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rhythm is life

The boy with cerebral palsy

The scarab of memory rolls its dung across my head and burdens me with the need to share another episode in the story of rhythm that unfolded on the littered banks of the emerald river.

In the ancient town of the bombed bridge the devastation of war was everywhere to be seen. Not a single sign of life escaped the signature of its horror. When I was invited to bring my drum to help rebuild the lives of its people, the first thing I noticed was that every surface around me bore the scars of the endless shelling.

But the worst scars of that mindless war lay hidden deep beneath the open-eyed thirst for life I witnessed in the faces of many of the people I met.

I had adopted the routine of taking my drum early on a Sunday morning and going to a clearing on the edge of the old town to meditate on regenerating my energy and to practice away from people’s unceasing attentions. On some occasions I would use this as an opportunity to teach some of my students extended drumming technique in an open environment where we were free to play as loudly as we wanted without disturbing anyone’s peace.

The clearing had been denuded of buildings by the bombing. All that remained was a scattering of concrete rubble and a few coniferous trees.

On one of these Sundays when my students joined me, soon after I started drumming, a woman arrived pushing her son in a wheelchair in the distant corner of the clearing. She stopped and arranged the wheelchair so that it was facing towards me. She sat down on a tree stump next to the chair, reached into her bag, pulled out an unfinished white woolen scarf and a pair of knitting needles and started to knit.

After a while I noticed the boy moving stiffly in his chair. Even though I was quite far from where they were sitting, I could see that his head, arms and legs were uncoordinated. When I took a break to have a drink of water I noticed that he stopped moving and his mother stopped knitting and raised her head to look in my direction. I took this to mean that they were not happy that I had stopped. So I resumed my drumming. The boy started to move again and his mother returned to her knitting.

These unarranged rendezvous became a regular feature of our lives, where I would go to my usual spot and do my physical warm up by stretching before playing my drum, and they would sit facing me, always at the same tree stump. Sometimes I would arrive to find them already waiting for me; but the white scarf the mother was always knitting never seemed to get any longer.

Then one day I noticed that the boy’s movements were becoming more urgent. He was straining to the point of almost falling out of his wheelchair. I felt he wanted to come closer to the drum. The mother stopped her knitting and tried to restrain him, but the boy’s movements became even more pronounced. I could hear the loud incoherent sounds he was producing as he tried to communicate his feelings. The mother looked sternly in my direction. I waved at her indicating that she should bring her son closer, but she did not respond.

I asked one of my students to walk over to her and encourage her to bring the boy to where I was drumming; but even as my student was walking towards them, I saw the woman get up and wheel the boy towards us. As they came closer I saw that the boy was becoming more excited, but his mother looked a little apprehensive. Without stopping to drum I indicated to my student to place my empty drum bag on the rough concrete wall against which my drum was leaning. Knowing what my intention was, he helped the woman to seat her son on the bag.

The boy beamed a huge smile across at me and started to place his hands on the drum skin. He rested them on the skin and allowed its vibration to gently bounce them. He laughed as the sensation flowed through his body. Then with very relaxed movement he lifted his arms and started drumming with me and smiled even more. I sang as I drummed and he joined me with a soft voice. His mother, who had been holding his back to prop him up, let him go and started clapping and smiling with joy.

After a long while of drumming together we stopped to take a break and the boy’s mother asked my student to translate for me. She explained that she took regular walks around the war ravaged town pushing her boy in his wheelchair, exposing him to whatever scenes of natural beauty she could find to pacify him. She had not been aware of the drumming until one Sunday she noticed her son becoming visibly agitated and, with great difficulty, pointing towards the clearing. She eventually succumbed and turned in to enter our drummers’ refuge.

She proceeded to tell us that she had lost all her family to the war and that her close friends had been killed too. All she had left was her disabled son, whose condition had been made worse by the trauma of the war. Being on her own with him, she found it extremely difficult to deal with his needs. To prevent herself from becoming insane she had decided to knit a scarf for each member of her family and her friends; but because she had only one ball of wool, when she reached the end of one scarf she would unthread it completely and start on a fresh one for another deceased person that was close to her.

She thanked me for encouraging her to bring her son to the drum because she had noticed its effect on him from the very first time he heard its sound; but she had not felt the confidence to comply with his request, and, in so doing, follow his instinctive discovery of the benefits of the drum.

Eugene Skeef