This post was written by my husband, Sean Callahan, in 1994 when he first arrived in Kolkata. I plan to write a post about his experiences in my city. His perspectives – as an outsider. I discovered this journal in old papers, and with his permission, I am posting this in my blog site.
As I entered, I noticed he was gaunt yet tranquil. But when I returned moments later still tying my smock, they were lifting him from his bed to a stretcher. They then folded the sheet over him and placed him by the door. As he lay there peacefully, a man scrawled on the little blackboard “death on bed 34”. I turned away confused, helpless, bewildered – shouldn’t we have taken a moment of silence, some words, a prayer; shouldn’t we cry? What about his family? Instead I picked up another plate of puffed rice and a glass of water, and I handed it to another gaunt man sitting in the corner on the concrete floor.
Good morning! It’s 07:30 am and I have begun my day by attending Mass at the “Mother House” of the Missionaries of Charity at 06:00 am (30 minute walk), and then taking a bus to Kalighat. The Kalighat home is the first home started by Mother Teresa in Calcutta. At the Kalighat home the Missionaries of Charity along with some volunteers like (yours truly) tend to the basic needs of the dying. In fact, this is a home for the dying.
The men, mostly old, sick, and abandoned, ate slowly and they occasionally grunted something in Hindi; to which I promptly responded by bringing them more rice, water or tea. Somehow, we communicated and they ate more quietly. As they finished we (the volunteers) collected their metal bowls and cups and we formed a scrubbing circle in the kitchen. Bob gave the first rinse, Christopher applied the detergent, and Rich gave them a final dunking and then stacked them by the (now) dirty tubs of water where we worked. As the “system” got going we began to enjoy the rhythm of the work. We were finishing the plates of the 48 men we served breakfast for, when some women came in with an equal number of metal bowls and cups. Although the home was segregated (male/female) out of a sense of dignity for the ‘guests’, the volunteers joined together in the kitchen to perform the menial, yet essential, tasks.
I was pleased by our successful completion of Phase I – breakfast and kitchen duty, but I was apprehensive about Phase II – bathing. As I entered the ward, a MC brother (the Missionaries of Charity have Brothers, Sisters and Priests, as part of their order) signaled me to carry a skeleton of a man the bathing room. As I entered the room, the man protested and moved around uncomfortably. Since I couldn’t understand him, I looked toward the MC Brother who nodded towards the bathroom. “Wonderful”, I chuckled to myself perversely. I carried #48 (many of the men have no names since they have been abandoned and often can’t communicate even with the local linguists) to a trough with holes periodically placed. As he rested his legs to the sides of the trough, I held his upper body until the deed was done (“Are we having fun yet?”). Back to the bathing room. where the MC Brothers cleaned these men, who, by now were covered with their breakfast and excrement. As I placed #48 on the tile bench, I was signaled to carry out a man who had just been bathed. I carried this naked and dripping man to the main room where we dried him, clothed him and returned him to his cot (which in the meantime had been cleaned by some other lucky volunteer or MC Brother). This process continued for 30 minutes – one man after another – until all 48 men were clean. The women, of course, performed similar functions on the other side of the home.
Phase III – laundry. Again, I was a bit apprehensive about washing the clothes of these men as they truly needed to be washed (if you catch my drift). Anyway, we set up our assembly line: heavy detergent soak, light detergent soak, rinse, and the roof to dry. I, unfortunately, was assigned to the rinse and wring section (I started getting the feeling that these people of slight/small build were trying to take advantage of my ‘brute force and ignorance’). Despite my apprehension, the washing was O.K. But just as we were finishing, a man came in the kitchen (now the laundry room) and signaled me to come. “Me?” I questioned, looking around. “Yes, carry body,” he replied. “Oh”, I thought, “another man needs to go to the bathroom”. But as I left the kitchen, the stretcher with the folded sheets caught my eye. I looked at the board again “Death on bed #34”. Sister Dolores (previously stationed in Latin America, New York and Baltimore with Missionaries of Charity) was talking to two men, as I approached the stretcher. Since I was concerned about the formal goodbye, I guessed this was somebody’s way of giving me more time with #34. There was a small box on top of the sheet which I thought might have been his possessions, but one of the MC brothers said, “Open it.” I lifted the sheet, it revealed a small body born/died last night. I turned to MC Brother who said, “He is from the children’s center. They send all the dead to Kalighat. Last week we found 5 babies in a plastic bag.”
I carried #34 and the tiny box to a van, and I accompanied them through the crowded streets to the Police Station for the processing of papers. They have no name, no family, no one. They were taken in by the MC’s, given food and clothes, bathed, and given love and joy. They were given PEACE, before they died. The Police’s approval allowed me to carry #34 and the small box through the street and down a long alley. I felt the eyes of the crowd in the street as they watched this foreigner carry the stretcher to the back of a temple. I, then. lifted #34 onto a pile of ashes near a wall and I placed the small box on top of him. The man accompanying me then took a metal stretcher and placed it against the wall to shield the bodies from the vultures that hovered overhead. I returned to the home with the empty stretcher.
Phase IV: Medical Treatment: This included holding the men as the MC Brothers cleaned and treated their open sores and wounds. Again, I became confused as I had to overpower frail and sick men while their wounds were treated. Some struggled, some screamed, others just cried. They had been beaten (cane and whipping scars), broken (one man’s back), and infected (worms, TB, bone infections, etc). It wasn’t pretty, but I could tell they knew they were being cared for. They may never have been treated with such love before.
Lunch time, and the process resumes: Serving, cleaning, caring. I lucked out again – garbage duty. All the waste was placed in a vat that Rich and I carried on a bamboo pole. We proceeded down the street from the home with the viewers again searching us. When we finally dumped our cargo, a woman (barely dressed in rags) scared the dogs away so she could have first choice.
The plague, TB, cerebral malaria, and leprosy are always on my mind when I volunteer in a home, visit families in the city or see a rat scurry by, but for some reason, it is an awareness – not fear. Although sickness (and mortality) maybe more prevalent due to the socio-economic and environmental conditions of those with whom CRS works, I feel somewhat secure that the risk is relatively small. I must admit that I do wonder with each infection, if it is something that would be catastrophic for me, is a visible and regular occurrence for my neighbors in this city.