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A gift from the heart

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Have you ever held the weight of a dead body? I never thought I would until a month into my service with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India through an ISSLP. A short while after I had entered Kalighat, the home for the destitute and dying, I was informed a male resident had died in the early hours of the morning. Upon being told to transport his body to a Muslim burial site, I quickly obliged with curiosity and anticipation.

Around 35 minutes later of weaving through the city streets, occasional honking and the rare use of the ambulance’s siren, we arrived at a gated cemetery. I assisted in lifting the metal stretcher with the body into a small concrete room where another body lay. As I lifted the body wrapped in white cloth off the stretcher onto the floor, I could feel its weight. I felt and heard a small thud. For some reason, I had expected there to be some resistance as if his muscles should have contracted and produced tension with the force of my hands. It seemed gravity was the only force at play. The thud of his head reminded me that life had ceased. It was in that moment that I fully accepted the mortal condition of this man. I did not know him nor do I remember his face. He was buried in the absence of loved ones. On the drive back to Kalighat I was mentally and emotionally troubled. How could I dignify this man when I didn’t even know him? Was he simply a stranger whom I carried to the cemetery? I never got the chance to be touched by his heart, but I will keep my memory of him to remind me of the humanity we all share. After this day, I tried harder to learn the names and stories of all the men that lived in Kalighat, especially those that passed away.

Earlier that morning before I was told to aid in the transportation of the body I was already confronted with loss. When I opened the doors to Kalighat I was greeted by one of my friends (I’ll call him Ben), a resident whom I had gotten to know over the past couple of weeks. Ben immediately raised his ten fingers and flicked his right hand communicating that he was leaving at 10 a.m. He whispered to the doorman who had a better command of English and I was told that Ben was going to a drug addiction camp. In disbelief, I was unable to fully process his departure before he motioned to his wrist. This was our “thing.” From day one, he had wanted my bracelet from Kenya. For weeks, he had asked for it and even tried to playfully pry it from my wrist. Each time I would chuckle at him and shake my head, telling him I could not hand it over. I had worn this bracelet every day for the past year without fail. I didn’t want to let it go. I was convinced the bracelet was of greater importance to me even if I couldn’t define it well.

To my relief, a long-term volunteer told me Ben wasn’t leaving permanently, but was going to a training center to make small accessories — a well-deserved break in routine from Kalighat. The volunteer began to tell me how much of a model resident Ben had become. He was an essential part of the Kalighat family. Ben knew what needed to be done better than any of the volunteers. Knowing that I would not make it back in time to say farewell to him, due to the burial, I asked the volunteer, who could speak Hindi, to tell Ben that I would give him my bracelet.

Over the past few weeks, my relationship with Ben had open the door to a new friendship. I wasn’t simply giving my bracelet to a stranger who wanted it; I was giving it to my friend who would hit me playfully, pinch my cheeks as if I were his little brother and smile at me with familiarity. I will never forget the words of the volunteer who said, “This bracelet is not simply a gift, it is an offering of friendship that comes from the heart.” In retrospect, the attachment to my bracelet paled in comparison to the joy it would bring Ben. He had given me a stronger sense of belonging to counteract my feelings of doubt that I wasn’t just a pair of hands and feet being put to work.

Throughout the eight weeks, many of my friends came and went, some back to families and different Missionary of Charity homes while others took their last breath. Amidst all the pain, suffering and loss I found immense joy in the precious time I had with each of them. Whether it was feeding them, washing excrements off their bodies, tending to their wounds or simply sitting on their beds holding hands, opportunities to love and to be loved were endless. I won’t lie; serving wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of times I felt misplaced and frustrated. It was the choice to continuously challenge myself through the grace of God that made my time in Kolkata impactful.

I came across a Bible verse the other day that describes my experience quite well: “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things and the things that are not to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” I hope we may all be humbled by the people on the margins of society, for often they are our greatest teachers.


Keven Cheung
class of 2019
Sept. 18

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