Geri Lennon: Looking back on Mother
Special to The Union
Editor’s note: On Sunday, Mother Teresa was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, declaring her a saint. Today we present an updated article originally authored by Geri Lennon and published by The Union in October 1997.
We arise at 4:30 a.m. We will be walking the dark streets to Mother Teresa’s house. Mass begins at 6.
As we pass through the back alleys of Calcutta (now Kolkata), winding through the Muslim sector, we see many people sleeping on the cement.
Early tracings of dawn reveal a city awakening to business as usual. Many lather up at gushing fire hydrants. Goats hang in the market place. Vegetables lie in piles ready for sale. Slowly, locals rise to get their wares organized for yet another day of haggling.
Beggars sift through the eternal trash in line with a dump truck that races them for scoops. The scent of peat, combined with urine and rotting garbage hangs heavily in the air.
As we turn down the alley, we see the door marked Mother Teresa’s. Entering the main courtyard, a large stature of the Virgin Mary greets us. Nuns move quietly about their business, readying for Mass and their duties which will take them to the House of the Dying, Home of the Children and other centers near Calcutta, including the leprosarium one hour out of town.
We we remove our shoes to enter the chapel, a sense of excitement arises. I am at her very door, this precious woman who has guided my heart for so long. Sisters enter quietly while incessant crows squawk outside the windows midst a cacophony of horns and street noise.
Mother, herself, kneels unassumingly. She appears much tinier than I expected.
As I gaze at her feet, I see they have hammered toes. This must be painful. Her severely rounded shoulders and upper back bespeak of osteoporosis. Still the very presence of this extraordinary soul inspires all to quiet smiles of awe. Very much present, this little woman adjusts the light switches above her.
At communion, she leads the sister and then takes the Eucharist to dispense to lines of postulants, sisters and volunteers. Memory of the sight of her at prayer still thrills me. After Mass, Mother leads the sisters in prayer. They seem almost childlike in their recitation, revealing a remarkable innocence.
Later, in an uncommon time alone, she takes my hand and holds it for a long time as we speak together. I ask her if I can videotape some of her centers.
“Go photograph the children, photograph the living!” she insists. Before I know it, Mother has arranged for a nun to personally escort me to Shu Shu Bhavan, the place of the children.
Later, my companion and I take a taxi across town to the House of the Dying. Entering the huge wooden door, I say to my attorney friend, “Be prepared to walk to the edge of your soul.”
This sacred place can be a confrontive experience for anyone. The first time I served here twelve years ago, I spoke with Sister Delores.
“Sister, I hope I haven’t been in the way. I’m new and just followed in the footsteps of other volunteers.”
Sister Delores smiled and said, “My dear, you can carry a body to the morgue, feed an old woman, change bandages, paint beds for the Pope’s visit or just stand at a distance and love them with your eyes. It’s all the same.”
We find aprons and gloves and quickly immerse in cleaning plastic mattresses and pillows. I stand at times to simply witness the scenes before us. Encounters of the heart, between volunteers and the sick and dying reveal an amazing experience of compassion.
As the morning wears on, we go from bed to bed, offering a hand, sometimes administering medicine, stroking, feeding or just sitting and holding. While massaging an old woman’s feet, I suddenly ask myself, Why can’t I do this for my own mother? Why do I have to go halfway around the world to experience compassion?
Determined to seek permission to somehow invisibly videotape the “Moments of Compassion, I return to my hotel with a homework assignment from Sister Priscilla, the lead organizational nun. I must write a letter to explain what I want to do, for what use and who, in fact, I am. Late this night, I search my soul for the words.
A rickshaw drive delivers me and my handwritten letter to the convent. Sitting outside the door marked “Private”, I gaze at the simple blue checkered curtains separating within and without: the points between rest for Mother and greeting the ever-present devotees.
Now, sitting in the wings, I’m not seeking photo opportunities as I watch Mother at work, greeting souls, ruffling baby hair, tickling a child. I see some tiredness behind that tiny arthritic frame. Who protects Mother form exhaustion, a personal Jesus?
Who sends her energy? Batteries that just keep on keeping on like the Energizer bunny?
Sister Priscilla suddenly appears and sits down beside me. She delivers the permission signed by Mother, which will enable me to proceed with my video work.
On our last day in Calcutta, I’m not seeking Mother but she suddenly emerges from behind the curtain. She smiles and I say, “We’re leaving today, Mother.”
She hesitates and asks, “Where are you going?”
I answer, “Home, to the U.S.”
She takes my hand and holds it gently and looks up. “You are coming back, aren’t you?”
I promise, “Of course, Mother.”
Suddenly she says, “How many houses do you have?”
I reply, “One, Mother, Why?”
She laughs and answers, “I have over 500 in 105 countries!”
I counter, “Good Lord, I hope you have someone to clean them all. I have trouble with only one.”
We laugh together and then she speaks quietly to me of dying with grace, dignity and love and how important it is to have support.
And … I hold her hand one more time.
She’s gone now like a whisper on the wind, my beloved Energizer Bunny, who kept on keeping on. She’s left me with a smile, her wonderful business card, medals which keep multiplying, a picture of One Moment in Time and her gentle hand in mine.”
The House of the Dying
Looking down on the roof, one can view Kalighat, the temple of the Goddess Kali. It abuts the very walls of the House of the Dying. Here, animal sacrifices take place and the energy is quite Hindu.
In the beginning, the head Brahman of this temple, quite opposed to Mother’s work, sought support to prevent her from proceeding. When he contracted cholera and lay dying, no one in the temple would touch him. Mother collected him and nursed him herself. After he survived and healed, he became her chief proponent.
After washing and scrubbing, we return to the hotel to change clothes. We immerse our sandals in bactericidal solution. Are there risks working at Kalighat? TB, AIDS, and other diseases are rampant in the back streets of India. Still, precautions taken can withstand most challenges.
I soak my sandals for two days, hang them up to dry in the harsh Calcutta sun and give them to the rickshaw driver as a gift. By this time I’ve purchased rubber sandals which are far more practical.
Geri Lennon is a video producer and author who lives in Dutch Flat, California. Lennon worked as a lay volunteer with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. She wrote the above article after a three-weeks stay in Calcutta in March 1996.
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