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Clown Masks


I parked outside the Tel Aviv Beren Children's Pavilion. The words "Laugh to Live" were painted in bold bubble-type lettering across the side of my van. Waving twenty balloons of assorted shapes - purple swords and pink dogs and yellow flowers - I rushed towards the entrance, eager to start my medical clown class. Breathing heavily, I opened the glass doors and shouted to no one in particular, "What a fun time. This is going to be a real blast!"

Inside, a girl was peering into a tiny mirror, poking at a developing pimple on her chin, one guy was coaxing errant strands of his black hair into spindly spikes above his forehead, and another was practicing a convoluted Yoga pose. Twenty would-be clowns, none over 25 years old, congregated near the elevator doors, and began talking to one another, raising their voices, gesticulating with arms waving in wide arcs. "I was born a clown"; "In sixth grade I was the funniest kid in the class". "Kids always laughed at anything that came out of my mouth".

I stood next to a woman whose lined forehead matched my own. She wore a padded ski jacket, and was visibly shivering. Her face was very thin, her lips were purple. When the elevator doors opened, we packed in, bodies pressing into the odd-shaped balloons, and exited two floors below in a large room signposted "Physical Therapy Services".

I volunteered to speak first. Bending down so that my nose almost touched the cheeks of the pretty blonde with the mini skirt sitting in front of me, I ogled her through the bottom of my bifocals and let out a well-practiced wolf whistle. Then I pulled myself up to my six foot two height, puffed out my chest while trying to hold in my stomach, and began my presentation.

"Always break the ice by talking gibberish. Say any sentence, like "My name is Namir" or "I want to kiss your ... hmmm, hand" and follow it up with putcha kalaba or bakalo tusini or any combination of sounds that comes out of your mouth. Now, as to why I want to be a medical clown? To get as many people as possible to take off the stupid masks they wear every day. When we can all see each other as we really are, a bunch of creatures who all have the same base desires and faults, we might actually have a real conversation with one another! Now, all shout with me: Be real! Be real!" Then I turned around, stuck my expansive behind in their faces and freed the rainbow colored balloons till they floated up and covered the ceiling.

Upon returning to my seat, I summoned a few guys into a football team huddle and told them my theory of life. "People are all wearing masks. They are only concerned with themselves and don't care a hoot about the next one. My wife of fifteen years taught me that you can't depend on anyone. One day you can be holding hands, and sending "You are my sweet Valentine" cards with flowers and hearts and the next day you leave the house, taking the two kids and moving in with any old Joe you met at the creative writing retreat."

The student clowns reveled in the hilarity of the moment. Brian, our teacher, seemed pleased that the class had gotten off to such a lively start. Everyone ignored the slight, pale woman, the one with the blue lips, standing before us. She kept repeating, "Hi, I'm Shana!" and was obviously waiting for her turn to speak. Shana stood there, leaning slightly on the back of a chair, observing the would-be clowns. Something about her, winking at everyone and smiling so broadly, made everyone stop what they were doing and look up, waiting for her to tell her story.

"Six months ago I was lying in my hospital bed in the oncology unit, waiting for a visit from a clown. Someone who wore a big green ridiculous hat with a flower waving from the brim and gigantic squeaky shoes and a coat that flapped around as he walked. I wanted that clown so badly but nobody came to see me and make me laugh. On that day I decided that when I left the hospital I would become a clown and visit all the sick people and make them laugh."

So Shana was here for the serious business of saving herself. Every one of the clowns sat riveted in their seats. "This isn't a question of repressing the bad facts or escaping from them," Shana spoke slowly and emphasized especially relevant words. "Instead, I made a conscious decision to perceive the small moments of everyday life in their positive sense ... lacy shadows of tree branches on my bathroom window, the sweet aroma of the figs growing in the backyard, the velvety softness of my granddaughter's nose."

I rolled my eyes, thinking "Such self-righteous gibberish!"

During the coffee break, I overheard Shana whisper to her friend: "Clowns should be caring souls. I can forgive the younger ones, the ones who are eighteen or twenty years old, barely out of high school and here for a fun time. I can't understand the ones who are older, Namir for example. The man with the balloons? Imagine that man, Namir. His children are presumably grownups, maybe they're in university. How embarrassed they would be, to see the antics of their father."

As luck would have it, the third lesson of clown class Shana and I rushed in together, late. We bumped into each other at the front door. I nodded at her, and all sweaty, smelling like fried rice, bellowed, "What a blast! Any time my buddy has to beg off his shift at the Chinese restaurant I'll be happy to take his place again. I must have eaten twenty egg rolls." Shana's ever-present smile was askew. Her arm was crisscrossed with tape strapping down a gauze bandage; a spot of blood seeping through.

During that lesson, each clown-to-be acted out their fantasy about being an animal. The classroom turned into a menagerie: shy chickadees, and bossy hens, yelping dogs chasing frightened kittens, ponderous gorillas jumping atop laughing hyenas. I was in true form as a bull, or perhaps a smelly, Pumba-like animal. I strutted around, thrusting out the lower part of my body, snorting and huffing, and pushing aside all the ducks and geese that crossed my path. Shana chose to be a bird. She flew around the room with her arms gracefully above her head, and a beatific smile lighting up her face. But she and I, the "bull" and the "bird", didn't actually come face to face until the twelfth lesson, the last one before semester break.

During that class, the assigned exercise entailed selecting a mask that he or she could identify with and while wearing the mask, act out a short skit, using gestures. The mask I chose was one with an unmistakable leer, somewhat incongruous with my sparse gray hair, limply sticking out from the sides. My gross kissing motions to all the females while draping my arms over them alluded to what they could offer me. I strutted around in a circle, hands on hips and elbows out to the sides, with an exaggerated swagger.

During Shana's skit, the rubber latex mask stuck to her face and she seemed to have trouble breathing. But Shana did not remove the mask. She had chosen one with a wide, kindly smile; and the face looked like it was winking at anyone who happened to pass by. Approaching each clown in the class, Shana took them by the hand, gave an encouraging squeeze, and then glided away, swaying her arms as she walked.

The clown class could easily have completed its roster of twelve lessons till winter break without an encounter between the free-flying bird and the swaggering bull. But that is not what happened.

Purely by chance, the little bird and the big bad bull were assigned to the same encounter group. I eventually came to see this as a fortuitous piece of luck for both of us. Shana had become so thin, the slightest breeze could push her over. She wore a high necked rose-colored blouse, a long, flowery skirt, a pink kerchief covering her precious, close-cropped hair. She always stood slightly apart from the rest of us so that no one could, even accidentally, touch her body. It was almost comical, the two of us next to one another: Picture me, big and bald and tall, with powerful arms and a big belly. I wore a bright red shirt which kept sliding up, and probably revealed the crease in my buttocks. Nostrils flaring, I bellowed at Shana: "You are unreal. A fake. Your perennial smile and that sugary sweetness tick me of. Loosen up a little. Shout, scream, admit the truth. You can't connect with anyone if you can't see into yourself."

Shana looked as if she would crumple up and disintegrate. Her mask had fallen off and lay near her feet on the floor, its empty smile twisted out of shape. She demanded that I leave her alone, that I beg for forgiveness, all the while sobbing uncontrollably.

The leering mask I had chosen for the class exercise, hung limply on my chest. Truthfully, I was disturbed. I mumbled, "I believe that I've done a service for Shana. She will, in the end, be better off for letting it out. Everyone told me that giving vent to my feelings was the best way to cope after the divorce. Eight years. I spent eight years rewinding that awful moment when my wife left, like she was some actress in a soap opera. Eight years I practiced ventilation in therapy groups, stripping down to my inner self so I could feel at peace." Then my voice broke. I recovered quickly and turned to go.

I carefully picked up Shana's mask from the floor, put it gently, very gently, on her lap, and left the room. That first sign of the change in me was not obvious. It was only weeks later, a few days before she died, I noticed that the little bird had touched me.

After the semester break, Shana stopped showing up for clown class. The rest of us thought she had had enough of the rowdy bunch. A month later, Brian organized a "field trip" to the hospital. We wore costumes and silly hats and prepared to try out our skills on real patients.

We paraded into the oncology unit, our raucous horns preceding us. A nurse encouraged us to enter room five, saying "This woman keeps repeating over and over 'where are the clowns?' She seems to need reassurance." None of us knew Shana had been hospitalized. She lay in the sterile bed, entangled in the tubes crawling around her body. Futility hovered above her, grabbed her by the shoulders and wouldn't let go.

When we marched in, Shana couldn't miss me: a giant man with a swaggering gait and an impossible water-squirting flower. The two of us faced each other. Imagine Shana in her green spotted hospital gown with a grayish pallor, barely able to lift herself up to a sitting position. Imagine me, the strong man in the circus, wearing tight shorts, a sleeveless red shirt, a wide leather belt. When I saw her lying there in the bed, I became choked up. I dabbed at my eyes with the checkered handkerchief I used for playacting a sad-faced clown.

Her face was positively ethereal, wearing a most angelic smile. She looked at me, into my grave eyes reflecting the truth in her own, and said "Thank you for coming to visit me. I'm happy to see you."

I gently cupped Shana's small palm into my own, kissed her forehead and said, "We missed you last week in the clown class." 



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