Life, death, and dishes

Many of you may not know that I spent some time in India back in 2007.

I don’t talk about it much for the fear of sounding like the average student traveler looking for a foreign buzz.

But I suppose I was, to some extent. I went for many reasons, and came back realizing that my life would be different in all sorts of ways. For someone who grew up in the comforts of North Americana, diving into Kolkata culture for four months left me with many things to process. Many of which I’m still working on.

It’s hard to explain to people what we did with a short conversation, which is why I won’t dive into too much of that here. I can tell you that I did some work with a wonderful group of freedom workers called Sari Bari. (You can hit up their website here.)

It’s hard to truly understand a culture in four months. It’s actually impossible. It’s something one must devote their whole life to understanding and still then, may not get to fully recognize its impact.

So as I find myself on this journey of understanding meaningful work, I’ve been processing my time at Kalighat. Kalighat was where I volunteered while in India. It is Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying and Destitute. Basically, a hospice center.

It is a place where I saw pain and death, but also peace and joy. And I don’t say those words with the “Christmas-y” tone that you hear so much of right now. There were times of great sadness, but also times where laughter felt like the best thing you could muster up. Most importantly, it was a place for dignity. To hold someone’s hand and to give them peace as they left this physical world.

India 504_filtered

I had small jobs. But it was meaningful work for me. We washed their garments by hand. We hung them on the roof to dry. We emptied out salt and pepper packets donated by major airlines. We fed the brothers and emptied their bed pans. We washed dishes.

My first day there, I accidentally stepped around the sink area with my sandals and the southern Chinaman in charge of teaching volunteers on dishes screamed, “No! What the f*ck are you doing?!” I stepped back as he grabbed my arm and explained to me the way. This dude slowly became one of my favorite people. And then I learned how to teach people.

We washed most of the dishes with empty plastic bags, as rags were of scarcity. There was a person scraping off food bits, another at the wash, sanitize, rinse and dry stations. There are no machines at Kalighat. Only the hands of volunteers and Sisters caring for the broken (in many ways, we were the broken ones.)

And in between the dish and the clothes washing station was the morgue. Any time a body would enter in or out of the station, we all stopped. Some of us closed our eyes. Some of us made the sign of the cross on our bodies as we do in Mass.

It was about as solemn of a time as you could have felt. There were only a few times where I had to carry bodies in and out of Kalighat. To unwrap their still warm bodies and throw their clothes in the bin to be cleaned. They were then wrapped tightly in white linen and brought out to the Missionaries of Charity bus to be cremated.

You witnessed humanity in its every facet.

There were times when all I wanted to do was cry.

There were times when I did all the while rinsing fish bones off the metal dishes.

And the sacred tea time where the volunteers would meet upstairs for tea and biscuits leftover lunch chow. Here we would sing songs and laugh and I would vicariously live through the Italian doctor smoking cigarettes and singing little Italian anthems.

As the bell rang, I would leave and grab my things and look over the brothers once more and wonder by the next time around if they’d still be there or off to another place.

There’s always something to be done. Always a person to love. Always a dish to be cleaned.

And all are important things to me, in this life.

To care for another human being.

There is nothing small about that.


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