The Home for the Dying
On a street corner in Kolkata the sounds of cars honking, bicycle bells ringing and the buzz of blended voices can be heard as swarms of colorful people are seen carrying burdens, selling and trading things, sitting in groups, bathing in fountains and puddles, and sleeping on available patches of dirt and concrete. Almost hidden in the flurry of activity is a white stone building, ordinary in appearance like all the others on the street. Enter the doorway and everything changes.
You first notice a black board with numbers written in chalk. One number represents male residents, one female. One records the number of people discharged and another, the number of deaths occurring that day. There are approximately 100 residents, 50 men and 50 women who are very sick and in fact are closer to being dead than to being alive. To the right are the women and to the left are the men. It is a small space and it is hard to imagine that there are actually that many people laid out on small mattresses side by side. There are IV poles here and there and it is quiet. Not an eerie quiet, but a contented, calming, grace-filled quiet.
We have come at lunch time and there are a number of volunteers serving alongside with the sisters. We learn that sometimes volunteers are many and sometimes, few. One senses that the volunteers need to be with those who are dying as much as the dying need them. It is an international scene. There are men and women of all ages, nations, and religions working in quiet harmony. Everyone seems to know what they are doing. The residents are sitting or lying down, eating from bowls or sipping from cups. The volunteers are spooning or pouring into hands or bowls or mouths. Some are singing softly, one is gently rocking a woman who doesn’t seem to be able to eat.
At the center of the compound is a large washing area. It resembles an open shower. I am told that the residents are bathed every day. Someone asks a Sister for a razor blade. He says that they have just received a person from the streets who is “quite dirty.” He is bleeding from the rectum and has many sores. They need to shave him. Sister gives a blade. I am told that most of the people are filthy when they first come here and after listening and watching, I wonder just how a body can get into such terrible condition. The volunteers don’t seem to flinch. One can only imagine the things they have seen.
Upstairs, there is an open rooftop area where the volunteers can get away for a few minutes. We see a large crucifix on the wall. Under the figure of Jesus is written: I Thirst. We see three women folding clothes in the open room next to us. All the washing is done by hand. The sisters look so clean and the heat does not seem to bother them in their long saris and covered heads. Their clothes are white cotton with a border of sky blue. We learn that the lepers make their clothes with their gnarled hands. A kind Sister named Terese offers us a cool drink and tells us some of her story:
Sometimes while Sister Terese sleeps she will wake up feeling cold. She then knows to go downstairs in order to find which of her patients is in need of a blanket. One time she saw two dragonflies sitting on a window ledge and she fixedly watched them fly away only to learn that at that same moment two of the people in her care died. Another time she had a dream in which she saw Jesus with hundreds and hundreds of thorns sticking out of his head and she saw them fall and shatter on the ground. She woke and prayed and asked for the meaning of this dream. The next morning a volunteer came to her and told her of a man who was brought in during the night with a severe head wound. This volunteer had removed maggots from his exposed brain with tweezers and had counted each one. There were 600.
I experience wonder at the joy and the peace that permeates these walls. Sister tells us that this is because we are in a place where many souls leave the earth and enter into heaven and that they (the sisters and volunteers) get to help prepare the “bride” for the wedding feast. “That makes this one of the holiest places on earth”, she says.
We pray with her in the little chapel and then our feet walk outside. A bit of our hearts however, remain.
(If you missed this video last time- listen now -it’s full of Grace)http://youtu.be/VAOn1PNAsCg
dragonfly watercolor found at http://atelier28.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-watercolour-paintings-of-cats-and.html