Last night, I had the strangest dream. It wasn’t so much a figment of my nocturnal imagination as it was a resurfaced memory of a slice of hospital life in Battambang. Most importantly, it was about a girl, her smile and the art on the wall.
That vivid smile came back to haunt me, perhaps because of its incongruity: Here was this tiny Cambodian girl, convalescing in a surgical center, part of her foot blown off by a landmine. She couldn’t have been older than seven, but the joy exuding from her spirit, while she did devilish wheelies up and down the ward, with giggles audible to all, transcended any trauma that must have impacted her body. Her antics had an angelic quality to them, permeating the daily lives of fellow patients – those who, like me, were decked out in matching micro-plaid patterned pajama outfits, grimacing in pain, some barely holding on.
Perhaps because I was bed-ridden, unable to see anything beyond my immediate surroundings, unable to move or lift anything other than my head a few inches to swallow a few spoonfuls of cooked rice or rice-filled broth; perhaps of my severely limited physical and visual restrictions, the little I did see and hear in those first post-accident days, became so deeply etched into my mind.
High up on the white tiled walls, above the heads of patients lying across from me, I vaguely recall seeing decals or colorful illustrations of – what were they, cartoon figures? Unfamiliar animal characters? What I remember most was my sense of surprise; even here, in godforsaken Cambodia, Emergency thought to add a sense of childlike wonder to the wards. They cared enough to understand how the power of color and whimsy can also contribute to healing. I wondered if the others noticed those images as I did.
Something about that girl, who radiated exuberance in spite of her experience; something about the art on the walls, made me wish that I could shuttle myself to the verdant oasis outside and invite her to draw some pictures with me. I wished I could bring the skeletal-thin elderly woman lying on the bed beside me closer to mine, so that I could ask her to draw me a picture of her home. Even there, amidst injured heads, amputated limbs, broken legs and cries filled with pain, I was grateful for my deep-seated craving to make art.
It is said that the body holds the imprint of trauma. But I know without a doubt that the body can also retain stored-up memories of visions of beauty, sounds of joy and delicate footprints of hope. Amen.