Reflections from War Encounters, #3
After the second visit, we speak with a hospital public relations representative. (To read about the previous two visits, scroll down.) The war goes on. As long as it continues, we must do something. It’s not enough to think we’ve done our part and made our contribution. The patients love the music, the hospital spokesperson tells us. So we tell her we will return and bring more musicians.
Visit #3, Hospital #1
For this third visit, we have two musicians graciously volunteer to join us. He is a saxophone player from Tel Aviv. She is a clarinet player from Haifa. We enter the hospital. The staff greet us kindly and upon seeing the musicians, ask us to come back and give them a private performance after we finish visiting the patients. “We need our spirits lifted, too,” the hospital representative tells us. As we get ready to visit the patients, the staff person entreats us, “Please find Sharif and Omar and play for them. They need it!” We keep their names in mind as we begin to visit the patients.
There are many more children this time compared to the previous two times. The fighting is coming to an end and it seems that patients coming into the hospital have fewer visible injuries. There are many with mental disabilities and others who are here for psychological treatment.
We meet Iman, 13 years old from Beit Hanoun. She suffers from PTSD and diabetes, her mother tells us. She has short black hair and dark eyes. She sits on a pillow and watches the musicians. Iman is sad, her mother says. Her 12 -year-old brother Muhammad suffered a severe injury and is currently being treated in Turkey. Iman misses him and she is sad to be so far from him.
We meet Mu’min, 2 years old. He sits in bed, legs outstretched, eating his lunch. Crumbs create an outline around his mouth and spill onto his shirt and bed. I don’t know why he is here, or what his particular condition is, but he chews his food and watches us. We leave a gift with his mother.
We meet Abada, a beautiful seven-month-old child. His hair is dark and frames his triangular face. He has large, black eyes and a pronounced nose for a small child. He is mentally disabled and rests in the arms of his grandmother. He has two broken legs in casts. Where are you from, we ask? Shejaya, she answers.
We also meet Jana, 4 years old from Khan Younis. She hops up and down as we give her a gift, and she reaches for the instruments as the musicians play for her. She suffers from a head injury and she seems to have a mental disability. She continues to hop happily in front of us.
Nearby we see 2 ½ year old Bana. She is fair and pale with light brown shoulder-length hair. She is frail, sitting on her father’s lap. She happily accepts a notebook, stickers and a puzzle. The corners of her mouth turn up slightly. Her eyes don’t look healthy.
We meet Muhammad, 9 months old and Kamal 4 months old. Then there is Bara, 15 months old, being treated for digestive problems. The rooms are so crowded with children; it is hard to write down their names, ages and anything about them. We barely fit in the crowded rooms and I stand in a tight corner to make room for the musicians.
We see Haya, 10 months old. She also has a mental disability of some sort. She has pierced ears, and tousled, curly, light brown hair. She stares at the musicians as they play for her. She enjoys it very much. Her grandmother holds her out, closer to us so she can see us and hear better. Her grandmother watches with a smile, enjoying seeing her granddaughter enjoy herself.
So many of these children are with grandmothers. Where are their mothers? It’s better not to ask, we think.
Upon entering another room, we see Shahed and Qusai’s grandmother who we saw on the last visit. Where is Qusai? He is much better and has returned to Gaza. His grandmother is more open to us this time, more welcoming. We are pleased to see Shahed is healing. Her burns look much better. She smiles at us this time, and the smile reaches her eyes as she listens to the music, her dark eyes flitting between the musicians and the rest of us. There are three other children in the room with her. In Qusai’s place, Shahed has another nephew, three-year-old Sharif, who sits on his father’s lap. One foot is amputated, and the other leg is covered in a cast. This is the Sharif we heard about from the hospital representative. We stay awhile, spending time with him.
Another child in the room is Yahya who suffers from a mental disability, and he dances awkwardly but happily around the room, tossing the ball that we give him. Every so often he gets so close to the saxophone player and I wonder if he is about toss his ball into the saxophone. Yahya’s mother stands in the doorway, clad in a dark outfit from head to toe, yet we can see her face and she smiles from ear to ear. Her eyes follow her son as he dances in front of us.
As we play for them, Yamen’s grandfather pushes him into the room. We are so happy to see Yamen again. He sits in a dilapidated navy stroller, one leg sticking out in a white cast, and the other bound tightly with bandages. His upper body is covered in a blanket, so it’s hard to tell how his upper body wounds are healing. I try and hand him a ball, and he accepts it, extending a hand through the blanket. His back is exposed, covered by dozens of small scars. The wounds on his face and back are no longer peeling and yellowing, and he looks better than he did last time. His spirits are down; he barely smiles and refuses to talk. Do you want more music, I ask? He barely nods his head in the affirmative. He observes us quietly. It’s obvious his heart is heavy, very heavy.
We see Ihab again, from Beit Hanoun. He was in a coma last time we saw him. He is doing a bit better. His situation is more stable. Ihab’s father is less anxious this time, and he stands to the side quietly. Ihab lies on the bed, asleep or in a coma? I didn’t get a good look at him last time, but this time I do. He is fair, and he has bright red hair and his face is covered in freckles. As the musicians play for him, his eyes flicker open and then close.
We meet Ismail, from Shejaya. He is older, maybe in his 50s? He sits in a wheelchair, prayer beads in hand. An older male companion of his enjoys the music, but they ask us, “What benefit can we get from this?” We play for a bit and then move on.
We go to the surgical ward. A doctor greets us and takes us to Osama, 34 years old. “Please, make him happy,” the doctor tells us. Osama is a paramedic. Like Hussein, he has seen and helped treat some of the worst injuries of the summer. His eyes are eyes that have witnessed much blood, pain and death. His forehead is lined, his hairline receding, and his slender frame rests in the bed as his mother sits next to him. As the musicians begin to play, he moves his hands back and forth as if he’s dancing. He closes his eyes, enchanted by the music. He is swept up in the moment. Eyes still closed, a smile emerges from his long face. A friend of his stands nearby and speaks to us in the little Hebrew he knows, asking for more songs. As the musicians continue to play upbeat songs, including one well-known Arab song, Osama is caught up in the music, and under the covers, he moves his hips and legs to the beat. He bobs his head back and forth, and opens his eyes, smiling at us. It’s a special moment, to bring a few minutes of forgetfulness and joy to those who have seen so much loss, and too much pain.
We finally meet Omar. We were asked to visit him and play for him upon our arrival. He was the first we heard about, and one of the last we see. He is 12 years old, from Shejaya. He is injured, traumatized and sad. We walk into his room and he sits in a half-reclined position. What would you like to hear, we ask? He looks to the side, away from us, and lies down on his bed in response. One leg is in a long cast and his toes peeking through are completely blackened. They no longer look like flesh, just hard darkened plastic that no longer belongs on his body. We play for him awhile. He doesn’t smile or respond. We ask if he’d like another song. He gives a nearly imperceptible nod.
Next to Omar lies Muhammad, asleep. He is 20 years old, also from Shejaya. His mother sits next to him. She tells us that he was hit when a plane dropped a bomb. He has fractures in both legs and many ugly metal spokes stick out of him. One foot lacks four toes.
Across the hall we see Ayman again. It is good to see familiar faces to see how their situation is progressing. This week, Ayman is in isolation, so we can only stand in the doorway. His father sits on a chair nearby. Their spirits are low this week. Ayman lies in bed. The musicians stand at the door and play for him. Ayman still looks sickly slender, his large beautiful eyes like two gems in his oval face. He says nothing. He rests one skinny arm on his forehead, watching us intently. More music? He nods. Soon he will be released someone tells us. As we stand there playing for Ayman, mothers and grandmothers peek their faces out of other rooms to watch, and a mother in a long black dress with a black and white patterned head covering beckons us. Soon we will come, we tell her.
We go where we are summoned and we are happy to see Hussein is here. He is sitting in a wheelchair this time. He still has the metal spokes coming out of his legs, but he is up and trying to move about. He seems to be in less pain than last time. He wheels around, situating himself in a comfortable spot in the room so he can watch us as we file in. He smiles. He rolls his wheelchair next to a new friend, someone he met in the hospital. We saw this friend last time. He isn’t from Gaza. He was in a scuffle with some soldiers near Qalandia and he has bullet wound in his leg. Yet he is jolly, raising the spirits of Hussein and another Gazan patient, Muhammad, in the room with him. This friend speaks a little Hebrew and he calls for us to sing and dance. All three of the young men want to film and take pictures of us. We offer to take the picture for them, and Hussein self-consciously places his legs out of the frame of the picture. Two the young men ask to take pictures with the saxophone. “All that’s left is that we need someone to dance for us!” says the young man from near Qalandia. We smile in response to their smiles.
As we leave the hospital the saxophone player says, “This is the most important thing I did in the past few weeks.” I think these visits are some of the most meaningful and heart-breaking memories I will carry from this summer.
Written during the long summer, 2014.