— Perhaps this story should be told at bedtime. It deals with wishes and dreams and things kids hold dear.
A child could tell you the plot. It begins: “Once upon a time … there was an 8-year-old battling evil with music.” His name is Rishi Nair, but he prefers his superhero nickname, The Peaceful Warrior. Look for him at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He’s the kid wearing a cape and running in slow motion.
“My special power,” says Rishi, brandishing a Chinese flute, “is to fight fear, sadness and pain with music.” He twirls to the window and shouts, “Hey! Drop that lady’s purse or I’ll do this flute!” Tooodle-ooo, he trills to no one, as the adventure plays out in his mind’s eye.
“How long have you loved music?” I ask.
“Since I was zero,” Rishi says solemnly.
Free at last
Rishi was born with no working kidneys. Music took him out beyond the limits of his life. He spent most of his childhood tethered to machines, until his mom gave him a Mother’s Day gift three years ago: one of her kidneys. Two days later, Rishi turned 5.
“I could hear him shout,” mom Mary Lyn Nair recalls. “ ‘I’m free! I’m free! I’m absolutely FREE!’ They took the IVs out and he asked, ‘Where’s my drum?’ ”
Mary Lyn smiles at the memory. “How many of us wake up in the morning feeling how great it is to be living?”
While waiting for his kidney transplant, Rishi had learned how to play drums from India, flutes from China, and the Australian didgeridoo, which an Aborigine taught him. He loves music as much for the people it brings into his life as for the music itself.
For example: The other day Rishi struck up a friendship with a man who had come to the hospital to entertain. Hollywood soundtrack composer Mateo Messina has been coming to the hospital every year since a friend’s 4-year-old daughter died from a brain tumor there. For 12 years he has come, traveling a thousand miles from his home in Los Angeles.
Mateo had almost died once himself, in a fall from a mountain. “The ground broke because I was too close to the edge,” he explains. “I started sliding down, free-falling 700 feet, and I thought, ‘Well, this is how I die.’ ”
But today he’s still here, just like Rishi.
Questions and answers
Meantime, Rishi’s mom is making a game out of the list of questions the hospital wants answered. Rishi has to answer them faster and faster. “Chest pain?”
“Rapid heart rate?”
“Knock, knock!” Nurse Shannon Fitzgerald taps on the door.
Rishi smiles, but his mom is nervous, struggling to ask a question she dreads to ask: “How long will my kidney stay in Rishi’s body?”
“It’s usually 10 years at a minimum,” Shannon answers.
Mary Lyn quickly does the math. She’s thinking: I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry, but I can feel my heart breaking.
A super symphony
But Rishi’s family decided to focus on the joy he finds in life. That’s why they encouraged him to become a superhero. His new friend, Mateo, was writing a “Symphony for Superheroes” and asked Rishi to help him compose a song.
“We both had an idea what the song should be about,” Mateo says. He nods at Rishi, who proceeds to sing: “When I play the world feels better ... Everyone is soothed.”
Rishi’s voice is strong and smooth. When he’s finished, I ask Mateo: “What’s it like collaborating with an 8-year-old?”
“Awesome,” he replies, beaming. “It’s so much more fun than collaborating with executive producers and directors.” (Remember “Juno”? Mateo won a Grammy for that one.)
Rishi’s performance with the Seattle Symphony was awesome too. The Peaceful Warrior strode out on stage in front of a choir of 50, faced the orchestra, and sang the song Mateo and he had written. It ended: “Everyone should have a good life ... I want you to see, I am Rishi.” Aka The Peaceful Warrior.
That one performance raised $189,000 for sick kids whose parents cannot afford treatment.
That’s what superheroes do.