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Listening in a garden

Jon Schommer | Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It was an oppressively hot day when I first set foot in the Kalighat Nirmal Hriday home for the dying and destitute. But, who am I kidding? That was every day in Kolkata, India during my International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) with the Missionaries of Charity (MC). The summer was full of lessons, but few were as impactful as the one I learned that day.
Okay, picture Chaco-footed Jon, water bottle in hand, walking up to the gatekeeper of the home. I promptly handed him my pass and thanked him as he pointed the way to the men’s side of Kalighat. I was really excited to help some poor people.
Well, that wasn’t quite the attitude I had. The past two summers I had participated in SSLPs in the U.S. I built relationships with people on the margins of society and found I am served, often in more significant ways, than the ones I serve. I knew sometimes the things required in service were frustrating, but patience in those hard times can yield life-giving fruit. So that day, I walked up to the sister in charge with a heart eager to use my gifts to help where I could, be present to those around me and try to listen and love.
But let’s be honest here: love is hard. Helping someone poop, feeding someone who doesn’t want to eat or trying to comfort someone in pain while you feel just fine is hard. Luckily, the sister’s first task for me was easy.
At least, I thought it would be easy and quite enjoyable to walk a man in a wheelchair around the garden. It’s easy to love someone in a garden.
The sister showed me to the man. He was lying on a cot. His limbs were long and hairy and though thin, his frame was solid. I think if he were to stand next to some of our basketball players, he would not look short. Another volunteer helped me lift him into the wheelchair. It was too small for him but we still managed to sit him down, putting his bare feet on the platforms.
There were many language barriers in Kolkata. Obviously there was the gap between English and Bengali, but I also found I used my brain and moved my body in different ways from my friends in the MC homes. My big friend in the wheelchair didn’t speak English. Actually, I don’t think he could speak Bengali either. All I heard were indecipherable moans like my “I don’t want to wake up in the morning” groan. Although I knew we wouldn’t have a philosophical debate, I thought it would be nice to talk as we strolled.
We started walking and I commented on the bright flowers and vegetables beside us. But shortly into our journey, my big friend kept making a loud and unsettling moan. At first I thought was trying to answer me, but when he didn’t stop I realized something was wrong. I halted the wheelchair and walked around him. One of his feet was off the platform and sliding across the smooth concrete. Stupid Jon. How can I expect to help anyone when I can’t even see I’m dragging feet? I repositioned his foot, apologized with a shoulder rub, and continued.
I tried to point out more interesting foliage but was once again interrupted by a deep moan. I glanced at my friend’s feet and they seemed fine so I kept strolling but he kept moaning and then I saw one of his arms resting on top of the wheel. Really stupid Jon. Again I apologetically readjusted his limbs so there was no way they would encounter unwanted friction.
A few steps more and my friend again gives a moan louder than the others. I stop and check but everything seems to be fine. I continue to walk but he continues to moan all the more. At this point, I am done. I really wanted to help, but I couldn’t even go for a walk in the garden. Someone take my spot, I’ll go back to writing papers and doing problem sets.
At this moment of frustration a sister walked by and I awkwardly asked her to help me find out what was wrong with my friend. She looked at him and said, “He wants to sit up.” I was floored. Of course a man who spends most of his day in a cot would want to sit tall with dignity for his short journey through the garden. I would. We concluded the walk silently enjoying the greenery.
That day I realized the importance of listening. Even when we think we have the best intentions and are doing all we can, we still need to listen. There are still friends moaning in our gardens. It’s not easy to love someone in a garden. In India and Notre Dame there are people groaning for dignity unheard. We all want to be shown dignity.
Are we really hearing the moan?

Jon Schommer is in his fifth year studying civil engineering and the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be contacted at jschomme@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.