Gloves Off — a Story From India

On the first leg of a nine-month trip around the world, I arrived in Calcutta, India by myself without a guidebook or much of a plan. Several years of working in a challenging career had left me feeling burnt out and in serious need of change. Exactly what I wanted from my adventure wasn’t clear; I just knew I needed to feel alive again.

At the airport, I was greeted by dozens of screaming cab drivers all vying for my fare. I stood paralyzed in the hot sun and swirling dust, staring at the crowd with stories of unscrupulous cab drivers circling though my head. Scanning the mob, I caught the eye of young blonde woman waiting behind a police barricade. I rushed over to her and blurted, “Do you speak English? You look like you are waiting for someone. Do you live here? Can I catch a ride with you?”

“Um, yes, yes and… yes,” she smiled. Her name was Amy. At 18 years old, she had left her rural home in Pennsylvania and had come to India by herself to work with the poor in Calcutta’s slums. I was totally impressed. When we arrived at the Salvation Army Youth Hostel, we met her friends; young, optimistic volunteers from all over the world. John had been there for almost a year working in an orphanage; Tran was a nurse who offered up her skills to a local hospital and Amy ran an entire volunteer program!

The next morning, after a nerve-wracking 10-minute rickshaw ride through narrow and chaotic streets, Amy and I arrived at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying. Inside, things were already moving at full speed, and I was immediately spotted by the lead volunteer, a wild-eyed German man, who ran over and ordered, “You will be carrying the men from their beds to the washroom and so forth. Go get ready.” Before I could introduce myself, he was gone and I stood frozen looking around the large barren room with rows upon rows of the abandoned elderly of Calcutta. Lying in each of the simple beds was a little shell of a human being tucked away under wool blankets. The sight of open wounds and damaged limbs made my stomach turn but I tried to not let anyone see my shock, and I forced a smile on my face. I put on an apron, two sets of latex gloves, took a deep breath and began my duties.

One by one, I carried their frail little bodies into the bathing room. Like little frightened children, the old men clung to their mattresses, whimpering and protesting at being removed from their warm beds. In my arms the men felt like skeletons, with a thin layer of stretched out skin holding them together. I stared at the wall as I walked and tried to keep my composure. I thought about what Amy had told me on the drive back from the airport. “Some of the elderly at the home are brought to us and others we find in trash dumpsters and back street alleys. They are abandoned by their families when they can no longer be cared for.” My stomach ached.

After the men were fed, bathed and back in bed, several of us were given a new job. As most of the men were bedridden, they needed to be massaged daily to avoid bedsores and to promote circulation. I overheard one of the nurses saying that the man in the corner, separated from the main rows of beds, would not live much longer. His name was Abdi and he had been found alone in a trash dumpster. I kneeled down next to him and smiled, but he looked away as if embarrassed to see me. I spoke to him softly, poured the oil onto my gloves and began to rub his legs. His body felt stiff and almost lifeless. Again, I tried to catch his eye with a smile, but he just looked away. I wondered if maybe I was doing something wrong, and I looked around the room to see what the other volunteers were doing.

Like a small production line, they moved from patient to patient, quickly applying the oil with their latex gloves. I noticed the lead volunteer worked with his bare hands and I chose to do the same. I let my gloves drop on the floor so that Abdi could see them. Slowly, gently I rubbed his legs and his arms, then I moved to his neck and finally his scalp. I could feel the tension in his muscles release and his breathing slowed. Suddenly, something caught my eye and I stopped; a single tear welled up in his eye and rolled down his cheek. He turned his head towards me and our eyes met. His big, dark eyes sparkled with gratitude. My throat clenched up and I just cried my heart out. Tears ran down my face onto his and then it hit me: Abdi and the other men in the room were not just patients, but real human beings, with a story and a history; people who were sharing their final moments on the planet with us.

That afternoon, I walked back to the hostel alone, unafraid of the street dogs and beggars, exhausted, yet feeling more alive than I had in years. I promised myself that I would slow down when I returned home. I vowed to remove the protective layers that kept me from connecting with those whom I loved and those I had yet to know.



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