volunteers... As I got back to our hostel each night, I would break down and just weep while listening to worship music in an attempt to be re-filled so that I could find the strength to do it again another day.
Passages in the Bible about helping the poor, helping the least of these, etc. took on such a depth of meaning to me that I had not experienced before. Thinking of these women, bruised and bleeding, in need of not only physical help, but someone to hold them in the absence of their family or friends. I went into it imagining that I could be a light, and pray over these women. I know I did those things- but it seemed so paltry in comparison to the raw needs they had (food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and rest). At one point, one of the longer term residents who was in a recovery stage- and one of the only ones who spoke English, shouted across the room at me "Use Force, Sister" as I was attempting to gently help a woman stretch her legs.
When I got home from India, I was asked to speak to the youth at The Rock in Bartlesville, OK. I don't remember what I said that day- but I was a MESS. I was still in some stage of shock, and still unable to fully make sense of the dichotomy...

So many things stand out in my memory, even 12 years later. If I close my eyes, I can still smell and feel the lye soap on my red, raw hands. I can hear the sounds of clanging gongs and goats being sacrificed in the temple nextdoor, and a loud funeral procession going through the streets outside. I can feel the heat on my hands of a glass of steaming HOT tea, served in a cup with no handle. I remember the thoughts I had as I washed my outfit every night at our hostel, wondering what germs/diseases I had present on my body and in my clothing. And the prayers I prayed each night that none of the ladies that I was helping that day would die while I slept...

Somehow, in some amazing way that only God could have orchestrated, I came home knowing that a piece of me had stayed in India, and a piece of India had remained in me. I knew that someday I would return. Now, years later, I look back. I lived there for a year, and am in the process of bringing a little Indian girl home to be part of our family. India will forever be a part of me!
Other things:
This beautiful prayer was prayed by the Pope on his visit there in 1986. Here also, is an amazing photo website, that you really MUST see, with many more images that reveal the beauty and the pain of this place. And this article showcases the work of the Missionaries of Charity, with info about a number of their homes/projects in Calcutta.


3galsmama said...

Despite the warning, I saw rainbows and sunshine in what you described ... what an amazing and profound experience. Bless you for being a rainbow and sunshine in the lives of those you helped!

Anna C said...

I agree. I was in Calcutta the summer of 2000 and we got to spend 2 days here. I have very similar pictures and memories. They are still so clear to me. The other place I worked for 2 days was at one of the Mother Teresa orphanages. And for some reason, every time I think of your little girl, I think of there. I have been to India 2 other times and leave a little bit of myself there each time. It's a magical place!

The Pfeiffer Family said...

Thank you for sharing about your time serving in India. It sounds like God used you to be His hands and feet to these hurting ladies. My husband and I served in the slums of Shad Abad in Aug. 2008 and I feel like a part of me is still in India. I too had a difficult time coming back and trying to make sense of everything that I encountered (and I didn't see anything to the level that you did). How wonderful it will be when your Indian princess comes home to your family. I am praying that referrals start coming in soon!

April :-)

Traci said...

You seem to continually put my thoughts into written form. We visited this home while we were in Kolkata to pick up Selah. We were so struck by the contrast of the dark, dirty, blood covered Kali temple and the clean, loving home for the dying. It's such a picture of what Christ brings and what the devil brings. Thank you for working there and for sharing your thoughts.

Peter and Nancy said...

Thanks for reliving your experience for us. We visited the parts of that building that are open to the public, and it was just as you said -- filled with the fragrance of Christ.

Places like this are one reason I don't like it when people say we "rescued" Anya Rashi. Our lives are so easy and so blessed -- the people who truly are rescuers are those nuns serving every day, with their entire lives.

I'm so glad I've gotten to "meet" you through our shared adoption experiences.

jasonliberty said...

Wow, What amazing memories you have! How awesome you were able to be God's hands, feet and heart during your stay! I am humbled!!


Sohailah said...

It's amazing how much clarity I have EVERY time I remember our time in India. CALcutta. I LOVE that you are adopting a precious little one from there. I still have the picture of our Under the tree children up in my house.

Love you - thanks for remembering me.

Tisra said...

Wow!!!! Thank you for sharing. I left a piece of me in India, and hope to return some day, too. it has changed me. Blessings on your journey to your daughter! I appreciate what you said about being LOVE, and not necessarily being "evangelical". though I am a Christian, I often feel such frustration that many "reach out" to people without considering their practical needs. How can someone's soul take in the Truth, while having their thirst, hunger, and disease overlooked?!

steph rainey said...


I wish I could grab a cup of coffee with you and dream...I have thought of you and Julie often over the past year. Samuel and I have a stirring in our hearts to move to India. Sign. SO I would love to get your number and chat sometime. I have so many questions and so few answers. I can't wait for you to bring your little one home!