Yesterday I had the privilege of being permitted to share music and stories with several children at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC).
To say that CHOC is an incredible institution would be a massive understatement. This hospital far surpasses its stated mission to nurture, advance and protect the health and well being of children.
When people ask what it is that I do, I like telling them, “Words are my work, communication my craft and being of service, my life.” Visiting with the children of CHOC challenged me to live the spirit of my words.
I spent two hours at the hospital. During the first hour I was situated in a playroom. Whenever I enter a room my first thoughts are always to change it to fit my needs. Besides altering the ambiance of a given setting with music and tales, I also believe that artists should transform the appearance of their environment as much as possible. With the permission of the staff I began moving tables out of the way as they would have been barriers between the children and I. I started placing chairs closer to where I would be sitting. One of the assistants was even so kind as to entertain my request for mats and blankets to put on the floor. I loved lying on the floor as a child and reading or listening to stories. Alright… truth be told, I still love doing this but don’t tell anybody ok?
Something beautiful that warmed my heart immediately were the outward, unabashed expressions of affection shared between the patients and their visiting brothers and sisters. This filled the playroom with an inspirational and emotional energy that fed my desire to give the best of myself.
I started out by explaining the importance of my being able to look into their eyes and their looking back into mine. I do this with children and adults everywhere when I go to tell tales. The intensity of emotion and maturity in the eyes of these children was so much more profound than I typically experience in my visits with children in classrooms and schools. There was a depth of experience in the eyes of these children that went beyond the years of their physical appearances.
One of the lessons that I’ve carried with me over these years as a wandering tale telling man has been that people desire to be seen for who they and not judged on appearances. It took a tremendous amount of focus to displace my innate parental desires to hug and hold each of these children and try to become their storyteller, but I managed.
I taught them to sing in the West African language of Bambara. I shared with them fantastic tales of courage and ingenuity. We laughed together and even shared our thoughts.
One child in a wheel chair was saddened and very apologetic when the machines attached to his portable i.v. Stand started beeping during the storytelling. I let him know that the beeping was nothing compared to the loud mooing of cows and bleating goats that sing out in Africa when I’m telling stories. I watched his discomfort dissipate as a huge smile grew across his face.
I spent an hour with the children in the playroom and then went to go visit the rooms of those who were unable to leave their beds. From one room to the next I encountered children of different ages. I was in the room of a very playful 7-year-old one-minute sharing stories of a cowardly lion and then in the room of a teenage girl 15 minutes later telling her tales of comedic love with a backdrop of Justin Beiber posters behind me.
My most memorable session was with a boy about 11 years old who was lying on his side in his bed looking at me through the railings. I went and got a chair and sat myself at his eye level only a few feet away and began playing my harp and sharing a very funny story with him. I know what 11-year-old boys like; I used to be one. He compensated me continually throughout the story with bright smiles that would appear and then disappear back into a face of sadness. The reward came in the form of muffled, but unrestrained laughter that he couldn’t hold in at the stories conclusion.
At each bedside I promised the children that I would return the next day. Well today has arrived and I am preparing to leave for Children’s Hospital once again. My only hope is that I can give as much to the children today as they gave me yesterday.