Sundar Behen gently wheeled the old man out the back door and on to the veranda of the Quiet Rest facility that faced toward the Bundar Panch massif. It was an early March morning in Landour and a recent rain had cleared the air so that the “snows” sparkled in all their pristine glory.
She pulled a light coverlet over his thin body. It was a bit chilly.
“Would you like some hot tea to sip as you enjoy the mountains?’
“I would indeed.” answered Motilal Raichaudri feebly.
“I’ll be back shortly with your tea.” she replied. as she turned quietly back into the residence.
Motilal felt a momentary sadness at her absence and lifted his eyes to the Himalayas in the distance. He inhaled deeply. The cool air hinted of its intimacy with the distant icy peaks. It contained essences of the deep and mysterious climates that continually veiled them. Even though he was in some pain, knowing that he breathed the same fragrant air that had lingered around his beloved mountains made him shiver with delight.
Sundar Behen moved efficiently inside. She placed a kettle of water on the electric stove and turned it on high. In her late fifties, she had been on a long journey to this time and place. Reaching over her head, she pullled down the box of loose Earl Grey. It was the brand that Motilal had preferenced on his application papers.
The other nurses were busy in their shared room, gathering the pillls and bags of liquids that they administered to their patients to keep them comfortable in this hospice setting. Sundar was particularly fond of Shanti, a plump young novice nurse who lifted everyone’s spirits with her naivete and jolly humor.
The water came to a boil. Sundar measured out a generous spoon of tea into the strainer and poured the steaming water into a white china pot. She also added cardamon, cinnamon
and a pinch of clove. She poured in some milk and the hot chai was ready. On a small linen covered brass tray she placed some cookies, the pot, a china cup and saucer with a clean white napkin. Motilal’s cancer was so far advanced that hot tea and a few bites of a cookie were about all the sustenance his frail body could tolerate.
She didn’t know much about Motilal except what she had gleaned from the admission papers. He had been with them for only two days and the overworked staff usuaually didn’t have time to know each patient well.
It was here that Motilal had always hoped to spend his last living hours. He had first learned to love this place while attending Woodstock School. During the five years there he and several close pals made numerous trips down to the Aglar river valley. A few times they had even trekked over the few remaining ridges to the base of Bundar Panch. They weren’t climbers, just hikers. Being in the presence of that much looming granite and ice always made him feel that he was in the presence of a powerful Mystery.
Sundar poured his chai. “Be careful sir, it is very hot!” she admonished. A pang of remorse shot through her. She had never known a father because she had been an orphan. Sundar wondered if she had been too sharp and not properly respectful.
As she was an orphan her chances for a legitimate marriage were considerably diminished. In her young womanhood, through the auspices of her Catholic orphanage, she drifted somewhat reluctanctly into being a nurse nun. Could this dying old man be her unknown father she mused? She determined to treat him with the deference and love as if he were. That would be keeping her vows to be of service . Sundar Behen smiled slightly at the thought.
“Why did you choose to come here” she asked, wanting to know at least a little more about him before he was gone. It would take some time to tell his story and she would listen attentively. ….
“I came to Woodstock in the 50’s, “ he began, “and learned to love this town and these mountains. Then I went to Cambridge.” He sipped the chai. The spices mixed smoothly on his palate and in his nose. Motilal set the cup down. She really knew how to brew a tasty chai he thought.
“ I became a biologist and later owned my own company.” he continued. And then a wave of nausea briefly passed over him. The vista in front dimmed and seemed to swirl and for
a few moments he was out of it.
Sundar watched him closely. Previous experiences with this kind of patient convinced her that probably he would come around shortly. His body twitched convulsively a few times and then he blinked his eyes.
“Am I still with the living? “he inquired with a wan smile.
“ Oh yes!” she smiled affectionately. “Your’re very much still with
us!” Her voice was comforting. “You were telling me…”
“Remind me…” he searched for the train of thought before he had blanked out.
“You were telling me how you came to us…”
And he continued, explaining how in retirement after his family had grown and his beloved wife had perished in a car accident that he began a search for meaning. That he began to understand from Christian mystics and the writings of the Buddha that there was much more to life than fame and the accumulation of wealth. He explained how he had used his means to make pilgrimages to the monasteries of both faiths, searching how life should be completed.
He wasn’t looking for salvation or karma…just something that would offer him a personal peace. Motilal learned much from a few very wise teachers. It was in the deep repasts of the high Himalayas that he began to practice asceticism, a discipline that required long bouts of fasting, prayer, and apartness. On each of these occasions his internal dialogue became less fitful and his friends would remark that he looked much better when he returned.
A few year later some dizzy spells that came at odd moments and a progressive weakness sent him to his physician. Ultimately the diagnosis came back. “I’m sorry to inform you that you have late stage leukemia…” After the initial shock he made his plans.
He determined to return to Landour and discovered there was a hospice for terminal patients there. Calling a trusted lawyer friend, he divided his estate among his children and charity, saving only what he needed to complete his mission. Motilal told his family he was going on a month long trip to an old favorite place he longed to visit and would see them on his return.
Sundar reflected on her own life as she listened to the old man. What was it she lacked? Had she missed something by not being able to marry and raise a family? Wasn’t that the purpose of being a woman? Had she not felt the yearnings to hold young life to her breast; to watch it grow into personhood? Yet, in some mysterious way, she was nurturing those who were on the brink into their new reality…and would not this return to her as her own blessing? She vaguely understood something about grace from the joy she felt while working around young Shanti. And Shanti …she was just beginning her journey and scarcely knew what energy she was generating in those around her
Motilal took another sip. The narration had taken almost all his strength. He was grateful for her presence. She alone had the time to hear his story through and affirm his life. The chill was turning pleasant. Slowly he removed his covering, it felt good to have living air move over him. He inhaled deeply. Somewhere down in the valley below a bird was calling “Kwoaa. Kwoaa”. In the distance he heard crows cawing. He began to feel a pleasant somnulence steal over him.
Then an amazing thing happened. He felt a part of him leave the wheel chair. He was moving in a light blue light toward the distant peaks. He literally soared toward them with a great transcending joy. Motilal was exhultant! He yelled a loud “Hallelujah!” as he sped faster and faster upward towardthe reachimg spires. He knew without a doubt that he was about to break through to the great Mystery.
Sundar Behen heard him breath deeply and saw the rapturous look on his face. She had seen this expression before with other patients. She understood that he was seeing things she might experience in the future…now they would still remain unknown.
This time he would not awaken. Lovingly she drew the shawl over
his still body and softly stepped inside.
“Motilal has just left us.” she announced to whoever migh hear. Then she went into her room and wept.