What The Eyes Cannot See

In my previous post I talked some about the dinner ritual of sharing a high and low for the day. I’ve decided to approach this entry in that same manner: highs and lows.

First a high: Dr Kumar
One of Rising Stars biggest endeavors is treating leprosy and teaching those afflicted with it how to properly care for and dress their ulcers. Dr. Kumar and two nurses, therefore, frequently visit the colonies with volunteers to do routine checkups and bandaging. In part the purpose of these visits is simply to provide greatly needed love; these beautiful people very literally are societal outcasts. To them having someone come and visit them when their own family refuses to see them is unbelievably meaningful. These visits treat not only very deep physical wounds but even deeper emotional and psychological wounds.

Today we as volunteers had a most beautiful and humbling opportunity as we accompanied Dr. Kumar to visit one of the leprosy colonies Rising Star has been working with. Prior to our departure, Dr. Kumar briefed us on our days goals and tasks. At this time, Dr. Kumar shared with us how he became connected with Rising Star. He is a saint. In brief, his story begins with the sudden and preventable death of his grandfather. His grandfather had some complications; Dr. Kumar took him to the hospital for emergency treatment. At the hospital, however, there were only two doctors treating near 1,000 patients; both were currently busy so his grandfather passed away. Finally a doctor was available and still tried to resuscitate Dr. Kumar’s grandfather but to no avail. One week later Dr. Kumar returned to the hospital to thank this overwhelmed doctor for attempting to save his grandfather. When he arrived at the hospital he discovered that the doctor had moved abroad as there were better opportunities for him financially in London; as a result the ratio was one doctor to 1,000 patients. This experience inspired Dr. Kumar to go to medical school in his 30s: the cost of which was $2,000/year for three years.

Dr. Kumar shared that at the end of his studies he, like many others in his medical school, had lost sight of his original passion and reasoning for studying medicine. Instead, he looked forward to buying a beautiful house in the middle of Chennai—the nearby city—and getting a nice car. A hospital in Chennai offered him a contract that started a month later. Dr. Kumar decided to go home to his village—located close to Rising Star—during that time to be with his family. A native, also affiliated with Rising Star, heard of this doctor and offered him a job for just a month helping in the colonies; his experiences in just that one month were enough to remind him why he went to medical school. He turned down the prestigious job that would have afforded him many worldly luxuries and since then has been working to eradicate leprosy in numerous colonies seeing 1,200 patients each month. Again: Dr. Kumar is a saint. He is such an example of selflessness and truly sincere compassion.

A high: True Gratitude
Following the morning briefing we clambered into the vans in which we enjoyed an ever so bouncy 45 minute ride to the colony. Words cannot describe what occurred as we pulled into the colony; still I will do my best to adequately articulate what transpired in order to offer you a glimpse into one of the finest examples of gratitude I have ever seen.

Meet Noah. The most grateful, humble, gracious, pure…and every other word that is good. Noah contracted leprosy years ago. With time, the disease ravaged his body. He lost his fingers, many toes, deformed his feet, and caused him to nearly go blind. Thanks to Dr. Kumar, his ulcers are fewer and less severe, and his eyesight was restored through cataract surgery—a $20 surgery in India. For 20 years he had been unable to see. Now he can see. What is amazing about Noah is that he sees beyond what any physical eyes can see. Never in my life have I met such a happy and grateful man. In order to express his gratitude this man at the age of 80 woke early and managed to hobble out to the bus stop to welcome us. He came so early and did not have the time that he eventually came back to the colony thinking we were not coming; we pulled up just as he returned.

He was ecstatic. Elated. He came up and extended his fingerless hands for us to shake; he hugged us. And then he began to pray. Understanding him was complicated, but still we were able to understand “Halluja! Halluja” (to us hallelujah) as he offered many blessings upon us. Over and over again he raised his hands to heaven and prayed and praised on our behalf. His grin was so intense it seemed as though it had to hurt; still he beamed the entire time we were there.

While at the colony we set up a miniature clinic for the checkups. Rather than visit colony members at their individual homes, setting up the clinic at the village center encourages them to get out of their houses which is critical for all humans. The true medical professionals then helped assess complicated ulcers and detaching and falling off limbs. Others had tasks of checking blood pressures, sugar levels, and washing all of their crippled and sore covered feet. While Rising Star has taught those afflicted with leprosy in the colonies with which they work to clean and bandage their own wounds, Rising Star volunteers offer to wash their feet during such visits. This is not to take away their independence, but to offer wanted and needed love. Again, imagine being shunned due to contracting a completely curable disease and for having such deformities. With leprosy, teenagers are kicked out of their homes, adults lose their jobs, and no matter the age all with leprosy are rejected and pushed out of even their own lives. Most of those in the leprosy colonies have gone without outside contact for years, decades even. To have any visitors at all is huge. But to have a visitor who does not shudder at you appearance, but rather who takes your deformities in your hands and lovingly washes them—it is humanizing. These people believe they are nothing; even the simplest visit allows them to feel like a person, and someone who might actually matter.

My job for the day was ever so humbling and unbelievably beautiful: I washed their beautiful feet. Ever so grateful Noah was one of those who’s feet I was privileged to wash. I first had to cut off bandages from his feet to expose his many ulcers. Even though from pictures we have seen of Rising Star’s ongoing evaluations his and all of the peoples’ sores and conditions have improved immensely the experience was sobering. There he sat beaming at me, pleased that I would look at him and smile. The bandage was stuck to his ulcer, and I soaked it for a bit in order to remove it. Still beaming, he looked down and motioned to just rip it off. It meant so much for him to have his feet washed. Once I removed the bandage I began to wash his feet. Skin sloughed off on all sides of his misshapen, toeless foot. I have never felt so honored to wash such wounds. Looking at him I wondered what did he really see? Does he see his wounds? Does he see the effects the disease has had on his body? Yes. But he has found hope in focusing on the good in life.

Though Noah was one of the first to be seen, he stuck around the entire time we were in the colony in order to bless us again: “Halluja! Halluja” he cried to the heavens again. He thanked each of us individually again and again as we boarded the bus. For hours he had stayed around, thanking everyone the whole while. What a pure, loving, and wise man. He sees I think how Heaven sees. He too is an absolute saint. As we drove away he waved and waved and wave until we were too small to be seen.

His example makes me wonder: if he finds so much reason to be joyful in his situation, how can I possibly find any reason to complain in mine? He is a beautiful and true example of gratitude at is best.

A low: Stigmas
My experience in the colony was both a high and a low as I’m sure you gathered from between the lines of the previous “high”. Again, it was a rather sobering experience. Leprosy is curable, yet here it is a curse due to inadequate health services, knowledge, and access to care. One cannot even ride the bus if afflicted with leprosy. They are shunned; they are forgotten. It breaks my heart to think these people are socially dead, never to be seen again by those they love. That was definitely a low for me.

A low: Pain
Another low for me occurred while washing another woman’s feet. Leprosy effects the nerves causing parts of the body to go numb. Because of this someone with leprosy might step on a nail and walk a mile with it deep in their skin without the slightest inclination that it is there. In fact, it is complications like this that make leprosy so scary. The other principal complication that accompanies leprosy is infections.

As most of the people’s feet were numb they did not experience any pain as we washed their feet. One particular lady, however, was not so far along in the disease (which in a sense is a positive thing) that her feet were numb; in fact, she felt everything. Because of this she was in excruciating pain as I washed her feet. Whether she washed it, or I washed it her foot had to be washed for fresh bandages to be put on. She chose to have me wash it. As careful as I tried to be she still experienced pain, yet when I looked up at her face she managed the most grimaced smile I have ever seen and thanked me. I loved her. And I love her.

High: Photos
Another of the colony members’ favorite things is having their picture taken. Especially with the volunteers. Again part of it seems to be that they at long last feel like a person; they feel that their existence is documented and real. We had a good time walking around the colony after we finished washing their feet to visit the villagers.  Each of them were elated to see their pictures; each were so grateful.


A high: Village Stroll
We returned to Rising Star late afternoon all quite tired. At that point we had a little over an hour of free time during which some of us ventured out to explore the surrounding village. Again, another neat experience. I am always so much happier walking among the people instead of driving by. As we walked we ran into children, families—all beautiful and all so gracious and warm. Indian hospitality is phenomenal. Everyone is so accepting and kind. It was fun seeing children herding their goats, three boys struggling to balance on a bike along the dirt path, villagers plowing their fields with water buffalo… the people are beautiful here. All of them smile and greet you. And the women: they all wear the brightest saris and look immaculately stunning each and every day. Then of course there was the actual scenery: rice fields, palm trees, thatched roof huts, wealthier stucco homes, cattle, water buffalo, goats, greenery…India is dazzlingly lovely. I adore it.

As we strolled along we came across a grandmother, mother, and three children—one of which was but a few months old. Naturally we were drawn to the family, particularly the baby. As we admired the beautiful family and baby, the mother suddenly signaled that she had two babies; she had twins. She passed off one of the babies to my aunt and promptly ran inside to get her other baby. The cutest babies I have ever seen. She then allowed me to hold the other twin.

After holding her beautiful baby for quite some time I started to try to hand her back off to the mother. I suppose my actions were not quite bold enough for I couldn’t quite get rid of the baby. In the end I jokingly started walking off with the baby calling over my shoulder “Bye bye!” They sure got a kick out of that—both the mother and grandmother just laughed and laughed. Luckily that action gave them the hint and the mother took her baby. Let’s be honest though, I wouldn’t mind taking home one of these adorable babies with me; they are absolutely adorable! I love them all!

Along our walk we also came across children in uniform—all so cute. Two girls in particular were so fun. We saw them skipping toward us from a distance; the moment they came too close they changed from a skip to a shy shuffle and passed us slowly trying not to make too much eye contact. Once they passed us, however, the immediately resumed their laughter and skipping.

One last strolling adventure was when we happened upon two little boys who had climbed up top a cement structure. Bryan and the country directors’ son naturally couldn’t resist joining up. Pretty soon all of them were up top the structure showing off their muscles and posing for cameras. Those two little boys were unbelievably pleased with their good fortune of hanging out with these two guys. It was really fun to see.

A High: The Rising Star Children
As I mentioned in my first entry, each evening follows the same routine: from 4:30 to 6 we play with the kids, from 6 to 6:20 we join them for prayer time, then we have dinner, and for the remainder of the night we help the children with homework and put them to bed. This routine is absolutely uplifting and to be honest quite comical.

Yesterday I spent nearly the entire playtime running around in a game of chase. Talk about tiring, sweaty, and tiring in this humidity and heat. As I approached the play area I thought to myself: “Perhaps today I’ll try to encourage less active activities.” Unfortunately, and really fortunately the children I had played chase with yesterday (plus 10 and 12 more) saw me approaching. Again they wanted to play chase. Well—chasing 20 kids in every direction is a bit difficult. Therefore I formed a solution: hide-and-seek. Only everyone hides together! Ha. (There were so many kids I was afraid I would never figure out who I was supposed to be looking for.) So for a good hour, Bryan, 20 plus kids, and I played this unique version of hide-and-seek. Each child wanted a turn. It cracked me up at how simply they hid: each time they hid they were entirely visible, yet the loved it. And I loved it: I didn’t have to run as much.

That is us hiding with the children as another child counted.  They are too cute!

During playtime we also played Red Light Green Light, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon says. I loved it.

After playing with the larger group of children for some time I was able to go over to a girl I’d noticed had sat alone on a swing for two days in a row. She was beaming to see that someone was there for her—even if just for a moment. Rising Star—like all Indian public schools—is a boarding school. In order to be enrolled at Rising Star, however, a guardian is required to visit their child once a month. These children are so young and so far from home: they love to be loved. She was so happy to have me push her on the swing. Her favorite game was for me to repeat the names of the many children a syllable at a time in rhythm with each push (apparently she felt I was bad at pronouncing their names…which I would agree with).

At another point I was able to play with the cutest five-year-old girl who made me “chicken”, and “chocolate”, and ice cream”, and so much more. In other words rocks and sand and grass…yummy.

Two other girls taught me some fun games with rocks. What I could tell the idea was to toss one small rock high in the air, and attempt to grab all of the rocks set in front of you in time to catch the tossed rock. Sounds simple right? Well apparently there are also a million different rules, etc. It was quite confusing.

High: The Power of Primary Songs
Tonight was again another beautiful experience. We began again with homework help. Only a few of the children—the oldest—still had homework so we were able to read a lot of the younger boys stories in between tutoring. The most popular book of the evening was “The Prince of Egypt”. Yes this is the picture book of the cartoon movie we all adore of Moses and the Hebrews leaving Egypt. A VERY long book. So rather than reading the endless text I told them the story based on the pictures. It was great. It was such a popular book tonight that I had to read it a number of times…each time being slightly different. It was most comical, however, when one of the oldest peered over my shoulder and read the actual text. He was quick to inform me I was reading it wrong. That last reading he checked up on my accuracy so often that I had to in fact read the published text. That shows how well his reading is though so I suppose it’s a good thing.

At 8pm the youngest go to bed. Bryan and I tucked them in. I gave each a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and absolutely told them how much I loved them. They miss their homes so much—though I’ve learned they rarely cry; they miss love. The adorable little boys kept telling me “you missed,” when I kissed their forehead or cheek so that I would kiss them again.

I then I returned to help the older children with homework while Bryan sang them songs. The older boys and I could hear him serenading the children; they absolutely loved it. The little boys’ favorite songs were “Jesus songs” as they called them. Apparently they are familiar with many primary songs as they have been popular among volunteers. It was so cute to hear these five and six-year-olds hastily request more songs the moment Bryan began singing. The second oldest and oldest go to bed at 8:30pm and 9pm. The moment they were done with their homework, however, they all wanted to go to bed to listen to Bryan sing. It was adorable. We were amazed to have all of the children in bed—or on their mats—by 8:30. Together Bryan and I sang to them. We then alternated singing with the House Mother who sang native songs too. By 8:45 they were all asleep and breathing deeply. Another amazing day.

And those are my main highs and lows. A few more minor things though:

The snake: a “Two Step Snake” was killed right outside our door tonight. It gets its name because apparently if it bites you, you will only make it about two steps before dying. I think I’ll stick to the path.

Mafia: today was topped off with a fantastic game—excuse me games of Mafia. Everyone was  hysterically into it. I have never seen such strategy applied to the game. There were some serious deaths and backstabbing go on. Talk about a fun group. Everyone is so fun and so loving.

Again: I am choosing sleep over proofreading. Please forgive my spelling. Loves.

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