Think back on the dumbest thing you did that you will never tell anyone. Here’s mine; I might as well tell everyone:
I accidentally high-fived Mother Teresa.
Mother was trying to put a blessing on my forehead. So, how did this inconceivably idiotic thing happen? And why am I telling you this, on the seventeenth anniversary of Mother’s passing?
Mother always said it’s the kindness in the little things that show the way.
I began volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in New York City in 1991. Now, don’t get the wrong idea about me; I’d spontaneously burst into flames if I walked by a church. I’m a lapsed Christian. Trying, but lapsed.
Torn between being a journalist and doing missionary work full-time, I did a “Come and See” with the Missionaries of Charity, to see what it was like to be a member of their order. I spent several weeks living and working with Mother’s sisters in the South Bronx, after working at Mother’s AIDS hospice in Manhattan and briefly at her shelter for homeless pregnant women in Brooklyn. I was an utter failure, my mind like a gnat in a hurricane, corralling it an impossible feat.
I then went to work with Mother and her sisters in Calcutta in October 1996, a year before Mother passed away. Before I left, Mother’s doctor called to ask me to pick up Mother’s heart medicine and deliver it to her. When I landed in Calcutta, city of joy, city of dust, and got in the sisters’ van, the first thing I noticed was there were eight different traffic patterns. Everybody drove like they just got out of a revolution.
“Sisters, we better get to Mother’s apartment fast, it looks like it’s going to rain,” I warned from the back of the van, staring at a looming black cloud. “Oh, Leez,” they laughed. “That’s pollution.”
After I checked in at the hotel, I went to the Missionaries of Charity’s headquarters on A.J.C. Bose Road to deliver Mother her heart medicine and a dozen yellow roses. A woman walked by on the inside of her ankles, feet flopping to the side, like something out of an anxiety dream, the simple dignity and quiet courage of Mother’s building in the distance amid the poverty. Once outside Mother’s apartment, her sisters wheeled Mother out in her wheelchair. She smiled down at me, dark rings circling her eyes, and grabbed my hand, exhausted, having suffered a number of heart attacks and strokes.
“What are we going to do, Liz?” Mother asked. “So many people are dying, we are still picking up so many people from the streets.”
Upset, I replied: “Mother, please don’t worry, your sisters and co-workers are here to help. We love you. Please, Mother, we need you to get better.”
Mother smiled and said: “OK, OK.”
To cheer her up, I talked about a scene out of the Little Flower’s “Story of a Soul – the Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux,” Mother’s favorite saint, whom she chose to be named after.
When you work with the MCs, they often say “soon, soon” to get the men and women moving to start their day. I told Mother how Little Flower wrote about a dream she had where she met St. Anne, mother of Mary, in a dream, and asked when she would be in heaven with her.
“Guess what St. Anne said?” I asked Mother, who said: “I don’t know, what? “Soon, soon,” I replied. Mother burst out laughing and grabbed my hand, squeezing it tight. I laughed, too, then I grew really worried.
You see, when you worked with Mother, she would jokingly go up to women and make a square box in front of their faces with her hands to see what they would look like in a nun’s habit. Distracted, I thought: “Is Mother going to give me her recruiting speech about becoming an MC and throw a sari over my head? For me to become an MC would be too much for Mother, she has enough to deal with.”
Then Mother started raising her hand toward me to put a blessing on my forehead.
Not realizing what she was doing, I accidentally high-fived Mother Teresa. I don’t think Mother got any sports channels in Calcutta. I was mortified, but Mother laughed hysterically, grabbing my hand even tighter. Yet, the way I read the faces on her sisters was, “Who let this American lunatic in the door?” So I fled the scene and ran back to my hotel room, crying and laughing and then crying some more into my hotel pillow.
It got worse. I came home for Thanksgiving, typical big family scene, about 20 of us, children’s tables. When it finally settled down, my older sister Regina piped up: “Did you hear Mother Teresa is back in the hospital?”
Horrified and upset, I asked: “What, when did that happen?” But Regina teased: “Yeah, you yanked her arm up so high you gave Mother another heart attack.” Again, I fled the scene, as laughter exploded around me.
Not all of us are due for a blinding experience on the Damascus Road. Mother always said it’s the kindness in the little things that show the way.
One thing I know for sure, given how kind Mother was even to me: Mother stood under the Light that came into this world 2,000 years ago and lifted its beam a whole lot higher.