The round cheeks and lively, unaffected laughter from the five children in the yard obliterated my previous notions of what a cancer hospital would feel like. On my way to the Maharagama Children’s Cancer Ward, I had mentally prepared myself to see skeletal, weak, lifeless children sitting in wheelchairs with bags under their eyes and sharp elbows protruding through thin skin, but these five kids were as excitable as any healthy, normal child. One of the boys could even be classified as chubby. Only upon close observation did I notice the plastic IV cannulas permanently lodged into their inner elbows and the tops of their hands. To be fair, these children were probably the most healthy of the resident patients.
The Maharagama Cancer Hospital treats 120 resident children, ranging from infants to fourteen year-olds, and these five healthier children who were allowed outdoors were the exception, not the norm. Maharagama Children’s Cancer Ward is a government-sponsored hospital located on the depressingly but straightforwardly named Cancer Hospital Road. HaRah Rahkaishi and Simon Blackfoot had planned to paint mural on a wall that directly faces the windows of the patients’ room as part of their crusade to provide visual alternatives to the endless, poisonous advertising that surrounds us daily and pilfers our rights to an neutral, serene visionscape. The theme of the mural: Circus Freakshow, which causes certain stereotypical images to arise in one’s mind: A portly, bearded, tattooed lady. An apathetic bear in pants. A potbellied ringmaster, striped red and white like a bag of popcorn, standing on a box and yelling into a black megaphone, “Come one! Come all! You don’t wanna miss the fire-blowing Siamese midgets! Today and only today! Only ten cents!”
The wall chosen was three stories tall, so we had scaffolding set up, similar to the construction site variety, for the project. It was sturdily constructed with metal bars and wooden planks, and I don’t have an irrational fear of heights, but my heart would still hiccup at the slightest of wobbles, and cold, vertigo-induced adrenaline shot up from the soles of my feet anytime I remembered that I was sitting on uppermost story (which was every five seconds). Climbing up and down the scaffolding nervously, with plastic cups of paint in one hand and paintbrushes clenched between my teeth like a soldier getting a limb amputated produced uncharacteristically sweaty currypits. It took good doses of silent pep talks each time I needed to get myself back up there.
Friends came and went, offering cheese and crackers or painterly help. We daubed and colored under the guidance of HaRah Akaishi and Simon Blackfoot. The circus freakshow divulged itself as the sun departed the narrow space between the buildings and the oven-like heat grew more tolerable.
The hospital itself was a back in time, an experience I often feel in Sri Lanka, where moss-stained colonial era buildings look as though they haven’t been refurnished for decades; trains hit cows with regularity; local businesses signs are hand painted and aloof in their comical misspellings (“microvavw”, for example); a baker still comes door-to-door each morning with lopsided, homemade loaves of brown bread; and men unselfconsciously sport the thickest caterpillar-moustaches and earnestly styled mullets of another era with complete lack of satire. The Maharagama Cancer Ward was somewhere between the 1930s and 1940s; nurses wore light blue, button-up dresses with starched collars and aprons (vintage!), complete with the white caps in the style of nurses in World War II (which I had previously only seen in movies like The Notebook, or on Halloween, minimized and sexualized to varying degrees).
As the children grew more accustomed to our frighteningly foreign presence, they came out from behind the windows through which they were peering, and a few of the more sociable ones came up to stare at us up close. A young, bald girl showed one of us her sketchbook, in which she had rendered a small-scale replica of the mural we were painting.
I made friends with a thirteen year old boy from Jaffna, a city in northern Sri Lanka where the war played out in particularly violent measures. His English was good enough for us to get basically acquainted and to find out each other’s favorite food (his: sweets, mine: avocados). He had giraffe-ishly long, fringey eyelashes. I painted an elephant and a rabbit on the tops of his hands, and he told me about parts of his childhood. His parents were both killed, so he lived in an orphanage until he got cancer. That was three years ago, when he first arrived at Maharagama. He spoke with a startling lack of apparent sadness or self-pity. When I asked where he was from, he said, “Colombo” rather than Jaffna, where he was born. I was surprised again to realize that to him, this hospital is home. I remembered how long three years can be at thirteen, and how adaptable children can be.
Before I left, he asked for my phone number. Up until then, because he looked so childlike, I’d forgotten that he was a teenager with an adolescent flurry of hormones. Despite all his misfortune, he seemed to have an innocence that an American thirteen year old would have passed by.
A few of the children impressed me with their lack of self-pity, but the parents present that day seemed to have a more outwardly visible sadness that was heavy enough to be apparent at first glance, perhaps due to having a fuller understanding of cancer and its potentially terminal consequences. A man sitting on the waiting room couch hunched over like an armadillo and put his face into his hands as if exhausted. A mother carrying her two or three year old son in the waiting room looked heartbreakingly sad and drained in a way I will not attempt to encapsulate in words, for I’m likely to underestimate her sadness in my inability to understand it.
Finishing a mural means a long, dehydrated raisin-brain workday of subsisting on crackers and adrenaline, rewarded by the instant gratification of completing a project. The last brushstrokes added to the mural were appropriately climactic: HaRah Akaishi standing on the top story, painting letters onto the banner: “INCREDIBLE YOU” with the intent to pass on some positivity and empowerment to the children of the hospital. I hope that this colorful circus mural, seen through the windows of their hospital beds, provides momentary pleasure and well-being amidst the desolation of living with cancer.