Monday, January 1, 2007

New Year's Day, 2007

I'm with Father John (l) and Father Joseph (m)

2006 has come and gone. It was another quiet, but eventful year, with weddings in both my English (congratulations, Mark and Julie!) and my American (congratulations Casey and Cassidy!) families. There were other weddings on the Poole side of the family, but that’s such a huge brood it’s almost impossible to keep track any more. There were exchanges of visits from either side of the Atlantic, my brother Andrew and his wife Kerry staying in Ligonier for a few days en route to Australia, while Marilyn and I crossed the Pond for Mark and Julie’s wedding and for a restful few days away-from-it-all in the south of England.

I spent New Year’s Eve with my good friends Professor Ramamurti and Dr. Jamuna and their spouses. They took me out to dinner at a hotel in Tirupati, where we feasted on vegetarian fare rounded off with ice cream and another delicious rich liquid cream dessert.

I later saw in the New Year at Dr. Jamuna’s home, a beautiful house in a colony on the edge of Tirupati. Every floor, including the stairway to the upper floors, is laid with a different hue of polished granite. The ceilings are high against the summer heat, and every bedroom has an en suite bathroom with hot and cold running water and all the sophistication of a modern American or European home.

Dr. Gunashekar, Jamuna’s husband, borrowed the design from a model he saw in Paris. Even the outside walls are finished in granite. I’m looking forward to going back in the day time so I can take a closer look at the garden, which has been carefully laid out by Jamuna with palm trees and many varieties of flowering shrubs.

New Year’s Day was interesting.

A gentleman named Mr. John Joseph, husband of Dr. Philomena who is a professor my university, came by the guest house yesterday evening to ask me if I’d like to go to mass today at the Christian (Catholic) church in town. I’m saying “Yes” to every invitation, provided it doesn’t conflict with a prior engagement, so we set a time for him to come and pick me up. This morning off to church we went.

The priest, Father Joseph, a retired school principal, was walking up the aisle towards the main doors as we arrived, so he greeted me right away and then went off to the sacristy to get ready for mass.

Last week, in Bhuvaneshwar, the mass was in the local Oriya language (the language of the people of Orissa state). This week it was Telugu, the language of Andhra Pradesh state. But before the mass started, Father Joseph made an announcement from the altar in English to tell everyone that I was a guest from the United States, and he formally welcomed me to the church. He also interspersed his Telugu sermon with, here and there, an English translation and generally made me feel very much at home.

As if this wasn’t enough, after mass I was invited to the presbytery to join Father Joseph for breakfast, along with his co-celebrant, Father John, principal of a local secondary school. We had a wonderful time. Father Joseph was a gentle, gracious host who obviously loved the people he served.

After breakfast, my companion, John, took me next door to a convent run by the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa’s nuns). One half of the compound was for orphans, the other for old folks. We went across to the orphans’ side first. There, in the corridor, lying on mats against the wall, was a line of little children all of whom looked like they had some severe physical and/or mental disability.

The last little girl in the line was sitting in a wooden chair, her wrists strapped to the arms of the chair and her legs straddling a raised peg in the middle of the seat to prevent her from sliding forward out of the chair. I’d seen pictures of seats like this when I was getting to know Yvonne Singer, my friend in New Jersey who has Cerebral Palsy. Sure enough, when I asked the Sister who was with the children in the corridor, she confirmed that some of the children had Cerebral Palsy; others looked like they might be severely autistic.

Thanks to my friendship with Yvonne, I now know to assume that these children are bright, intelligent, and aware. I stooped low to bring myself close to each one of them, reaching out to hold their hands. I talked to them, stroked their cheeks, cupped their heads in my hands, and tried to show them that I loved them and wanted so very much to help them if I could.

None of them spoke or made any sound. Some of them looked deep into my eyes, their only means of communication, and beamed back at me, reaching for me, wanting to touch my face while I was touching theirs. One little girl never looked up, but when I stroked her cheek she pressed her face back against my hand, especially when she sensed that I was about to take it away.

What beautiful work those Sisters do! I left a generous donation with Mother Anna Sicile; it was the least I could do.

I’m holding back tears as I write this, ashamed that I don’t do more.

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