House of the Living
A friend of mine recently sent me an old article of mine she happened to find. I wrote it many years ago, just after Mother Theresa passed away in September 1997. Due to a submission mix-up, it was never published. But it remains as relevant today as it was then, and I hope you don’t mind me sharing it.
House of the Living
by Patrick Chovanec
It is a low, plain building with an unmarked screen door on the corner of a dusty street. Only when you step inside, your eyes blinking in the sudden dimness, does the pungent odor of chemicals hit you. The ammonia needs to be strong to mask the real smells in this tiny room. This is the House of the Dying, Mother Theresa’s makeshift hospital in a Calcutta slum called Kalighat.
In Hindi, Kalighat means the “port” or “gate” of Kali, the goddess of death and oblivion. There is a temple to Kali just next door, where her image runs sticky red with the blood of animal sacrifices. She is a very hungry deity, and this is her dining room.
I never met Mother Theresa. She was in Mexico, setting up an orphanage, when I came to Calcutta five years ago . I spent just over a month in the city, mopping floors at a nursing home each morning for bed and board and volunteering afternoons in Kalighat, before moving on with my travels. I only saw the surface, the fruits of many years’ and other people’s labor, but that was enough to know the meaning in it.
There are two floors, one for men, one for women, and a roof to dry the laundry on. Each level has two rows of about fifteen low cots lined against the blank grey walls. When the stretcher-bearers bring in a new patient, scavenged from the streets of Calcutta, they put them at the very front, usually on the floor. They either die there within a couple of hours or they live and move a few cots up the line. As patients get better they continue switching beds up the line until at the end they are laughing and hobbling about and ready to go home.
On each cot, tangled in a blanket, lay a thin human frame. Along each wall were the eyes sunken into shaven skulls, some bobbing about open-jawed in stunned curiosity, others stone still with glazed indifference. They seemed oddly familiar, these heads, until I remembered where I had seen them before — staring out of black and white photographs of Auschwitz and Belsen.
That is where I worked, in the men’s ward, fetching urine bottles and delivering cups of warm milk, terrified, when medicine time came around, that I would give my pill to the wrong patient and kill him. It was a joy playing around with the boys and men at the end of the line, crippled and maimed as they were, but very much alive. Others, even some who had made it halfway, decided now it was time to die.
One day I was fighting with one wiry-strong skeleton to take off his soiled pants. A patient named Hira, who was up and walking about, came over to help. Hira was hardly in any better condition than my combatant, but together we pried the old man’s limbs apart and washed him off with a damp rag. Now it was time for his pill. At first, the old man wouldn’t open his teeth; when we pried them open he spit the pill out at us. Hira was crafty and ground the pill up in a cup of milk. Our opponent was not so easily fooled, and spit the milk back out at us. Hira made a fist and threatened, loudly, to hit the man if he did not take his medicine. The old man hesitated, then obeyed. A desperately sick man himself, Hira saved that man’s life.
Another time, though, I found myself sitting beside a man whose time had come. He was lying on a stretcher, all skin and bones, and was beyond speech. All I could do was hold his hand, and we sat there for some time, until the nuns told me it was time to leave. I remember listening to each rasping breath, with the long space between them, wondering if this one were the last. I was a stranger, and I was the last person he would ever see. The next day I saw the stretcher-bearers carry his shroud-wrapped body out to the street.
The shrouds and soiled linen were all washed in a big vat and set to dry on the roof. Sent to retrieve them one afternoon, I suddenly recoiled at the sight of a picture hanging above the stairwell. It was a drawing of Jesus after he had been whipped and beaten by Roman soldiers on the way to his crucifixion. It was a savage, ugly image, so brutally real it generated more revulsion than sympathy. Unable to turn away quickly enough, I read the words written above this nightmarish vision: “Truly I say to you, whatever you do to the least of these my brothers, you do to me.”
The other day I heard someone on the radio say that Mother Theresa was a “living saint” because, to paraphrase him, “she assisted people when government failed to, and she stepped in when government turned its back on its responsibilities.” His statement troubled me. It’s sad that we have stepped so far away from real human experience that we can see faith, love, and kindness as a second-rate replacement for the welfare state. It’s an abdication, really, of our own humanity. Kalighat isn’t about income redistribution or even “social justice.” It is a charnel house and a church, and when you walk in that door you feel as though you are standing on the cutting-room floor of life. Why do some live and others die? How do some, like Hira, step beyond themselves in the midst of their own misfortune? Where did that old man go, when he finally stopped breathing? These are questions that no government can ask or answer, only an earnest searching and service towards God.
The word “saint” is bandied around a lot, and the celebrity that accompanies it is a dubious badge. What we know is that Mother Theresa did many hard things that brought kindness and comfort to countless people, and inspired many others to do the same. Her work made manifest the triumph of life over death that lies at the heart of Christian belief. How many friends must be welcoming her now. And we — we have not lost her. All things excellent, as God lives, are eternal.