March 4-10, 2004
The Rhythm of Life
By Father Michael Bassano,MM/ SUN contributing writer
Suffering and death point toward resurrection for HIV/AIDS victims and their caregivers
About 12 years ago a visionary Buddhist monk named Phra Alongkot opened up a hospice center within the temple called Wat Phra Baat Namphu as a refuge for those with HIV/AIDS. Many people with HIV/AIDS who felt rejected, abandoned and totally alone found a compassionate place to turn to in time of need. This Buddhist temple is located about seven kilometers outside of the city of Lopburi about two hours north of the city of Abngkok. It is located near beautiful sloping mountains and there is a sense of peace and serenity found there even in the midst of over 250 people suffering with HIV/AIDS. The peaceful setting of the temple provides a welcoming, hospitable atmosphere for the medical staff, volunteers and everyone else who desires to be together with those suffering with HIV/AIDS as a family.
Our Maryknoll commitment to this AIDS Hospice Center at the temple began on the first week of November of 2003. The team of Dee Barlow, a Maryknoll lay missioner, Jane Whitney, a Maryknoll volunteer and a participant in the Catholic Medical Mission Board volunteer program, and Michael Bassano, a Maryknoll priest, are presently working at the temple that has only one doctor from Belgium. The temple also has many nurse’s aides and volunteers who assist in the daily care of the people in the two main hospital wards. Dee Barlow, a physical therapist, and Jane Whitney, a physician’s assistant, and I are offering our gifts to bring hope and encouragement to our sisters and brothers suffering with HIV/AIDS here at the temple. Donna Ramsden, a Canadian nurse and Maryknoll volunteer, has recently joined us in volunteer service for a couple of weeks at the temple. Her name is Sunita, a 28 year-old woman who lives on the fourth floor in the hospital wards. She told me that she had a dream last night. In her dream she was covered with light and she felt that she was being carried away to a new beautiful place where she saw her parents and other friends who had died. She felt happy and full of joy that she was going there but when she awoke she became frightened. Even though she knows that she may not live a long life, which scares her, she found some comfort in that dream knowing in some way that life does continue. It gives her some hope as she sees the reality of life around her in a place where people are dying of AIDS almost every day. Knowing this, Sunita tries to take care of herself and helps her sisters and brothers in the same ward.
Her name is Ying. She died last week at the age of 25. About a month ago she was involved in a beauty pageant during the festival of Loy Gratong. Her face was beaming and she looked beautiful. Ying was so proud of herself that she decided to enter the pageant even though she looked thin and not in the best of health. Her beautiful smile and gentleness just radiated from Ying. Weeks later, she was put on oxygen and lay dying. When I saw her on the day she died, both the volunteers and I knew intuitively that she would not live long. As I looked into her eyes and asked her what she would like, she responded by wanting me to take the oxygen away and let her go. She said she had suffered enough and that she just wanted to go now. I just whispered in her ear, “Be at peace, it’s okay,” as I stroked her forehead. Moments later she stopped breathing and as we prepared her to be put into the wooden coffin, before cremation, those beautiful eyes and a gentle smile remained, as if to say she was indeed okay and had let go to move on to something new. We shall miss her.
Sompang is a 50 year-old man who came to the temple about four months ago. We see each other every day as he asks me to massage his legs from time to time as he cannot walk and is in a lot of pain at times. The other day as I was massaging his leg he said to me, “You know today you are massaging my legs, but when we get to heaven I’m going to massage your legs.” I just looked at him and smiled in agreement. But I also told him that we don’t have to wait for each other to get to heaven. We can help each other now by being together and enjoying each other’s presence. He is always so kind to me. After I massaged his legs today, he offered me three oranges and an apple that he wanted me to have. He said he had enough for himself but wanted to share with me out of gratitude. Such is the gift of mutual compassion!
These three people teach me to live the rhythm of life in all its mystery and it is a gift to be a part of their lives at Wat Phra Baat Temple in Lopburi, Thailand.
Editor’s note: Father Bassano wrote this reflection before some of his friends passed away.