Finding a Purpose

by Alison Easter |

Alison Easter graduated from SCU in 2004 with a degree in psychology. She received a Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship to work with Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Delhi, India.

My last day at the Home began like the others, although I arrived a bit early—anxious to get in as much time as possible before leaving for the States. After morning Mass, I said goodbye to the sisters then proceeded to the women’s main ward. I wrapped the women in towels as they exited the shower and did my best to sort through the huge heap of spare clothing to find something that was a reasonable fit. I felt a little sentimental as I went through this routine one last time, noticing how comfortable the routine had all become. As was the case on most days, the routine was interrupted. On the floor near the shower lay an old woman, eyes closed, still. A group of women circled around her, speaking in Hindi. It was just a few moments before I realized the woman was dead.

This didn’t surprise me. She had refused food the past few days. She was sick, frail. The group was asked to leave and I was left with Nisha, a woman who worked at the Home, to dress and prepare the body. I cannot properly express the intense realness of this experience, which remains one of the most significant incidents of my trip to India. I forgot my own emotions about my expected departure as I focused my attention on the woman, dying alone in the night, no family to care for her, no one who even knew her full name. In those moments, the reality of death and the fragile nature of life became crystal clear.

In the summer of 2001, I traveled to Delhi with nine other SCU students, just days after we finished our finals. Living in Majnukatilla, a Tibetan refugee settlement in Old Delhi, we decided to split up and volunteer at different locations in the area. Another student and I spent most of our days in the women’s ward at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying.

My initial experience at the Home was not pleasant. As a young, white visitor, I felt out of place and often useless. At certain times of the day, it was clear I could help by dressing the women after showers or serving food and feeding some of them at lunch time. But there were hours in between when I had difficulty finding purpose. For about two weeks I had trouble getting myself to the Home every day: the smell when I entered made me queasy; I was disturbed and discouraged by the way some of the women were treated; and my position there was not clear. I found it difficult to watch as some of the women gradually deteriorated.

They had taught me about sharing and suffering and while their daily reality would remain the same, I was leaving a place where people who had little to offer were nonetheless incredibly giving of anything they could and heading back to a place where sharing is often buried in greed.

One of them was Savitree, who I fed every day, and who taught me why I was there.

I had never seen her strong enough to feed herself, but over time the amount she would eat diminished. Some days she would refuse to eat anything at all. She had very sensitive skin and bedsores were forming all over her body. Her flesh was weak and attempts by workers at the Home to bandage the bed- sores resulted in more pain, as tape pulled off the fragile skin around the sores when I tried to change or adjust the bandages. It was in Savitree that I finally found purpose to be at the Home. She was not always fed when we were not there, and we could provide her with the gentleness she did not ordinarily encounter in her surroundings.

I also befriended some of the children living at the Home, orphaned or recovering from an illness away from their own homes. Despite their bleak surroundings, these children and young women retained much vitality and happiness. I also learned to just sit with people and be with them as they rested in bed or sat outside. It did not matter if they could speak English or not; it was easy to communicate through tears and smiles.

My last day was appropriately draining. Savitree had not been eating for days but as if to appease me, she suddenly had a small appetite again. All day I said goodbye and thank you to the women. We hugged one another and cried. They had taught me about sharing and suffering and while their daily reality would remain the same, I was leaving a place where people who had little to offer were nonetheless incredibly giving of anything they could and heading back to a place where sharing is often buried in greed.

Returning to Santa Clara University, I was able to better understand and reflect on my experience as I shared stories and photographs with the SCU community and other Donovan Fellows. Later, I had the opportunity to study abroad in India and visited the Home, where I saw many of the same women I met on the first trip.

I feel that my life has been forever changed by the opportunity the Donovan Fellowship provided. It has inspired in me a call to work with those who have not been afforded the same privileges I have experienced. My interest and knowledge of South Asia has been fostered by course work at Santa Clara University and study and further travel in India and Sri Lanka. This early encounter with India and the Home for the Destitute provided me with a very rich experience that I carry in my heart, along with an appreciation of another reality and new perspective, which I am constantly working to observe and share.

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