Today is Christmas Day, which we traditionally associate with St. Nicholas. But after Christmas this year, for me this day will bring to mind another saint, Ishwardada.
Ishwar Patel is Jayeshbhai's father, and he is nearing his last moments on earth. His health has been steadily deteriorating since earlier this year. Since that time Jayeshbhai has dropped all of his other work and focused on Ishwardada in various capacities. Earlier this month he and many other volunteers organized a huge gathering of friends, family, co-workers, and well-wishers at Sughad in honor of Ishwardada and his life's work as a pioneer of the sanitation movement in Gujarat. "Mr. Toilet", as he's called, was also honored by the release of his biography, which had been in the works for some time.
It seemed that Dada was holding onto his health for that event, because shortly thereafter he was hospitalized and has remained in bed since. Today I went to Sanjivani hospital to pay my respects to Dada and give love to Jayeshbhai and Anarben.
Dada was in room 407, but rooms 408 and 409 had been cleared out because so many people kept coming through. I walked into 408 to find Jayeshbhai seated with several other visitors. I gave him a big hug, saw sadness, fatigue, and that constant flame of joy in his eyes. We sat and as we passed around bananas (which were brought especially for him but he insisted on sharing), he told about Ishwardada's state. He is in deep pain, but remains alert and vibrant. Jayeshbhai keeps feeding him updates on things going on outside. At Manav Sadhna, people are making efforts to clean the ashram and the surrounding area, in his name. There are small acts like the kids who walked from MS to the hospital, picking up trash along the way, then hand delivered flowers from money they had saved to other patients at the hospital. Jayeshbhai asks Dada about the future of MS, whether they should take it big. Dada insists, "Keep doing small things." Yesterday the hospital was swept and cleaned from top to bottom by volunteers. Today the hospital was freshly painted with bright colors and artful decorations, and all patients were served tea and biscuits. People are in Dada's room 24 hours waiting on him, massaging his legs and back as he has remained upright for the past 10 days. The nursing staff has been made a part of the family. So many wonderful acts, big and small, happening around Dada even as he lies on his deathbed. Jayeshbhai says it is Dada's final act of service, giving so many others the opportunity, inspiration, and occasion to serve.
Then all the people who have been streaming in to see Dada, at all hours. He is in so much pain yet refuses no one. Famous, powerful, politically connected, they all come in to pay respects. But then there are the armies of everyday people, rickshawwalas, sweepers, farmers, who come as well. Some come for appearances, others come out of emotional connection. With the admiration of people from all walks of life, so diverse, Jayeshbhai remarks how we are witnesses to the invisible ripples Dada has created over his 50 years of service, now made visible.
We are sitting there and Jayeshbhai is chatting about all these things, then the doctor walks by. He gets up with a somber face and goes to talk with him, and Anarben joins. We can overhear the conversation: Dada is doing worse then yesterday, it really doesn't look good. Jayeshbhai walks back into the room silently, deep sadness in his eyes. He sits back down in silence. After a few minutes he spontaneously gets up with conviction and tells me to come with him.
I'm only writing this post because I never want to forget what happens next. He takes my hand and leads me into Dada's hospital room. We have to take masks from the boy guarding the door. Once we enter it's humid and hazy. Dada is upright on his bed with pillows and people flanking him all around. Jayeshbhai goes up to him and gives what I can only describe as a shower of love. Pinching his cheeks, rubbing his hands and legs gently, getting Dada to stroke his face, sweet talking. Just over the top love. He introduces me to Dada, a bit about my work, how I come from California and Charityfocus. I touch Dada's feet and tell him everyone back there are thinking of him and send their best wishes.
Jayeshbhai continues the love barrage. Ishwardada mentions that today is Christmas. Good memory! Yes, Jayeshbhai responds, a day for Jesus, such a compassionate soul. He goes on about Jesus but at this point I stop listening and tear up. Jayeshbhai has just heard the worst news, that his father's end is near. He could be upset, depressed, fearful, self-pitying. But there is only one unflinching response: love.
I walked out of the room after Jayeshbhai and Ba insisted that Dada bless each of us in the room, with a touch on the head. I said goodbyes and walked out of the hospital, my head spinning. Since the past several months till today this son has totally devoted himself to serving his father, to do anything to make him happy. And there's really nothing he hasn't done. It was an incredible model of the heights we can reach in loving and caring for our parents in the final stages. I am so thankful to have witnessed it, it was such a valuable lesson. I resolved to take what I had seen and apply what I can when the same occasion in my life arises.
UPDATE: Ishwardada passed away the next morning, Dec. 26th