I visit Children’s Hospital of Orange County about four times a year. Yesterday was one of those visits. Performing at the bedsides of ill children is probably the most difficult, yet rewarding work I do each year. It’s heart-wrenchingly difficult because it pains me to see children suffer. It’s rewarding because it renews my sense of purpose and appreciation for what I find myself doing at this point in my life.
Yesterday, while I was walking the halls, going from room to room, to see who might enjoy some musical storytelling, I heard a baby crying, loudly.
There are some rooms in Children’s Hospital that are off limits to everyone except medical personnel. I’m not permitted to visit these children because their health is so compromised that contact with outsiders could be dangerous.
The child’s wailing grew louder and louder. I could tell I was coming close to passing by the room. As I was about to pass by I saw that the crying was coming from one of the off-limit rooms. The door was slightly opened and there were large windows facing the hall, similar to those in pediatric viewing rooms.
As I was passing by the room I made eye contact with the crying child. She was about 9 to 12 months old and was sitting up in a large, modified hospital crib with a sheet of plastic forming a dome over it.
Her crying was that of a person in agony, the type of sound that easily pierces your heart. As soon as I came into view, she, abruptly, went silent. It was almost as if she stopped on cue as soon as our eyes met.
I’m sure I was a a sight to behold. I stood there in the doorway, dressed in large, flowing, colorful robes; holding my kora in my left hand. I must have been something of an oddity for her. Her eyes locked on me and didn’t move. The pain in her eyes tore my heart in half. She was alone in the room. I wanted to rush in and pull her from the crib and just start hugging her but that wasn’t permitted.
The sorrowful helplessness I felt in that moment cannot be conveyed here.
As we stared at one another, I wasn’t sure what to do so I lifted my harp and began playing it. I made sure to maintain a safe distance from the entry way and poured myself into the playing of my harp. I didn’t know what else to do.
She sat there in her modified crib as still as I’ve ever seen any child sit, staring at me.
I wanted to do so much more, give something more but this was all I had so I played a little louder, a little harder, so that she would know I was playing for her.
She made that sniffling sound that children make when they are all cried out with nothing more to let go of emotionally.
I played, she stared.
She wiped her eyes with the back of her chubby little hands. She was studying me.
I began singing and, to my surprise, part way through my first verse, her lips broke into a tiny smile. What a reward!
If I didn’t visit another child the entire day, I could leave feeling as though I had done someone, some good.
I brought my song to a close and my contact with the hospital came to retrieve me to take me to another location where children were waiting to have stories and music shared with them.
When I finished playing the song I couldn’t help but to smile back at her.
As I was walking away, I noticed she didn’t begin crying again. That made me feel good inside.