I was thinking today about the time I first met Patch Adams. Well, the second. The first was in the international terminal at O’Hare. I was wearing a tutu and a clown nose. I had purposely bought and was reading a copy of Mother Jones, thinking that would be a far better first impression than the US Weeklies I usually favored while flying. He was dressed Patch-normal. Oversized pants, clown shoes. He is well over 6 feet tall, with long gray hair parted down the middle. The other half is bright aqua blue. His earring is a fork. Patch slammed an espresso and gave me an article from the newspaper he was reading. I tried my hardest to be cool and not totally geek out.
We went out separate ways for the flight to Amsterdam but agreed to chat more once it was a decent hour and we’d both had a rest.
When we met back up in Amsterdam, he immediately handed me an envelope full of cash. “I can only take $2,000 and we need this for lodging and stuff.” I was to smuggle Patch’s cash over the border into Morocco. I had to laugh. Then I had to pee. So while he dozed off, I ran to the restroom. When I spotted him next, he sagged with relief. For a moment he’d thought I took off with his money and he was in trouble. We both had a laugh about what a bad thief I would be and fell asleep again.
Mostly, though, I watched the doctor work. He is such a kind and joyful person. He finds fun where you are sure he won’t.
We wandered in to burn wards or terminally ill children’s floors of hospitals. Faces were tight with pain; noise seemed unimaginable. Then Patch gives everyone permission to be silly. We all begin to loosen up and take his lead, understanding that people want to have these moments of lightness. And I observed. I spent a lot of time just watching the effects of clowning on people to whom illness had become a way of life. They visibly melted into the reprieve from hospital business. The children in particular expected to play. They were not surprised as much by the entrance of a colorful troupe of clowns. It was as if they knew we were coming, but they absolutely didn’t.
It was actually the adults who I remember more clearly. They were a little more hesitant to allow themselves the break they needed. With sick kids, I could only imagine what their day to day was like. But they danced with us almost every time we offered. I played games with dads and hugged moms who looked like they had never heard of sleep. It was less about a polished routine. It had everything to do with connection. Our common ground was making their kids happy and giving everyone a break from pain. And for a while we did that. I watched Patch move through these crowds, earning love as easily as he breathed air, thinking how important laughter really is.