Jarabe de Risas (The Syrup of Laughter), a program of the SaludArte Foundation
In the entrance
The moment when you enter a hospital almost always has some dramatic feeling to it. There are heavy footfalls, nervous movements, and expressions that try to cover up the worry. There are eyes that wait, fixated, for the elevator to finally announce it has reached the first floor. Almost everyone is holding something–a clean set of clothes, or perhaps a small gift.
The reasons to enter the hospital are diverse, and of course not all carry these feelings of worry. However, there is always a tension, an alertness, a realization. An acknowledgment of what it is that happens in this space. It is, of course, a place, both scientific and human, designed to preserve and promote life. But at the same time, this preservation of life implies a fight against suffering, fear, and death.
Suffering. Fear. Death….Words that are not said. That should not be said. They simply serve to underline those nervous movements that happen everyday in hospital lobbies. These words define a text, an understanding, a scene plagued by emotions, which this reporter feels in his body itself, beyond just seeing them.
It is with these emotions that I arrive to the fifth floor of the CASMU hospital, in the Pediatric Internment Wing, accompanying Palín Botiquín and Mararita, two clowns, during their weekly Thursday visit. I hurry to change into my SaludArte jacket, having already noticed that the two have jumped into action, animatedly chatting with a baby and her mother.
I take note of the care, the colors, the smiles, all of which lacked back on the first floor, that appear here frequently. Soon, it is time to enter the first room, where we see Maria. We met her last week—she was home, but has since had to return to the hospital. She doesn’t want to be here, and she makes that clear through her sobbing.
Margarita takes a Pinocchio doll out of her bag, and it turns out that he has a “road” in his hand too—just like María. It’s a discovery—this wooden toy has something in common with her. María stops crying, but continues clutching her mother. Pinocchio then finds another, more beautiful doll on the bed, and he invites her to dance. This doll is María’s, and we learn that her name is Manuela and that she would be happy to dance with Pinocchio. The two dolls start to dance, accompanied by the clowns, who improvise some fun choreography to the music. Everything is better now, at least for Manuela, who is so happy she returns to her owner, hoping she can transfer her a little bit of her happiness.
To make sure that María doesn’t forget this moment, the clowns give her a heart-shaped balloon that says con mucho amor (with lots of love). Everyone signs it, including the doctor who has been here the whole time, watching and laughing.
John is a teenager and is watching TV. He breathes with the assistance of an oxygen tank, and he looks bored. Palín y Margarita fill up the room with jokes and movements. Margarita puts on a light blue patient’s robe and declares that she would like to take a shower. The clowns try to communicate with games and words, the adults in the room participate in the games and have fun, but John remains bored. “I know what we’ll do! Let’s go and take a stroll down the hallway,” says Palín, and he leaves to find a portable oxygen tank. In a few minutes, everything is ready. It’s the first time John has left his room since his operation, so he walks slowly, but enthusiastically. The clowns set some plastic toy turkeys in motion, and they begin cawing down the hallways. The trip turns into a little parade, ensuring that today will be a different sort of day in this wing of the hospital. A nurse passes us and says “ahhh, now he’s laughing a little bit!” And, from my perspective, it seems like he really is enjoying it. The hallway certainly did take another form today: the sounds of the parade defeating the grim silence of the hospital, and in the background Manuela, María, and her mother playing with the balloon and lots of love.
José Saramago (a great writer) says that all stories are small bushes, for which we should try to find flowers. This little bush of our story is constructed with words that ask to get out, and is made up of images, of loose phrases, said in passing, by unusual and marvelous encounters. Any unprepared observer might confuse these colors, these small bursts of laughter with a simple imitation of happiness, something fleeting. But looking deeper, that observer will be able to see, through the intervention of those hospital artists, everything that moves and shifts on this fifth floor of the hospital. The unobvious things, the effort of the staff, the expectations, the happiness that bursts from small and large achievements, the anguish the stems from unyielding problems, the courage in the face of pain, and the many, many acts of love. The laughter and the music, the jokes and the games are not banal. They add something different, a necessary element of surprise that exposes silent symptoms, those that cannot be prevented with vaccinations.
That scene—the one plagued with emotions that continuously develops in the hospital lobby—gains new elements up here in the rooms on the fifth floor. The high beds, the oxygen, the drops of iv fluid, the blood infusions, the glasses of water, the expressions of the visitors, the smell of alcohol and disinfectant, the metallic sounds of needles on metal trays…
These elements that add a dramatic thickness to this scene are endless. And, as Roland Barthes says about literally texts, they add a burst of codes and meanings. When the clowns enter into the well-oiled machine of the pediatric wing, full of these codes and meanings, they do not come to negate this dramatic factor. They come to add themselves, from another perspective, working toward the defense of life. They come to cure, and they bring with them a sweet, sweet syrup.
And the flower
If I try to describe everything that happened that Thursday, I will have to force my fingers to run across the keyboard for hours to tell it all. There is a lot to discuss. A lot of action, and a lot of adventure.
Upon entering room 509, where Dahiana, who is five, and Fabián, who is eight, are staying, the clowns do away with their silliness. Now they are very “serious” clowns, who know they can be wrong from time to time. They enter the room, and ask forgiveness for having entered the “wrong” one. They leave, close the door, and come back again, and, again, they apologize. They repeat this same scene several times, and when they decide to enter for real (this time the real silliness is back!) everyone in the room is already laughing. The clowns have a perfect audience here—everyone is enjoying the jokes. There is applause, confusion, clumsiness. The plastic turkeys—cotrolled by the mothers of the two children—act out a scene and make ridiculous noises. Later, there is a game show-like competition between two bottles of soap. There is “cookie themed” music, and there are chicken imitations. It is a spectacle that wraps up with applause and lots of “thank-yous.”
In the next room are Jorge and Mario, one and three years old, respectively. Mario is crying because he wants to go back home. The clowns start blowing bubbles, inviting everyone to join in. Jorge, who barely knows how to walk, gets out of the bed and starts to catch the bubbles. Later, Palín goes in search of a “car” (which, in reality, is a wheelchair) for Mario, who has his oxygen tank at his side in preparation for the journey down the hall. Jorge is in the arms of Margarita—a hug of infinite affection, a love at first sight that cannot be described in this account, due to a lack of words with the necessary eloquence. The group walks down the hall, and comes to a stop in the play area, taking out puppets and jigsaw puzzles. Now, they play calmly, perhaps seriously, and with dedication.
We have to leave soon in order to make a visit to room number 525. I’m not sure why this patient is in the hospital, but when Palín Botiquín and Margarita look over the information sheet they’ve been given, they share a glace, and they take a breath before entering. The bed is empty, but a woman waits next to it. Palín asks how the patient is, and the woman answers “he is in treatment,” and she lets escape a few defeating words, “this desease doesn’t let up,” she says sadly, and here the scene becomes one of deep dramatic content. A conversation develops in which the hospital clowns tell the woman about situations where everything seemed hopeless, but yet everything turned out all right in the end. The woman listens, and her eyes say that she believes them, that she truly feels that these people with red noses and colorful costumes are right. The word “hope” continuously floats through the air, and so I feel the need to write it in this account…
And if that bush has a flower, maybe it’s the word “hope”…
What a place to find clowns!
We still have a few minutes, so we can make a visit to the pediatric emergency room. Palín and Margarita enter the waiting room with all the energy in the world. Margarita “faints,” and needs to be “revived” through tickling. The nurses already know the two clowns, and they join in the game. The medical staff greets the two happily. Someone says: “I’m so glad you could come!” There is a fabulous commotion among the children and families that have come to this place due to emergencies, and they can’t believe that they’re getting a visit from these clowns—complete with bubbles and music.
“What a place to find clowns!” says a grandmother who is sitting in the room, and she’s right.
I decided to stop observing from the sides, and I join in the fun commotion that has descended upon the cramped hallways of the emergency wing. I think about how I felt when I entered the hospital earlier, and about how I feel now. What things I looked at then, and those that I look at now…and that flower that I will carry in my heart.
I look for words powerful enough to close this day, and I do not find them. So I have decided to take a little of this syrup to finish it off with a smile.
And smiling, I walk out onto the street, through the same door in which I’d entered.
By Nathan Siegel