by Susan Conroy
Some people who visit the Home for the Dying naturally are upset about the way this place is run, the quality of medical attention, and the overall conditions. I was not at issue with the goings-on, because I was more attuned to the spiritual side of what was happening there — the love, the peace, the joy, the tenderness with which the patients were cared for — more than the medical side, which was not the least bit “high tech,” but neither was it meant to be. As Mother Teresa has said in the past, “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.” To me, it was a beautiful place, a place where people died in peace with God after being loved and cared for like angels. “I don’t want the work to become a business, but to remain a work of love,” Mother Teresa said. And that is what her work was and continues to be.
Mother Teresa was once asked: “Why do you give them fish to eat? Why don’t you give them a rod to catch the fish?” She responded: “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I have given them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over and you give them the rod to catch the fish!”9 She felt that we each have a role to play in serving those in need. She understood that there are many different levels of service, each of them important. Mother Teresa personally was called to serve at the level where people could not even help themselves; she was called to do work that was essential, and to do work that most of us would never care to do.
Let us always meet each other with a smile … for a smile is the beginning of love. -- Mother Teresa
The Home for the Dying is a place where the poor die within sight of someone who cares. Mother Teresa said: “We help them all die in peace with God. I don’t think anyone here has died without making peace with God.” Even though the patients were often coughing and spitting, and some of them had open wounds and sores, and the work was unappealing to most people, at first the newness of the experience made it easy to go to work each day. After a while, however, the newness began to wear off a bit. Then it became more challenging to be faithful to the work and to keep going back.
I knew, though never precisely, what to expect each day in the Home for the Dying. One of the difficult aspects was the stench, which at times was unbearable. The strong odor of disinfectant, human waste, and death all blended together and offended my all-too-sensitive sense of smell. Right inside the entrance of the Home for the Dying there was a small wooden cross that read: “Peace to all who enter.” Many times I would pause at that cross, touch it, and brace myself before going inside.
As I entered, I would remind myself why I was there and what I hoped to do. That helped to give me courage. After saying a prayer to God, the Great Healer, I would pass through the men’s section and greet them all at once and watch so many faces brighten up, like a string of lights.
Although I grew accustomed to the workings of the Home for the Dying, there was still much to learn. One day, I gave an injection to a woman who was suspected of having leprosy. She had gaping holes in her face, holes that went straight through to her jawbone, teeth, and skull. I had never served anyone with such a frightful appearance, and I had never before in my life given anyone an injection. With a little training, I did it.
Some of the injections were intended to be intra-muscular injections — but we could not find any muscle at all in many of the patients’ limbs. It was pitiful to watch these injections being administered, because there was nothing but skin-covered bone. The thought alone made me wince. We really needed to keep our courage as we kept trying to serve in any way we could. While doing so, we were experiencing one of the great lessons of Saint Francis of Assisi: we received so much while giving of ourselves.
When you let me take, I’m grateful. When you let me give, I’m blessed. -- Author unknown
It was not easy to say who was receiving more during the afternoons I spent in the Home for the Dying.
The Sisters and volunteers who were medically trained would put tubes through the nostrils down to the stomachs of some patients who could no longer take in any solid food, so that they could at least receive nourishing fluids.
One day this arrangement was not working well for a man who was dying of tuberculosis. This man kept vomiting in his bed and losing all the nourishment that they were trying to give him. A couple of nurses from England called out and asked if there was anyone who would volunteer to sit on his bed and hold this man in an upright position so that the fluids would drain down into his stomach and hopefully not be lost. My hand went up immediately. How I wanted to help in this way! All summer long, I had been able to sit at the patients’ bedsides taking care of them, feeding them, holding their hands, but this was a chance to really hold someone. I sat on his bed and the nurses propped his body up against mine in a sitting position, and all afternoon I held him. I will never forget that experience, or how he looked up at me the whole time that I cared for him. I was deeply touched by his silent stare, his large innocent eyes, his young face, and the way that he gently caressed my hand as I held him. Who was comforting whom, I wondered? Who was giving more joy, peace, and strength to whom? Until the time of his death, he gave me everything he had to give.
I thought that I would go to Calcutta and bring joy and relief to those who were suffering, but I never imagined that they would love and comfort me in return. I simply was not expecting this, and it touched me deeply. In silence, I remained with this man for hours, just holding him as he caressed my hand. We took care of each other. My young friend died during that same night, yet not until he had given everything, every bit of love he had left to give. It was almost as if he was somehow fulfilled and his life was somehow made complete that afternoon. I felt the same way about my own life. My heart and soul were so full.
One might think that these dying patients had nothing left to give, that they could only receive love and comfort and tenderness; but this was not so. This young man proved that he could offer love all the way to his last breath. After he died, Sister Luke told me that we were the same age — we were both twenty-one.
Love to be real must cost; it must hurt; it must empty us of self. -- Mother Teresa
One time I left the Home for the Dying late in the evening. I walked through the Home in the dark. All of the volunteers and Sisters had gone. It was just the dying people and me. As I walked along the aisles, I looked at their faces and reached out to touch their feet as I passed the foot of each of their beds. I was surprised to see they were not sleeping. They were awake and alert in the silence, stillness, and darkness of evening, as if they were waiting for the night to pass. My heart was moved with pity. One woman reached up to me with trembling arms. I could not resist stopping and staying with her for a while. This was one of my saddest memories because it is one of the few deep regrets I have. She was soiled from head to toe. Her bed was a mess. She smelled badly. I held her hands and spoke with her softly. We smiled a lot at each other. But in the dark, I did not know how I could carry her into the bathing area alone. I had never carried or bathed anyone all by myself. There were no windows there, no light. I did not know if I could even find the soap in the dark. Furthermore, it was so late that I knew it would be a little dangerous for me to be traveling through the city at night alone. I thought it would be wisest if I got started on my journey soon. After my visit with this woman in the dimly-lighted Home for the Dying, I got up and waved to her as I parted. I always remember this experience. I wish so much that I could have done more for her that evening. I felt that I failed to “love until it hurt.”
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Conroy. All rights reserved.
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