Editor’s note: Enjoy this timely excerpt from Margaret Ghielmetti’s book, Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist. In it, she shares her journey to self-discovery while traveling the world and living in the finest hotels. Let her sweep you into a moment in time as she and her husband tour through India, along the Ganges River.
Our driver gets us as close as possible to our riverside hotel, our Indophile friend Armando says, “We’ll have to walk for a bit.” He opens the trunk and hands Patrick and me our luggage: identical black backpacks with little wheels – which are handy on pavement but virtually useless on ancient cobblestones. As Varanasi dates back more than three thousand years, there are lots of cobblestones. As one of India’s holiest places, there are also lots of sacred cows (and sacred cow pats: we step carefully over those.
We step carefully over mostly naked men, stretched out on the ground now that night has fallen. These are sadhus: wandering hermits considered holy men, their bodies smeared with ash, their foreheads dotted with sandal-paste, their possessions a bowl, a staff, and a blanket. I know all this from my guidebook reading; however, I do not know if they are dozing – or dead, awaiting cremation the next day. Armando reads my mind, winks, and says, “Sleeping.”
For Hindus, Ganga – the Ganges River – is Mother: the devout bathe in her waters to wash away a lifetime of sins. If they can, they come here at the end of their lives, as dying here offers liberation from the cycle of birth and death. If at all possible, they send — or better yet bring — their dead to be cremated alongside this sacred river.
We’re up at four the next morning to perform puja, the pre-dawn offerings and prayers of respect. We walk down to the ghat just below our hotel. Ghats are the steps and landings leading down to holy water. Varanasi has eighty-four of them, and — by the time we’ve descended to the water’s edge — there are already dozens of pilgrims in the river. Some are somberly engaged in ritual bathing, but many are whooping in joyful abandon. One fellow floats around blissfully in an old black rubber inner tube, just like we did as kids in Lake Michigan. There are children in swim suits and grandfathers wearing loin cloths over skinny frames. I expect the Ganges to look a lot dirtier than it does, but, still: we’ve been advised not to dip even one pinkie into it.
Wooden rowboats bob about, painted red, blue, and yellow. Armando chooses a smiling skipper and Patrick and he negotiate a price for a boat journey. Once aboard, we are rowed a hundred feet out from the shore. The sun rises, glowing, turning the whole scene rosy salmon pink. The buildings along the river look like crumbling candies: a temple to Shiva in the soft green of salt water taffy; a centuries-old mansion in Necco Wafers pink.
We set tiny tin foil cups with candles and colorful flower petals on the water – to float away with our wishes. Suddenly, I feel my heart in my throat, thinking of what awaits me back in Chicago: mymother – one of the best friends of my life – is gravely ill, but she has insisted, “Go to India, Missie!” She knows I’ve been longing for this trip for decades – and to visit now with my husband and our dear friend is a dream she’d never want me to forego.
It’s also a break from care-giving her…and pre-grieving her death. So my wish is really a prayer, “Please, God, make Mother well again,” even though I’m aware that she’s eighty-five with lung disease and a malignant tumor. I also ask God to please look after my parents while I’m away on this trip.
At fifty-two years old, I’ve long had daily conversations with God. I hear back a gentle but firm, “Thanks for weighing in, Child, but I’m already on it.” I smile and remind myself to hold lightly to what’s outside my circle of control – always a struggle for recovering perfectionist me.
Our boatman rows us past the “burning ghat” where bodies are burned seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. There are huge piles of logs and lots of smoke. A white-shrouded corpse is on the funeral pyre. The closest male relative is standing by, his head shaved, dressed all in white. The body has been doused in the Ganges and anointed with clarified butter to help it burn faster. It takes about two hours for the body to burn, after which the family takes some of the ashes, leaving the rest at the river’s edge. I can’t help but mumble, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” I can’t help but feel this is our common cultural heritage and – somehow – the most natural thing in the world.
Upon disembarking from our rowboat, we walk through Varanasi’s alleyways, gingerly squeezing past a sacred cow blocking our way in one particularly narrow lane. We pass bright murals, humble shrines, shops opening up, street sweepers, and more wild-haired holy men. Armando leads us to a rooftop café and we are transported from close alleyway to open-air breeziness. We breakfast on thick brown toast with papaya jam, cheese omelets, lethally strong espresso for me, and tea for the guys. In this town dedicated to death, I feel grateful to be with people I love and very alive.
And — in just the few hours since dawn — I feel different about caring for the dying. The families here have done all that they can for their loved ones: that’s what I want to do. It’s clear to me that my job is to stop fighting to keep Mother alive – or to make her well again. My job when I get back to Chicago will be to help take her all the way home.
I whisper a different prayer from even this morning, “God, please help me to do my best to help fulfill Mother’s wish to die at home.”
“I will, Child,” I hear back, and I know I have been touched by grace here – in a place which opened a portal to a different way of journeying with those I love.