I stood in her doorway, with only the tip of my nose painted red to let the children in the hospital know I was a gentle clown, not a scary one.
I stood in her doorway, watching her eyes flutter around the room and find nothing interesting to land on except her mom crashed out on a hard bench, her possessions piled around her makeshift bed-vigil in various sizes of those cheap plastic rice bags with the plaid patterns.
I stood in her doorway, scared I would fail this tiny sick little girl when all I wanted to do was make her laugh.
I was on a humanitarian clown trip with Dr. Patch Adams in a Moroccan children’s hospital and I was ready to go into my first visit all alone. To be honest, I haven’t had a lot of death and sickness in my life so this trip had me rattled. Earlier that day we had visited a burn unit and a child who was homeless. He and his mother had walked for hours to get him treatment. His eyes were inside out and he couldn’t see or hear. His hands were webbed together, he couldn’t talk and the only thing that had seemed to calm him was a toy duck some clown had placed in his lap.
I was wearing those particular experiences as a second skin by this point, worried that the visit to the last door on the right might be my breaking point.
The little girl in the big hospital bed let her eyes land on mine. I took one tiny step toward her doorway; a question. She smiled an answer.
Once I knew she wasn’t scared, I knew exactly what to do. I stopped standing in the doorway and tip-toed in, making a game of being quiet. And although this tiny girl, laced up with tubes and machines spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic or French, we were both fluent in giggle. The harder we tried to be silent, the harder it got to contain the squall of pent up laughter ready to dump all over this sad grey hospital room with the Arabic soap opera babbling on a mounted television.
If I so much as took a breath that made noise, we would both over-react and shush each other dramatically. At one point, when I pretended to trip and fall down under her bed, the little girl couldn’t take it anymore. She unleashed a giggle to end all giggles and her mom woke up with a smile that will be forever burned in my guts until I’m dead. It was like she’d forgotten the sound of her daughter’s laughter and thanked me for being part of its reincarnation with that
We played for an hour this way, my new friend and I. I blew bubbles on her nose and she shook with laughter. I blew bubbles on her legs and she used all the strength she had to pop them. Her mom stood up, infused with some new energy. She taught me an Arabic dance which consisted of her manually moving my hips and as soon as she walked away, I would do it completely wrong to make them laugh. Then she would play along, patiently re-teaching me only to let me mess up again. She would set up the comedy and I would knock it down. We were partners in bit crime, with a shared goal of perpetual laughter for her child.
Then as if sensing that we needed music, the other clowns started gauzily floating in the room, one-by-one so they were never too much. There was a moment when I thought my new friend was going to die of happiness. Jeff began juggling, totally silently. Then when his turn was over, he elegantly passed it to the magic twins, who pulled scarves out of pockets for days or maybe just seconds; time had completely warped. I think someone played a tambourine. Laura the Italian puppet clown with the painted lips did a little show. I don’t know how long anything lasted but I know for sure I have never felt such a shared understanding pass between a group of people as I did in that moment. They danced for the exact right amount of time and then floated away as breezily as they had entered, blowing kisses until they were halfway down the hallway.
And just like that, the little girl was tired. Really tired. I knew I should go, but I just couldn’t move.
I had fooled myself into thinking that this girl needed me when in fact it was the other way around. I needed to believe that what I was doing mattered because I could not stop to consider the alternative: that what I was doing was just a fleeting moment of lightness. It didn’t mean much on a scale as heavy as this one. And though it moves me to tears more than a year later in a coffee shop in Jersey, she probably doesn’t have the luxury of thinking about it. In fact, I was probably really only making myself feel better because the simple truth was: I got to leave that hospital room.
My journey would not end in the terminal care ward of a children’s hospital and hers might. I got to get on a bus and cry and have people tell me I was a good person and try to believe it so the sadness would stop. The truth is that the best person in the world was probably up in that hospital room, about to have another painful treatment that I couldn’t hack on my best day.
The thing about clowning or wanting to help other people is that you can’t, not really. At least not in the way you set out to. But you can let them know they are loved. And that you recognize they are in pain. I am starting to believe that might be everything. To be acknowledged, loved and heard. Maybe she helped me be a slightly better version of myself and that’s all our exchange was. I can live with that, I think.
I stood in her doorway, saying goodbye to my new friend. She blew me a kiss which I still have saved in the pocket of my clown pants.
Her mom took my face in both her hands and kissed each cheek as if I were her own blood.
We stood in her doorway and said “Choukran” at the same time, the only Arabic I knew.
10 Excellent Books for Children about Death.
Author: Erin Johnson
Editor: Travis May
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