Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 1, 2001
The Number of Pain
This is not the first time Travis (age fourteen) has been in the hospital on a morphine drip. He is facing another sickle cell pain crisis. I introduce myself as a writer who comes to the hospital and writes with children of all ages. With an emphatic nod and a wide grin, Travis tells me that he likes to write music. I confess to being tone deaf; I don’t know how to put words and notes together.
A nurse with a clipboard walks in. "What number is your pain, Travis?"
She writes on her clipboard and touches the medication pump regulating his morphine infusion.
When she leaves, I ask, "What does seven mean? Is that a lucky number? Is that good pain or bad pain? Is that a new language of numbers in the hospital, a new code?"
Across the page, saying it reminds me of arrows, I write 77777777777. "Tell me more about seven, Travis."
He selects a white board and a blue erasable marker to write his introduction. His name is Travis; he is in the hospital with his friend, Samantha, a child life specialist, and with me, Cindy. He misses his mother. He writes out s-e-v-e-n. "Seven is out of ten. Six to ten is the worst possible pain, unbearable, can’t deal with it. Especially when it gets from 8-10." His voice is a strained whisper. "One to five is pain you can deal with."
He wants to write more, so I tell him that music and a timed exercise help writers warm up. We listen to a tape of Native American flute music and begin writing whatever comes to our minds for two minutes. In his writing, Travis reveals that he doesn’t like the names the kids in school call him.
He lowers his head, "Gay. Feminine. Dumb. Stupid. N . . . . unnecessary words."
My first response is shock, then sadness that these words are used to cause him pain. I know the healing magic of words, but I can never predict what the children will tell me or what will happen during the 30-60 minutes I walk in and out of their lives.
I suggest we write the words to a song titled, "Unnecessary Words."
He is intrigued, and probably skeptical, but children are amazingly open. They are usually willing to run with me. Their faith in my guidance and their willingness to be honest create an awesome space for creativity.
I write "Unnecessary Words" across the top of the white board and make a grid with the letters, G-F-D-S-N, using the words given to us by Travis’s classmates.
We erase the N word, agreeing it is too painful to use. We keep G-F-D-S. We take turns filling the column with words.
go – find – dog’s – shoe
giant – fun – delivers – soap
games – fine – dare – see
God – fraud – done – say
glory – felt – dangle – sharp
good – fought – dry – so
Then we write individual sentences from the words, crossing each word off as we use it. Travis puts the white board down and writes with a pencil in a marble composition notebook. When we finish, we exchange writings. We say a lot of mmmm’s as we reread our sentences composed from these random words.
I tell Travis the next writing exercise uses pictures. From my folder of Life magazine cut-outs, he selects a living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and turns on my tape player.
As the erasable marker touches the white board, he freezes. "I don’t know how to write about it."
I describe oral history and the tradition of storytelling as I put a blank tape in the tape player to record his words.
In response to my questions, Travis reveals that his mom decorated his room and she likes to sit in it because it is very bright and warm, and it makes her happy.
His mother works 6-9 PM as a janitor in a downtown building. She has already called once during our visit to see how he is. His younger brother has also called because he was lonely. Travis tells him, "Go to church with Grandma. I’m busy writing with my friend, Cindy."
He asks me to listen to his music. When it begins, like Pavlov’s dogs, we both pick up our pencils and write. He is very interested in what inspiration his hip hop has provided me. I read that the lively beat has given me energy and joy at the end of the day; my steps are now high and swift.
He nods then reads that when he listens to his music, he can write faster than when he writes to my music. We laugh.
Too soon, it is time to go. I thank him for writing with me. He writes on the cover of the marble composition notebook, "Writer." I add a sticker to the pages where he wrote "Unnecessary Words." A+ because he is an A+ writer.
I leave the notebook and pencil with him for his future writing as my gift to him.
He writes his e-mail address on the white board and walks with me out of his room. I ask him what number his pain is and am surprised by his response, "Seven."
Driving home, I knew the number of my pain, too. A steady seven.