I got a call last week that one of my elders had been hospitalized. Word throughout the community was that he had suffered a stroke and survived, unable to move, trapped in his home for 2 days before finding the strength to crawl outside where he was discovered.
As if the tale of his miraculous survival wasn’t enough, I witnessed, first hand, his struggle to achieve a healthy equilibrium between mind and body in one of the most unhealthy places I’ve ever experienced. The hospital.
I was called and immediately knew that I had to go and see him. I wasn’t reared to believe that there is actually a choice in matters such as these. I packed my Kora and a few essentials and headed out for the hour and a half drive from Los Angeles up to Ventura.
Once I arrived to the hospital I gathered my things and tried to head straight to his room. There was a problem. Of course there was a problem. What would life be if we didn’t complicate the simple? For some reason, and I don’t know if this happens to any of you out there or not, but… for some reason whenever I enter an institution such as a hospital I end up with an armed security guard escort. This day was no different. It could be the bright, colorful African attire that attracts attention or possibly my Kora (ancient 21-string African gourd harp), I’m not sure, but 99.9% of the time I usually end up with an armed security escort after being required to answer a few questions.
When I finally made it to his room, our eyes immediately locked and we both smiled. I noticed his smile extended from both corners of his mouth. I had been told that the entire right side of his body had been paralyzed. His sisters were sitting around his bed and he introduced me to them. I took out my Kora, strapped it on and began playing and singing. I alternated my playing and singing with a little conversation. We reminisced on some of the drum lessons he had given me more than 12 years ago. We talked about others who were no longer with us and we laughed about shared experiences during our times performing together.
I noticed he was moving his right leg quite a bit and even wiggling his fingers. I grew up watching my grandmother care for the elderly. I struggled to recall having ever seen someone, who had suffered a stroke, do what he was doing with the side of his body that was supposedly paralyzed.
While I played my harp and sang, I felt compelled to ask him about the stroke. He vehemently denied having had one and let me know that they were trying to convince him otherwise. He was adamant that he knew the state and condition of his own body.
I am not one to denigrate the medical profession, I know how valuable nurses and doctors can be but when a man is raising his right leg up in the air and stretching his hands and fingers might there be some validity to his claims?
I played for a few hours and conversed. As I was about to leave he motioned for me to move closer to his bed and he whispered in my ear, “I need you to come back tonight and play your Kora so that I can sleep.”
The requests of our elders are not to be denied. I assured him that I would remain in the city and return early that evening to play for him.
This is a man who “never” asks anyone for anything so for him to request that I return was tantamount to the mountain coming to Mohammed.
After getting a little something to eat, I returned to the hospital. When I entered his room, we picked up where we had left off. I played, sang and told a few tales between our conversations. I knew that eventually I would need to get to a point where we were focusing on lulling him into sleep but that was hours away.
One of the issues I noticed that was going to be difficult to deal with was the rhythm of the hospital. Actually, I should say its lack of rhythm. There were people screaming in agony from distant rooms, loud, boisterous conversations in the halls, machines whirling and intercoms constantly going off with shrill voices making demands across the entire hospital. To add to the chaos, my elder was in a shared room with a man who seemed possessed by some sort of extreme discontent. The man was dropping and throwing things around in his room, knocking over water pitchers set out for him and constantly pushing beeping buttons and calling for nurses.
I have to admit that each of the nurses that responded to this man’s agitation did so in a calm, tranquil manner.
The disturbed man kept up his antics, even amplifying them, as the evening progressed. I adjusted my playing to more serene, gentle rhythms and increased the repetition as a means of soothing my listeners. The power of resonance to relieve the body of its stresses is well documented. In many other cultures throughout the world the bones of the body are not viewed simply as aspects of biology but as natural resonators of frequency. I chose a portion of the song that had humming in it and solicited my elder to join me in the wordless chant. As I played my harp we hummed in rhythm together.
As it got later and later the external disturbances increased. We continued our murmured chants as I played my Kora. The distractions seemed to get to him. It felt odd reminding him of lessons he had taught me so many years ago about tuning out noise and centering the mind. He smiled at my hesitation in trying to navigate returning lessons he had given me back to him.
The noisy neighbor, hallway chaos and loud disturbances continued past visiting hours at 9 pm. I was supposed to have left by then but since no one on the staff was bothering me I continued playing and humming beside him. It seemed each time we achieved a state of total relaxation, some disturbance would disrupt his peace. How unhealthy can a hospital get?
We talked about many of the lessons I had received from him on focusing and pushing away extraneous noise from the mind. He let me know that sometimes students bring lessons back home to their teacher. Teachers must be reminded as well.
Each time he was awakened, we would converse a bit. I never stopped playing my harp while we talked. Once we had conversed for a few minutes we returned to our humming together.
I watched him settle into a very peaceful place within himself as the chaos continued. It felt good to reach a point where he seemed totally unaffected by the things occurring around him. He laid there in silence and I played for him as his humming trailed off. I lowered the tones of my Kora and humming incrementally over the period of an hour or so until they were barely audible. The noise around us was filled with insanity, and this was late into the evening but he remained unaffected. I thought he was in a deep state of meditation until I heard the unmistakable sounds of sleep. He was asleep and sleeping deeply. I felt good as I brought the barely audible humming and harp playing to a close.
It wasn’t until I stopped that my hands cramped up but I didn’t care. To hear him sleeping was a gift unlike any other.