I'll never forget when I heard that Mother Teresa had died. I heard a reporter announce, "Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the poorest of the world's poor, died Friday in Calcutta, India, where she lived since her work with the destitute began five decades ago. She was 87."
Startled and saddened by the announcement, I found myself reflecting upon that grace-filled moment in time I spent with her in Calcutta, India, in October 1987. I could hear the sounds and smell the strange, pungent odors that are Calcutta. I longed to kiss Mother Teresa's worn, calloused hands and embrace her again.
Meeting the 'Saint of the Gutters'
My journey began when I found out that my brother, Msgr. John A. Esseff, now director of the Propagation of the Faith in Scranton, Pennsylvania, promised Mother Teresa that he would give a retreat to the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. I was filled with an overwhelming desire to accompany him. (Later, I realized that this pilgrimage was part of God's plan to send me on a longer journey within my soul.) In meeting her and following her each day as she cared for God's poor, I encountered Jesus face-to-face.
When we arrived in Calcutta, all the troubles of a long and arduous trip dissipated. We were greeted by the incongruous vision of Mother Teresa and two of her nuns pulling up to the terminal entrance in a dilapidated ambulance truck.
Immediately, we were inundated by a sea of humanity as the people recognized Mother Teresa. They began bowing, reaching out to her, calling her name. Most just stared with loving admiration at this famous champion of the poor. I watched the scene in silence as she acknowledged each person.
Right before my eyes the world's most famous person, a tiny wisp of a lady, grabbed our luggage. She called to her sisters to do the same and they began loading our baggage onto the truck. This act of humility touched me deeply. Even the armed guards, with rifles perched menacingly on their shoulders, smiled.
Mother sat next to me in the back of the truck. As I looked into her eyes, the realization that I was sitting next to a living saint rendered me speechless. I could see my brother's amusement at the sight of his loquacious sister not being able to speak.
As we drove through the congested, filthy streets, we dodged rickshaws pulled by frail men. Racing helter-skelter were goats, cows, chickens, buses, trucks, motorcycles, cabs, and cars. Horns honked incessantly. Near collisions and squealing brakes did not seem to faze Mother Teresa. But my heart was in my throat as we were jostled from one side of the truck to the other.
Mother Teresa pointed out the poverty that is Calcutta. The horrific sights were beyond anything I had imagined.
Happiness without Modern Conveniences
A quick prayer of thanksgiving was said silently as we arrived at the motherhouse in one piece. The many nuns and postulants we spotted were all barefooted and attired in the familiar white saris edged in blue. The sisters were busily scrubbing and cleaning the courtyard of the contamination that entered daily from the streets. Water was fetched in buckets from an outside pipe.
These women lead an austere life with no modern conveniences, yet their happiness is evident. They rely totally upon God for their daily bread. Food is baked for the poor and for themselves on clay stoves. Each day the poor line up waiting for the only sustenance they will receive. Mother Teresa said, "In order to understand those who have nothing and be able to help them, we must live like them."
At the time, there were 360 nuns and postulants at the motherhouse. Their beds, iron cots with thin mats, were so close there was barely room to squeeze by.
These women work tirelessly in the hospitals and orphanages. They go into the streets and bring the half-starved and the people of all ages who have Hansen's disease—known to many as leprosy—to the hospital. And most of all, they bring the abandoned babies.
But always in their grueling schedule, the Missionaries of Charity take time to come before the Blessed Sacrament to pray. This refreshes them and gives them the strength to deal with the misery and suffering they encounter daily. Yet, in spite of all the sadness, there is a spirit of joy. I asked Jesus to give me that spirit of joy—I could not feel it on my own.
Breathing Can be Dangerous in Calcutta
Even now, after all these years, it is difficult to express my horror and disbelief over what I witnessed. The streets were rife with emaciated, ragged people. We were forced to step over dead bodies. We shared the road with diseased cows, dogs, goats, chickens and, saddest of all, starving people. Human and animal excrement filled the streets.
Just breathing in Calcutta can be dangerous to your health. Thus, Mother suggested we keep our mouths covered whenever we walked through the streets. There was a putrid stench that literally assaulted the senses. Fumes rose from the river because of funeral pyres with half-burned corpses. Decaying garbage was piled in heaps, where hungry waifs battled over shreds of rotting food.
Pots of dried cow dung that was used as cooking fuel were burning everywhere. Filthy water carried waste along the streets. Fly-covered meats and foodstuffs were offered for sale.
This was my first glimpse of real poverty and hunger—it devastated me. As beggars grabbed at me with skeletal fingers, I witnessed the pain in their eyes. That look tore at my heart each time and still haunts me today.
Lifesaving Smiles, Hugs, and Kisses
For days after that first encounter I would go to my room and weep uncontrollably, feeling guilty that I had eaten. This memory of the face of hunger will be forever etched in my soul. I wanted to run from it. I felt so useless and helpless.
Mother Teresa told me to stop the weeping: "These people have enough tears of their own. What they need from you is your smile." I tried. When accompanying her, I attempted to do as she did.
We went to the orphanage, Shishu Bavhan, where little iron cribs lined the rooms. They were filled with babies that Mother Teresa and her sisters had saved.
One time a malnourished baby had just been brought in from the garbage heaps. I watched as a young nun washed this child and administered medication to try to save her from death.
Then Mother Teresa told us the story of another baby who had been brought in the day before. She said the child looked as if she had two heads because of a tumor that was so large she screamed in pain each time she moved. Mother Teresa made arrangements to have the child flown to a hospital to have the tumor removed. "So many babies, so many stories," she said with a look of sadness in her eyes.
Immediately after we arrived at the orphanage, Mother Teresa began caring for her little ones. Their tiny frowns quickly turned to glowing smiles when she entered the room. Those who could ran to her, tugging at her skirt and kissing her as they giggled gleefully.
At Shishu Bavhan, I saw an Indian woman who volunteers at the orphanage go from crib to crib, picking up each baby and giving each a loving hug. Mother Teresa told me that the babies could get medicine and food, but if they were not hugged, they would die. She said she had someone come every day to give tender hugs and kisses to each child, "something beautiful for God."
A Sense of Dignity and Worth
For the remainder of the stay, I had the privilege of spending many hours with Mother Teresa. I visited her hospitals, seeing the gentle way she cared for the dying—those emaciated shells of human flesh who were made to feel special and loved. They were given a sense of dignity and worth.
I was utterly humbled to witness and be a part of Mother Teresa's tireless labor of love. I had a glimpse of what heaven must be like during the time I spent with her and the other sisters in their chapel for Mass, sharing in the spiritual messages Msgr. John gave them. I listened as they worshiped God, with their voices rising like incense. And the memory of hearing Mother Teresa's voice as she sang to her beloved Jesus will live in my heart forever.
She counseled me during special moments alone, as I sat by her side or at her feet. I had to control myself to keep from hugging her too much, for she was so easy to love.
When it was time for me to leave Calcutta, I wept unashamedly—how difficult it was to say goodbye to Mother Teresa! Her gaze penetrated my very being as she said, "Go in joy, Marlene. Be always joyful with the love of Jesus. Serve him in your small corner of the world."
As I turned to leave, Mother Teresa answered a knock at the door. There stood a beggar, a gaunt Hindu, with a humble, pleading look in his eyes. I caught this moment on film. The silent testimony of this picture is one of the innumerable gifts the Lord has given me since my trip to what appeared to be the most contaminated place on earth.
Mother Teresa didn't turn my life upside down, she turned it right side up! I returned from Calcutta filled with gratitude to our most generous God.
Making Someone's Day Brighter
When I learned of Mother Teresa's death, these and many other memories flooded my soul. I was brought out of my reverie by the sound of the noon church bells. As I prayed the Angelus, I pondered the many blessings I had received as a result of that trip to Calcutta. I wondered, If this one tiny lady could have such a powerful effect on people throughout the world, why can't we, in our own corner of the earth, have a similar positive effect?\
This saintly woman's message was to tell people that it is not necessary to go to Calcutta or Beirut or any other foreign land. She told us to begin with our own family. Keep a special love kindled, so that the times together will be good. Many need to hear a kind word, feel the touch of a caring hand or hear the sound of a friendly voice.
In families or neighborhoods, maybe right next door, there are people who are lonely. Visit them, perform an act of kindness. Mother Teresa said, "Just a simple 'hello' can make a person's day brighter. This feeds more than food. Thank God for your country, for your blessings, for all that he does for you. Use your gifts to help others." Then she said, "Bread lasts but a day; love is for always."
When I was leaving Calcutta, she said, "Be Jesus to everyone you meet. And in everyone you meet, see Jesus."
Praising God with Music
Mother Teresa played a love song on the strings of my heart. When I returned home, I was inspired to write five albums of music praising God. One of the songs, "Am I My Brother's Keeper?", has become an anthem for the homeless.
In 1988, when I met with Mother Teresa at a convent in the Bronx to audition the songs I wrote for her, I was encircled by this saintly woman and her sisters. They clapped their hands and tapped their feet as they listened to me sing. Not even a command performance at Buckingham Palace could have topped this honor!
Mother Teresa asked me for the sheet music so her sisters could play and sing my songs in their convents. She especially liked "The Message of Mother Teresa (See Jesus)" and "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" She often told me that she wanted me to sing these for her when she died.
When the news of her death came, I knew that I must heed her desire to sing at her funeral. But a major miracle was needed for me to travel to Calcutta for Mother's funeral. I believed that through her intercession a way would come. And it did! She touched hearts and sent many helping hands to make it possible for me to carry out my promise.
As I stood on the stage of the Netalji Indoor Stadium where the funeral Mass was about to begin, a hush came over the crowd of 12,000 people. The commentator announced that the funeral cortege was nearing. Then she introduced my first song. As the musical introduction wafted through the air, memories once again flooded my soul.
The reality that Mother Teresa was gone struck me and tears began to well up in my eyes. Suddenly, in my soul, I heard her whisper, "They have enough tears, they need your smiles." So I smiled and told Mother in my heart, This is my farewell to you, my Mother, my mentor, my friend, till we meet in heaven.
This woman who described herself as a "little pencil in the hand of God" served God well and obediently. Let us pray for all the Missionaries of Charity that the Holy Spirit will guide their Order and help all of the sisters fruitfully continue in their holy and selfless work. May they, as Mother Teresa did, always see Jesus in the poorest of the poor and be Jesus to all they meet.