Pieces of life

Do you have pieces of life that you hold on to? Treasured photographs, a corporate name plaque from a former life, a stack of old date books. Last night, a new group of women, many of whom I didn't know very well, got together at my house. As a way of introducing ourselves, we brought personal objects from our lives that tell our stories. One of the things I shared was this green scrap of a sheet from the year I was living in India and volunteering in Calcutta.


Journal entry, November 2000.

Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying Destitute in Calcutta, India.

Walking into Nirmal Hrdiay each morning sunlight pours through the windows that surround the rooms. People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul and here it seems so perfect that these beautiful arched windows surround and bathe the women in their light. The day began again with feeding the women breakfast. Most of the communication between us takes place through looks and touch, you realize how little language is needed. After breakfast, we bathed the women and changed the bedding. The shower process is difficult because many of the women cannot walk, so they have to be carried, bathed, dried, clothed, and carried back. Holding a completely malnourished body is a feeling that I will never forget.

Everything here is done by hand. There are different vats that the laundry goes into, which is stirred with long paddles and then stomped out barefoot. We all hand wring out the laundry and carry it up to the rooftop in baskets where it is laid out to dry. I have had many reflective moments on the rooftop, overlooking Calcutta, but today was the most profound.

Since arriving, I had formed a bond with the woman in bed number 46. Each day I would feed her, massage her, and just sit with her. Over three weeks she seemed to be getting progressively worse. One morning when I came in, I looked at her and knew that today was the day that she would die. There was a difference in her eyes, in her spirit. When a person is that close to death, a volunteer will sit with them all day. Periodically the patient will look up to see if someone is still there with them. It seems like having someone there with them gives them the comfort and strength to surrender and close their eyes a final time. So I sat with this woman, comforting her and holding the space.

After some time, the head brother came up to me and asked that I go to the roof to help hang sheets because they needed someone who was tall. I really did not want to leave and offered a bit of resistance, but the brother persisted, and so I went. Once on the roof, I found myself surrounded by baskets overflowing with green sheets.  As I began to hang the sheets, I watched my thoughts rise about how I had wanted to come here to Calcutta to see and experience death and now the woman that I had most connected with was dying and I couldn’t be there. I felt as if I was missing a chance to really experience the moment of death. As I hung sheet after sheet, I couldn’t help but feel the wet texture of the sheets between my fingers as I slid them down to the edges, lining them up neatly, taking my time with each sheet. Each sheet is different from the next, a slightly different expression of green with so many subtleties. With each sheet I fell deeper and deeper into a state of relaxation and surrender. I found myself seeing such beauty in the sheets and treating them with the same presence and love that I give each woman. I realized that being here fully, hanging the sheets was the same experience as sitting beside the woman who was dying. I had said yes to what life was giving, I was not resisting it. And in that moment, it was I that was doing the dying. Dying to the need to control or expect life to look a certain way. I learned that by accepting what the moment offers and by trusting, life would guide me through the lessons that I need to learn. My time and presence are the greatest gifts that I can give. And when I approach life from the perspective of what I have to offer versus what I need, only then, am truly alive.

Do you keep treasured pieces of your life? Are you helping your kids keep them? Do you record the stories they tell?