There is a strange heartbeat at the core of this children’s hospital. It’s uneven. It beats within the shade of grey: that limbo where life is neither bursting with colour nor drowning in blackness. You can feel the heartbeat as you watch people in that moment between laughter and tears.
In the morning, as I walk through the front doors here, there is a cluster of scrubs and stethoscopes ordering coffees, sharing a joke, next to parents wrestling with children and updating their loved ones over the phone, their eyes red from sleepless nights. People rush or meander up the hallways yelling hello to the cleaning lady as if she is an old friend. There are children hanging off the large sculpture in the middle of the room,swinging from side to side like baby monkeys hanging off a chandelier. Everywhere I look there are children. Children laughing, children with crutches, wheelchairs. Children losing their hair. Children crying and parents struggling to cope.
I once again think there is strange heartbeat here. The purpose of the children’s hospital contrasts with the positive attitude that is buzzing inside it. Apart from the obvious signs of sickness, there seems to be an array of techniques used to distract children and their families from its sole purpose.
For example, there is a meerkat enclosure inside the hospital. When I first saw it I felt like a child, pressing my hands against the window trying to get a better look at them. They are odd-looking creatures too, with wide, knowing eyes and long tails. They snuggle together underneath branches of wood. I am not the only one absorbed by their unusualness. There are parents with their children, taking photos, obsessed, like me, with their every move. Sometimes the meerkats pause at the glass and stare back at us, eye to eye. I wonder if they think we are the real attraction. That we are strange creatures, of all sizes, shapes and colours. I wonder if they know the purpose of the place and if their eyes can see straight through us all.
I call one of them Mikey – just because I think that name suits him, or her. Mikey always sits on top of the same rock, aware of every movement around him. He can see a bird in the sky a mile off. At first I thought Mikey just enjoyed sitting on top of that rock, but I discovered a sign at the hospital the other day. It informed me that meerkats live in the desert of southern Africa in groups of up to thirty members. They like to gather on rocks and soak up the sunshine but they also like to dig tunnels. It said there was always one meerkat on alert looking out for danger. And, suddenly, Mikey’s constant vigilance on the rock made sense. He was protecting his gang while they romped around freely beneath him. He removed their burden of being attacked by a predator, so they could live without fear. It occurred to me that Mikey is not unlike the many parents at the hospital. Always on the look-out, always protecting so that his family can live a carefree life. I wonder if that is why Mikey is here.
Apart from the meerkat enclosure, there are playgrounds, sand-pits, entertainers, face-painting, meerkat-sculpturing, colouring books, ice-cream, McDonalds, Dora the explorer. Even a Hoytes cinema complete with beanbags. You could be excused for forgetting the reason for this hospital because it is dressed up to be a happy place; an encouraging place.
But as in most circumstances in life, a picture is painted the way you want to see it. And the people behind the scenes of this hospital are painting the brightest, sunniest picture possible.
Of course there are also the cracks in the paint. Moments of despair when you learn someone’s child is fighting cancer, or a parent has been awake days in a row giving every attention to their daughter or son. I met a lady the other day, I’d seen her the day before. Her eyes were a cracked red and she was sleep deprived. She had to drive an hour to get home to rural Victoria. During that time she drove home her child went into a 12 hour window where she was fighting for her life. Thankfully, her daughter is alright. The entire time she told me this she was smiling, relieved. She shook my hand and introduced herself to me. I was in awe of her strength. She seemed to have tunnel vision with nothing in sight but her future together with her daughter.
I admire these parents. They seem to have developed a shield of strength that surrounds them. Despite the unlucky cards life has dealt them, they create more love and fight harder to turn a bad situation into the best it can be. They can do so with a smile. They still laugh at their child for being silly or scold them for touching things that aren’t for little hands. There seems to be some normality in place during all the craziness. They see past the feeding tubes, band-aids and the scars.
At first I felt slightly guilty for saying what a positive environment the hospital is, when it’s heart revolves around sick children. But it reaffirmed my view that nothing is ever black or white. Hospitals aren’t always sad and playgrounds aren’t always happy. Everything sits within a shade of grey. I guess the hospital feels like a happy place because that’s the way it is dressed to be. The staff are always encouraging and bubbly, the parents uphold a positive attitude. Maybe that’s what makes it a happy place. It combines the best aspects of human nature. It shows how humans link together in times of need, how they evolve, and how they react to the hardest – the worst – of situations.
My own contradicting feelings about the hospital can be mirrored in all aspects of life. When is a situation sad? What makes it sad?
I believe we fill in our own gaps. People at the hospital want to see a happy outcome so they fill the gap with endless positive thinking. Like Mikey, they watch out for their children.
And like these parents, we all make a situation to be the way we want it to be. And if it’s not bad, or if it’s not good or if it’s not sad and it’s not happy it just becomes part of that shade of grey, waiting for you to make of it what you will.