Feb. 13th, 2004
The Mother Teresa House for the Destitute
I walk into the house thinking I have offered to volunteer my time and hands, but what I quickly learn is that it is my humility and touch that outstretched arms reach out to receive.
I manage my way through the maze of cots in the dimly lit room. Dark and slim bodies dangle, rock, cry, bang, mumble, laugh, smile, scream, sing and sway — their definitions merging into the shadows themselves.
This is a house for the destitute. And the haziness of my 8th grade vocabulary class gains suddenly sharp clarity as I find myself confronted with a room full of example forms.
Destitute: lacking all money, resources and possessions necessary for subsistence.
The cots and bodies are all only a few feet off the ground and as I make my way through the room, I feel too tall, too strong, too tanned, too fed, too foreign, too full, too different, too BIG.
Who am I. and what place do I really think I have here?
A bony arm reaches out and tugs on my apron. The small bundle of bare life turns desperate eyes up to me and pleads in Hindi for a favor that I do not have the language to understand. There is an impression in the bed that indicates that this body has spent a lifetime depressing the form of its meager shape into it.
She reaches out a frail hand to me. I shy away and struggle with hand signals to explain to her that I don’t understand. That I don’t speak her language. That I don’t know what she needs. That I can’t give her what she wants. And then I scan the room desperately for one of the Sisters to assist me.
But with another low groan of demand, both my hand and attention are grabbed. She pulls me down.
Without any other option, I squat down onto the cold floor and, for the first time, really look at her. Her kind eyes soften my stiff hand. And as my disinclination dissolves and I allow myself to settle into her smiling eyes, I begin to wonder what it was that I was so afraid that I would see in her eyes. Having finally hurtled the last of my hesitations, I sigh my relief. And she, satisfied with finally assuming all my attention, smiles.
My anxiousness melts and my hand warms as I sink into this comfortable place at her feet. And as I do so, I notice with sudden relief how much more comfortable it is down here, looking UP into her eyes, offering myself not from above, but from below.
My eyes take rest in hers. Having stopped searching, stopped seeking, stopped speaking, my shoulders and the worries of the world they support, drop into the shadows around us. And in the silence and space of this moment, she speaks to me. Not in Hindi, and not in English, but in the universal language of shared humanity.
And suddenly, I get it.
I put my other hand on top of the one she has put on mine, and hands embraced, reflect all the warmth in my heart back at her.
How simple. How easy. How obvious. How could I be so silly as to think that I was not familiar with the alphabet of this universal language? Did I not speak this language through the wordless years of my infancy? Is this not the language that still peacefully fills the silence when the clutter and clumsiness of idle and formal conversations inevitably fail and finally fall mute?
The shyness of my hands step aside from the arrogance they hid behind and I cup both her hands in mine and gently massage into them my new understanding of our shared being.
To be touched. To be recognized. To be loved. Are these not my own needs? Are they not the needs of every human being? And did I really think her above receiving them? Or I below giving them?
Recognition is all she asks of me. Recognition of our similarity. Recognition of our shared humanity. Recognition of not only her humility, which is physically obvious, but of MINE, which ALSO rests hidden in a dark corner, but under the heavy cover of good health, youth and opportunity.
To look into my eyes and see herself reflected. To look into her eyes and see myself reflected. And to know that aside from a shade of skin color and a seed of sickness, absolutely nothing differentiates these two images. Stripped of our identities, and both humbled to the floor, in each others eyes, we find our shared existence.
And if I had one wish in this world it would be that every single person in this planet have the opportunity to sit on this floor, at the foot of this woman, to look into these eyes, and to find shared humanity held in these hands.
The dark hand gently releases and pats my hands a silent thank you.
I smile, stand up, and feel smaller.