The only reason I know her name is because of the photo collage to the left of the entrance, everyone’s photo and names laid out like a second grade classroom. It’s a bit fuzzy sometimes, even then, since the years have long and some have been there for what appears like decades, like guessing current faces from an old yearbook. For nearly two weeks now, I have been trying to figure Veda Devi out. She is easily one of the oldest women, unable to walk or speak, tied with a scarf to the back of her modified wheelchair, the seat below her open so that she can go to the bathroom in the tin beneath it. From the heartbreaking moans she makes when it’s happening—the ugliness of aging in full display of some fifty other women—it’s an extremely painful occurrence. Her gestures are limited to hand swipes, either towards her face or away from it, and even with the help of other women, her needs have often been indecipherable, best guesses. We arrived early today, at dawn, deciding that before the end of our time, we had to attend mass with the sisters, getting the full Mother Teresa experience. But we also realize that that during the time we were typically just beginning our daily one hour commute to the home, the woman of Mother Teresa’s were being bathed. It is hard to describe in words the feelings that found themselves caught in my throat. Women lined up naked, broken, failing bodies, those we had previously only seen in wheelchairs now disconcertingly dragging themselves towards a bucket shower. I don’t know what this scene would look like in America. I imagine it may not be all that different; I can’t imagine how you possibly attend to the needs of so many people, all with varying mental presences. But to see it for the first time, in all its naked, sometimes screaming realness, is jarring and gut wrenching, something once seen can’t be unseen.
When your mind is at a loss, however, your body often springs to action. And so we gently dry their bodies, help to slide clothing over their wet head, pull them back into the chairs, oil their heads, bring them into the sunshine to begin their morning. As I pushed Veda Devi into her normal spot in the sun, turning her around to face the courtyard, I couldn’t help but look her, saying softly in English, my wide eyes locked with hers, Wow, that’s an intense way to start the day. She grabbed my hand and gave me a shrug that I instantly understood, I know, right? Then, seeing my reaction, frozen that she understood me, she started laughing, which of course was contagious. After all, if you can’t cry, it’s the best alternative.
Still unsure we actually understood each other, I looked at her more deeply, searching for recognition locked inside a useless body. She grabbed my hand more tightly, and winked at me. In shock, I stared as she winked once more, squeezing my hand, letting me know. We continued with the morning, somehow different now with our new, unspoken language. I rubbed her legs and hands, painted her nails, all things she had previously shooed away. She smiled, winking occasionally, shaking her head at the chaos and confusion surrounding her, a byproduct of caring for fifty aging and disabled women.
After a mid-morning snack, remnants spread across her face and lap, the sun brutally beating, she began gesturing for me to bring her back to their rooms, where shade and ceiling fans would provide some relief from the Indian heat. As I wheeled her, one of the helpers tried to communicate, English broken with Hindi, that Veda Devi was just hungry, ready for lunch, and that I should bring her back to the courtyard. But our language barrier had been broken, and I knew that’s not what she was saying. So I insisted, and after ten minutes or so of negotiating, I was able to wheel her in and pull her up onto her cot, an odd combination of military boot camp bunk and artist haven, with sheets colored like rainbows in gorgeous, flowering patterns. I had to sit down on the bed to situate her properly and as I did she grab my face with both hands, pulling me close so that we were eye to eye. Then she smiled at me, beautiful and grateful, an image instantly seared in my heart.
I am going to be devastated in so many ways tomorrow, having to say goodbye to these woman. Not knowing what happens next, to them, to me. For now, I am honored to have been part of this. To have connected. To have had a moment with Veda Devi, each of us filling the other’s ocean with one meaningful drop.