A Hundred Summers in the Sun

by Jonathan Rodrigues

For Claudina Brito, view a century is enough.

 “For a century now, sale I have seen so much with these eyes. But my mind has not been able to register the memories, dosage ” says Claudina Brito, who turned 100 on the 11th of April this year. The centenarian who originally hails from Pomburpa is the eldest among 28 women living at the home for the aged at St John of God, Old Goa. She apologizes for not having the memory to share her life story but all these years have not taken away the charm of her gentle eyes and dimpled smile.

Engrossed in her prayers, she fiddles with her beads as she awaits my arrival at the entrance. Her skin is  wrinkled and weathered, but she appears quite active. She has few health problems and unlike many others is off medication, other than pills for the occasional cough and cold. Her ‘juniors’ say she is always chirpy and inquiring of the wellbeing of others, even when she isn’t too well. “Even at home, she was always helpful. She would make little pickles and jams and distribute it to the neighbours,” vouches one of her neighbours who now shares the same roof in the home.

Last year at her 99th birthday, she was quite certain that she would not make it to 100. “She asked us to celebrate her 99th birthday as her last. However I kept telling her that she would somehow make it through and that she should keep the faith because not everyone gets a chance to live a hundred years,” says Sister Elsie, a nun at the home.

Claudina was not initially happy to be here and was adamant on going back home. But she gradually blended in with the rest of the women who are almost a generation younger to her. “As the days got nearer, I would wake her up every morning and remind her of the countdown to the big day (turning 100), and slowly the excitement in her grew too. There was a change in her attitude towards living,” reveals Sister Elsie. This nun, who is originally from Kerala, belongs to the Franciscan Hospitaller Sisters of Immaculate Conception. She chose to take care of the old as her mission after she finished her nursing at St. John’s at Bangalore.

It’s not easy to ascertain information about Claudina’s life – and she preferred not to talk about it and her caregivers said little. I gathered, however, that her husband died three or four decades ago, and that she once had a daughter who died young.

Perhaps it’s the solitude that has sapped her will to live.

A normal day for the Sisters working here would be waking up the residents for morning mass, bathing them on alternate days; dressing them up, giving them their medications, laying out the food and bringing them together for prayer; besides the primary task of nursing the sick.

Not everything is rosy at the home, however. The curse of the caste is sometimes especially noticeable among the aged.

“It exists among a few. A particular person will sit aloof and ignore other sections of the community,” observes Sister Elsie. “There was a time when those who paid to be here would receive special cooked food and the rest would have to eat the normal diet; but I was very clear about doing away with this practice,”

Of the 28 residents here, there are a few who have been transferred from different homes like the orphanages, homes for the abused and assaulted. Most have walked in on their own as they found themselves a burden to their families and a handful have been brought there by loved ones with a promise to take them back in time, a lie that the sisters have learned to forgive and forget.

There are times when the residents find themselves in immense pain, but the sisters here have never given up on any of them. “When I come across situations like this I just call out to God and tell Him? “If you can’t heal her then please take her. We cannot even think of giving up until He from above decides it is time.”

Euthanasia is a hotly debated topic around the world and Sr. Elsie has clear views on the topic. “When I was in the U.S., a patient was struggling to breathe. I couldn’t stand the sight and started performing the resuscitation procedure. When the family learnt about this they scolded me stating that his will mentioned that no extreme measures were to be taken to save his life. They even threatened to sue me.”

Some of the aged occupants of the Home plead to the sisters to intercede with God for their trip to heaven. “It breaks my heart when they request us to pray for their death, but then their struggles are tremendous. On my part I keep telling them that I don’t have a mother and that they are my mothers. They then feel a sense of belonging and treat me like their own daughter and forget about their pain.” But then pain is invisible to the eyes and some people are unselfish and endure it alone.

Claudina made no fuss to walk down from her room and sit down for a chat with me, but then she put me in that one situation that I dreaded the most. “I have no idea why God is doing this to me, pray that He may show me some mercy and take me away. Will you call my doctor? Will you pray?” she asked me with those sunken eyes. “I shall call the doctor. Give me your blessings.” I replied and took her leave.

Sr. Elsie followed me to the door. “You don’t have to feel bad about lying about the doctor. We do it all the time. I guess God will forgive us for this one.”

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