Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An unexpected arrival

There are themes that are universal. Smiles are understood even when language barriers limit conversation. A glance can portray so much. Energy can be read between people. And no matter where you are love, family and death are certain to be present. Upon my arrival to Kannur, a city in the northern part of the southernmost Indian state of Kerala, I got to be part of all three.

I landed in the home of my host family after what amounts to three consecutive overnights of travel with precious little sleep, after a rigorous journey through the cold north of India. I was exhausted, depleted and running a fever.  Thankfully it was 6am, and I was promptly shown the simple accommodations that would be mine for the next four weeks so that I could rest. I crashed out for a few hours but then rallied my energy in my excitement to meet everyone and get a sense of the people and place I'd be living with. I was unaware that there could be any bigger meaning to my forcing myself to be functional. 

It turns out there was. The day would unfold with introductions made amongst my host family and the other few westerners here for various volunteer programs, gifts of American candies and Florida-themed goodies given and an overnight trip idea hatched and then derailed when a car couldn't be found. I felt strongly that I wasn't well enough to make that trip, yet hated the idea of missing out on something fun so soon after my arrival, so when it fell through, I felt kind of bad that perhaps I'd sabotaged the trip for the others with the power of my thoughts. However, when we awoke the next morning, the real reason we had stayed became painfully obvious. The father of my host, Ranjit, who was a beloved, gentle patriarch still at the helm of his family's affairs and tremendously respected in the community, had died peacefully and quietly in his sleep, not ten feet from the room I'd been asleep in.

I was up on the roof doing my morning yoga practice when another of the volunteers came up to tell me. It seems everyone in the family thought, while odd that he hadn't risen early and started the day with the paper on the porch, maybe he just needed some extra sleep. It was around 8am when the revelation was made. Almost immediately people came. The house began to fill, and it stayed that way. Neighbors, church members, friends, family, old colleagues. People from near and far. It was an instantaneous outpouring of love and support, and it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. It was pure, humble and generous human spirit at it's finest.

Just as instantaneous were the funeral arrangements. People came together to make it all happen. Not even twelve hours later a grave had been dug, a coffin specially built and a proper burial organized for this kind, lovely man. There was no pomp and circumstance, no concern for appearances or formalities, just a group effort to ensure that the family was supported, and he was treated with dignity and respect. His body remained in the home, on display, until it was time to go to the church, a custom that seemed strange to me as an outsider, yet is obviously understood and accepted among the Indian Christian community that was grieving this loss.  

I'm neither Indian nor Christian, but what I could and did immediately become was part of the community, part of the family. I shared their sadness because of my understanding of it, and felt their pain because of the immense compassion it opened in me. They embraced me for that same reason, accepting my hugs and the message my eyes conveyed even if an embrace is not their custom and my words not readily understood by all. Though the initial response of all us volunteers had been to make ourselves scarce, we quickly realized we needn't make behave like outsiders among a group so willing and ready to accept. 

Acceptance is an important lesson that life will continually offer us. Death is hard for many in the West to accept because we are afraid of it and feel like we're somehow invincible. Personally, I've never felt that way. I'm so very happy and grateful to be alive, yet I have no real concern over my own mortality or that of others. Having been with my grandmother in her final moments and held my father's hand as he took his last breath, I know what it is to have someone you love dearly die a physical death. My immediate sadness was real in those instances but my grief was exceptionally brief. I guess I accept it so easily because I wholly believe that death is merely physical while we are so much more. We are souls, we are energy and we are infinite possibility. 

Perhaps it is my understanding of this that has allowed me to be present for the deaths of others. Ranjit told me today he believed his father was only able to pass because of my presence in their home. He told me he had said to his family "Get to know this one. She's an interesting woman." having met me only so briefly. What an honor to be held in this regard, to have held a sacred space of love for someone else, even if subconsciously. If that doesn't make for family, I don't know what does.

What a welcome into this family! I am so glad to be here with them, my family, even if not the one I was born into or the one I've knitted together back at home. I am grateful to share in their love and their loss, their lives and their deaths, and to accept and embrace whatever else is to come during my time in Kerala.

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