From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

A Touch of Love

If we pray, we will believe; if we believe, we will love; if we love, we will serve.

Mother Teresa

I’d already been a research volunteer in India for a year when I decided to volunteer at the Mother Teresa Home for the Sick, Dying and Destitute in Calcutta. I knew my research was useful, but I couldn’t help feeling that India was calling me to do something else. I felt my place was in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. One day, I finally gathered the courage to follow my heart and caught the train to Calcutta.

There is something about Calcutta that I will always love. Despite the dirt, cracked pavements, dusty trees and belching traffic fumes, there is such an overwhelming sense of the human spirit that I walk its streets with joy. But, the day I arrived on the dusty street outside the Home, I was overcome with doubt.

My eyes filled with tears as I faced the place my heart had led me, but I couldn’t join the volunteers who were going in. I was terrified of what was inside and of failing to help. I stood outside alone until I couldn’t delay any longer. I walked up to the narrow wooden door and stepped in.

The first thing I saw was a dead man, wrapped in a sheet, waiting to be moved. I had never seen anything like it before; only deceased relatives in coffins. I paused at his skinny, crooked shape. A nun asked me what I wanted. When I looked at her simple smock and rough, callused hands, I realized that she dealt with death every day. She didn’t need me wasting her time. So I promised myself I’d be strong and not let her down. “I am here for the day,” I said. “What can I do?”

She instantly bundled me into a room with a mostly empty medicine cupboard and flung open a larger cupboard with sheets and diapers. With no instructions, she pointed me toward the women’s wing and bustled off. As I looked for an apron, a two-year-old started to scream behind me as a volunteer cleaned the burns covering half the child’s body. Two other volunteers were cleaning a hole in a woman’s foot. I could see a bone protruding from the bloody, red flesh. I couldn’t believe her courage nor the skill of the volunteers. A dead body, a burnt child, a foot cut to the bone—what on earth can I offer here? I’m a researcher not a doctor.

An American volunteer called to me, “Come here and help, will you?” She was trying to wash an elderly lady who was squirming in pain. I helped lift her and dried her off. But no sooner was she out than another was brought in. Over the next few minutes I realized the work had a pattern.

In front of me stretched two rows of women on simple cots. Volunteers were scurrying back and forth, washing, scrubbing, lifting, feeding and diaper changing. They seemed to work in pairs. Everybody was constantly coming and going. I felt lost. The American didn’t need me anymore, and I didn’t know where else to begin. The volunteers looked friendly but were too busy to explain much to a late newcomer. As I wondered if I should leave, a German woman threw me a cloth.

For the next two hours, I washed, wiped and tried to keep the women’s dignity as I changed diaper after diaper. Some women cried out in pain in Hindi; others glared silently. They no doubt resented this young Western girl fumbling about with their bodies, and I didn’t blame them.

At mid-morning the volunteers had tea and biscuits on the roof. How wonderful to meet some of the faces that had raced around me at three times the pace I could manage. But, I felt shy and disappointed that I couldn’t make a real difference to the women downstairs. Once again, my mind told me that my actions were useful, yet my heart and spirit felt empty. As I looked down at the flower and fruit wallahs (sellers), who sat all day on the street, I decided to find meaning in whatever I did that day.

I ran downstairs, full of energy for more scrubbing. To my surprise, a volunteer told me this was quiet time when I could spend a couple of hours with one woman. I could brush her hair, talk to her or hold her hand. I started walking along the beds and asked the universe to direct me to someone. A few of the women were sleeping, and most who were wide awake turned away from me. But one woman looked straight at me and called to me in her language.

I sat on her bed, reaching for her hand, but she grabbed my wrist first, holding me in a ferocious grip. Her stringy, tangled hair was slick with grease, and her bumpy skin sagged into her cheeks. She looked fiercely into my eyes for a minute, then two minutes—maybe longer. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help her. Feeling embarrassed, I turned to ask a volunteer. Suddenly, the woman grabbed my wrist even harder, as if to say, No, you can’t go. Your time’s not done here.

Taking a deep breath, I looked into her eyes and realized that my challenge was to love without fear. I began to do the only thing I could think of—stroke her arm. As she lay her head back on the pillow, I took her other arm and rubbed that, too. Her eyes were closed. Finding some moisturizer, I massaged her shoulders. She suddenly pulled up her tunic and pointed to her belly, which was as twisted as her face had been a moment earlier; I massaged that as well. As her body eased itself into my touch, her face began to soften. Over the next hour I massaged her legs, her back and finally her head and face.

During that hour, years melted from her face. When she finally opened her eyes, they were so full of peace that I started to cry. It seemed incredible that only a few hours before I had felt useless. I had forgotten how I love to share the healing power of touch. But she saw through my fear and gave me the best gift of all—the opportunity to love another human being so completely that we were both transformed. I will always remember that moment as the most beautiful and powerful in my life and honor her as one of my greatest teachers.

Kayte Fairfax

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Missionaries of Charity is the religious congregation Mother Teresa founded of sisters, brothers and priests, which is dedicated to the wholehearted and free service of the poorest of the poor all over the world. For information, contact Missionaries of Charity, 54A A.J.C. Bose Road, Calcutta, India 700016;Web site: www.missionariesofcharity.org/index.html.In North America, contact Missionaries of Charity, 335 East 145th Street, Bronx, NY 10451; 718-292-0019. For addresses in other parts of the world for the regional houses, see Web page: www.angelfire.com/de/lagana/volunteerlinks.html.]

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