I am waiting on a wooden bench in the open courtyard of an old house in Kolkata. It’s a sultry summer morning, and seated next to me is a blonde girl in her early 20s. She’s trying to read a book, but looks distracted. There’s almost total silence around us. “I can’t believe I’m here,” the girl next to me speaks up suddenly. I smile back at her. We are in the house where Mother Teresa lives.
The year is 1989, and I am in my final year of college. A friend needs to pick up some documents from house number 54A on AJC Bose Road, where the famous founder of the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) lives. My friend is working on a story on her and needs the papers for his research urgently, but is stuck with something else today. Since Mother House is not far from my college, I have offered to help.
I meet a nun in a white sari with blue-striped borders at the MoC office. She needs a little time to put the papers together and asks me to wait in the parlor. This is where I meet Sharon, a student from Minneapolis, in the U.S. Midwest. Sharon grew up reading about Mother Teresa and dreaming of meeting her some day. She had started saving, from her pocket money and earnings from summer jobs, for her trip to India. She would meet Mother Teresa and volunteer at the MoC when she had enough for a return ticket, she had decided.
And today was that day. A few days ago Sharon had already started volunteering at Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, the MoC orphanage down the road. Today, she had been granted an audience with the woman who had touched her with stories of her kindness. “This has been my dream,” she says, lowering her voice. I could feel her excitement as she spoke.
“Have you met her before?” she asks me, assuming I too am waiting for my turn to meet Mother Teresa.
“Um, no, I haven’t had the chance,” I gulp.
She looks surprised, and I see why. I have lived in this city all my life, the city that Mother Teresa made her own, where she built an institution that saved millions, giving them a decent life, or dignity as they died. This is the place from where she inspired millions across the globe to come and volunteer and donate for her cause. Here is an American girl who has traveled thousands of miles to see her. And me, I’ve been here all along.
Of course, Mother Teresa has had more than her share of criticism, often from people who saw ‘an agenda’ in her service to the poor. But that’s not why I haven’t made an effort. I have read about her work, watched her on TV. But it’s never passed my mind to come down and see for myself.
“Do you think they will let me see her if I ask?” I look at Sharon, almost wondering aloud. “You must try to since you are here,” she says, with a big smile.
I am back at the office where the nun, who met me earlier, seems to be in charge. “We’re almost done, dear. You’ll have everything in a few minutes,” she says. “Thank you so much, Sister, but I have a request,” I say hesitantly. The nuns at Mother House hear this request so often that she isn’t surprised at all when I ask her if I can see Mother Teresa briefly.
“There’s only one visitor for her this morning, so you are lucky,” she smiles. “But you will have to promise me something.”
“Sure, whatever you say.”
“She is recovering from an illness and is very weak now. She loves meeting people and talking to them, but you must make sure she does not speak too much. OK?”
I nod vigorously, unable to contain my excitement. I am very pleased that I had offered to help my friend this morning. Of course, I’ve read about Mother Teresa’s illness in the news. She had a serious heart condition and was recovering at home.
“We’ll call you when it’s your turn,” the nun tells me.
I return to the courtyard to give Sharon the news. We do a spontaneous high five and before we know it, she is called in. As I wait, I try to think of something meaningful to say to Mother Teresa in the two minutes I would have with her. There were no selfies to fill up spaces between people back then. I have no idea how long I had spent letting my mind wander, but suddenly I find Sharon is back.
“How was it?” I ask her excitedly. But, before she could answer, it’s already my turn. “I’ll wait for you here,” Sharon tells me as I leave.
Another nun from MoC briefs me, as she takes me up the stairs to the first floor. Mother Teresa is taking a walk around the veranda. “Please be brief, her doctor has asked her not to exert herself,” the nun tells me somberly. I see her as I reach the head of the staircase and start walking toward her. She looks hunched and more shrunken than I have known her to be in all her pictures. She is walking slowly, with a rosary in hand.
I am now standing before Mother Teresa. Her eyes twinkle and narrow as she smiles gently at me. “How are you feeling?” I ask her, haltingly. She comes closer, looks at me, and smiles.
“Let me bless you, my girl,” she says faintly. As her palm rests on my head, I feel a mild shiver running down my body. I am a bit startled by it. I look at her gentle face and a warm rush fills me, as she looks me in the eye. I find tears rolling down my eyes, as I feel her palm on my head. I am not sure how to describe it, but I have never felt this way before. I want to speak, but I stand there tongue-tied. I am not able to make sense of this powerful experience. Mother Teresa blesses me silently and, as she is done, I reach out for her hand. It’s frail and cold—she lets me hold it for a moment. “Thank you,” I manage to say the words somehow.
I realize my time is over, so I turn around and run down the steps.
Sharon is waiting on the bench. We don’t say a word to each other. We will spend the rest of the day talking about our experience. We will become friends and she will inspire me to volunteer at the orphanage down the road, until I start my career as a journalist. We will write letters to each other for the next few years, until life catches up with both of us. Until I lose her address while moving to New Delhi.
But we are holding the moment now. We hug each other briefly but spontaneously, overcome by our experience. We sit on the bench for a while, saying nothing. We are strangers, worlds apart, bound together by a moment. The moment that Mother Teresa touched our lives and blessed us.
For more on Mother Teresa, read these inspirational quotes from the Catholic saint.