In the old section of Kolkata there is an even older, sacred section known as Kalighat. This neighborhood is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali and is said to be an auspicious place to die. Many years ago Mother Teresa began her ministry by walking the grimy, teeming sidewalks of Kalighat, bringing comfort to the dying homeless and establishing a local mission house where they could be bathed and die in dignity.
When I am 21 I travel to this mission house as a volunteer seeking challenges not yet confronted in my gentle and protected life. Like many buildings in the area, the mission house is a beautiful and crumbling remnant from India’s colonial past. Slightly mildewed and with a haunting grandeur, its high arched windows flood the interior with tropical light while ceiling fans drone against the 100-degree heat. The smells of sweat, incense and raw sewage waft across the city and through the open windows. The room I work in is crammed with rows of emaciated, dying women of all ages. With heads shaved against lice and wearing plaid muslin smocks their eyes are hollowed with illness. Some are agitated, their moans layering the atmosphere with an urgency I cannot soothe. The suffering in the room is overwhelming and I don’t know how to move through my complicated emotions to make myself useful.
How do you say, although we share no language or culture, I will love you fiercely, stranger, in the hours you have left? You have little but your dignity and I will find this and honor it. This I promise. The other caregivers do this so well, I think. I falter down the aisle of cots, marveling at the nuns’ relentless radiance as they handle bed-pans, bathe, feed, and comfort the dying. Many work with an objectivity I somehow find both enviable and heartbreaking.
I pick up a metal tray of food and begin feeding tiny mouthfuls of dal to a young woman who shows little interest in eating. I notice cockroaches flourishing around the drain near the toilets and decide to bathe her instead.
At the far end of the room I see a woman who, at first glance, I assume is already dead. Her skeletal body is marked by sores and a grotesquely distended abdomen. Her sunken yellow eyes stare blankly as she claws at the air in pain and desperation, groaning. The nuns bathe her gently and move on to attend to other patients. As I reach her side, she grasps at my hand with bony fingers. Her physical appearance is shocking and I am reluctant to touch her. A hesitation I am deeply ashamed to acknowledge. So I sit, buffered with discomfort, until she draws me into a sacred space. She begins talking to me, in faint whispers. I realize that her groaning is actually crying without the water for tears.
She whispers through those hot, hot hours, in a language completely foreign to me. I understand nothing. I understand everything.
I find myself on the woman’s cot, cradling her. Stroking her shaved head and bony arms. She is going to die on this cot, this afternoon, surrounded by strangers. Is she thinking of those she loved? Of those she wished to love? For a life she does not want to leave or a life that brought little kindness? Although I can’t help but ask myself these questions I realize how insignificant they actually are. My time to love her is now. I am not asked to understand her past. I will love you fiercely, stranger.
She is suffering through each breath now and the whispering has stopped. I let my tears flow down my face and hers. I was naive to hide behind my discomfort. What does my discomfort matter?
We are an island–the dying woman, the cot, and I. A moment of stillness between the agony of the last hours and what is to come.
When I was a little girl in New England I attended the funeral of an old family friend. I stood by the open casket, stretching out a finger to touch the cold body of the woman I recognized, yet didn’t. My parents explained, according to our beliefs, that what I saw was simply a shell. That her soul would live on through time and space beyond our capacity to comprehend. For years I visualize the souls of the dead floating into the sky. But here on this cot I wonder… is the soul the ground beneath us? The foundation of what it means to be human? After all, through the many differences that separate us, this woman and I, we walk the same earth.
The dying woman’s breathing becomes more ragged as she struggles to find what peace she can while the haze of death grows thicker. The Kolkata heat wraps us like a blanket as I begin my own whispers. I am thankful for the language barrier. Maybe she cannot tell that my words are inadequate. The nuns begin to appear in gentle shadows around the cot. Eventually, one of them lays her hand on my shoulder and tells me softly it is time to administer the Last Rites. And then, because I have nothing else worthy to give, I give the dying woman the prayers of my soul and kiss her goodbye. Go in peace and know you are loved.
A few minutes later I step into the hot clamor of an old Kolkata street. The overripe sun has started its descent into the city and I am instantly swept into the rhythm of people hurrying onwards, towards dinner, the temple, their loved ones…whatever the next thing is. I know I will spend the rest of my life trying to understand those hours on the cot. But I find an empty space on the sidewalk and sit, feeling the earth vibrate under the many footsteps of Kalighat.