My husband and I decided to spend Christmas in Italy! Yes, THE Italy! It was the first time celebrating the holidays in my fatherland so I was super excited. For Christmas Eve I attended vigil mass at the Basilica of San Camillo de Lellis in Rome and on Christmas Day we went to Vatican City (along with tens of thousands of others) to hear the Pope give his annual Christmas message asking, and praying, for peace.
The next day we drove south to Potenza to see my family. We stayed with my cousin, Antonella. In a matter of a few days, George Michael and Carrie Fisher passed away. Then, Debbie Reynolds. Each morning we poured our cappuccino, turned on the news and another death was announced.
Antonella is a lot like me. She is a professor as well as a longtime medical clown. Go figure, right? Clown cousins! Her group, Amici dell’Hospice (Friends of the Hospice) is a group of 40 volunteers who rotate on a weekly schedule offering comfort and cheer.
They planned a holiday event that week for the patients, and their loved ones, and invited me to perform as part of the show. I of course accepted!
Since the patients, staff and volunteers didn’t speak English (other than my cousin who acted as the translator) I wanted to do something special. I wrote a comedy opening in Italian. It was my first time performing in Italian so I was nervous and didn’t want to mess it up.
As expected, the audience was surprised! Then they surprised me with a hearty laugh. The first joke landed! Exhale. Next set up. Punchline. And another laugh!
The opening led into a song and tap dance/body percussion number to the melody of an old Frank Sinatra song. When I said the word Sinatra I saw the older men in the room light up. Two patients in particular had huge smiles on their faces. So for them, I tapped my heart out!
It was wonderful to see a hospice filled with laughter, cheer and love.
A Gospel Choir then took the stage. We clapped and sang along to “Oh Happy Day!” Then things got quite emotional when they sang the late, great Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” We all impulsively stood, held hands and sang the heartfelt lyrics. It was a prayer. A prayer for health. A prayer for peace. A prayer that these terminal patients feel loved and at ease. A prayer for their families who are hurting. It was beautiful. It was honest.
Afterwards, us performers walked around to greet the patients and their families. One patient, an older gentleman, held my hand extra tight for a while. He didn’t want to let go. He spoke very quietly. A murmured whisper but with a sheer intent in his glare.
It was difficult to hear what he was saying let lone try to translate the faint words. His friend was there. He leaned in to tell me that he was saying how much he loved Frank Sinatra and was stating facts about him. I shouted “Oh! Si si, Frank Sinatra!” He smiled and continued to whisper. He said when and where Frank was born. He continued to list titles of his movies and songs and which years they were released in.
I squeezed his hand and moved my head close to tell him “Grazie. Grazie per avermi. Buon Natale i Buon Anno.” (Thank you. Thank you for having me. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.)
As we poured our cappuccino the next morning, another death was announced. His. He had passed away during the night. I pray for his soul to be accepted into heaven and that his family find solace in the sadness.
I am so deeply honored to have been able to make him smile and talk about his passion for Sinatra. Though everyone kept thanking me for coming to perform, it was I who was thankful to have been of some humble service.
People keep saying what a bad year 2016 was because of all the death, war, addiction. I fear it will only get worse. All we can do is be kinder to each other and look for opportunities to brighten someone else’s day. You never know if it will be their, or your, last.
It goes to show that even a Hospice, a place that is home to the terminally ill, can be filled with utter joy when people come together with a pure heart expecting nothing in return other than to cheer another. I have witnessed the same in Cancer wards, refugee camps, orphanages and home shelters internationally.
Here’s to letting go of the ego and actually rolling up our sleeves to help others in 2017!
For those in the UAE, if you’d like to get involved with our Clowns Who Care Project visit our page.