Tuesday, January 6
My eyes were itchy because it was 4:20 a.m. and I already had on mascara. Dark. Cold. Two cups of coffee and Interstate 65 southbound.
My dear relative’s surgery prep was scheduled to begin at 5:30, but the original builders of a certain hospital and the architects of the progressive add-ons through the years had the astonishingly similar goal of creating a labyrinth into which the limping tribute entered and was never seen again.
So while we got to the correct address at 5:30, finding the tiny cubby hole of a surgery center amid the vast rabbit warren of auxiliary services took another 18 minutes. The receptionist was kind and didn’t turn our tardiness into a character issue. But how could she have? Her office is located in the Bermuda Triangle; patients stumble upon it accidentally and an hour late. Which made us 42 minutes early. Just saying.
Then it was time to wait.
And the lesson of this day was that waiting is not a bad thing. Like most lessons, that only became clear upon retrospect.
Waiting does interesting things to the human brain. Waiting seems to remove the productive, creative individual from all forward-moving streams of life and into a sterile, stimulation-free sidewater in which the only accomplishment is that the clock is ticking. Me, a chair, and a clock. This particular waiting room had the huge blessing of many floor to ceiling windows. That, and that alone, saved my brain from turning irreversibly to oatmeal.
Out of the waiting room and behind the swinging doors, other elements unique to hospital waiting kick in. For instance, the waiter, the healthy one, the designated driver, soon begins to feel sick, too. Sitting beside the patient, I watched the IV go in, and at 6:00 am on queasy coffee stomach, I began vicariously to feel the effect of every anesthetic dripping through that tube. The doctor was talking, giving me vital information about my dear relative, information I needed to be able to repeat with vigor and comprehension, and maybe even make critical decisions with. His mouth was moving and I was nodding. But all I could hear was “Wahheaawaworblewablornumglob.”
“Alright then,” he said and scuffed away in his cap and booties.
Blessedly, I turned at that moment and miracle of miracles, there stood two smiling Littlevillians who work in the big city, scrubbed-up and busy, but pausing to pray with us. And they say there is no God!
I have to hand it to doctors and nurses. Here they are at quarter to zero dark thirty about to take on the responsibility of someone’s spinal cord and with a waiting room full of spinal cords. They need snappy and accurate answers to their questions. They won’t get them from IV’d people lying on gurneys. There is something about lying on a gurney when everyone else in the room is standing up, having had their coffee, planning a Panini for lunch, intellectually on their A game, that renders patients unable to form the evaluations being asked of them.
A possible scenario:
Doc: “When was the last time you had anesthesia?” (pretty straight forward)
Spinal Cord: “You mean totally under or including the twilight kind?”
Doc: “Only totally under, the twilight kind doesn’t matter?”
Cord: “Well I had the twilight kind in 2006 . . .”
Doc: “OK, and the other?”
Cord: “Yes, it was 2006 because that was the year the garage flooded.” Turning to wife, “Right? 2006?”
Another symptom of advanced waiting is self-doubt. The receptionist called to our family that the surgeon was finished and would talk with us. “Go around the corner and wait on the bench. He’ll be right out,” she instructed. I am a college graduate and I found myself walking down the hall carrying coats, bags, Starbucks ventis, and tossing my head like a spooked horse, “This corner? This bench? What if there’s another corner and another bench and I miss the doctor? Why don’t they have a sign, ‘Corner’ and ‘Bench’ or even ‘This way to THE corner and THE bench.’?”
The surgeon was friendly and informative and positive and pleased. And I, the college grad, still had to work hard to itemize what he was saying. This is because the waiter doesn’t speak the doctor’s language. The waiter speaks Basic Oatmeal. The doctor on the other hand has to condense 8 years of medical school and residency and 20 years of nitty-gritty field work into 4 or 5 sentences that sum up this procedure, my dear relative’s particulars, and the general way forward in most circumstances barring anything surprising. He, who obviously excelled in the maths and sciences, is required to be a poet. It would be like trying to tweet the plot of The Lord of the Rings to a Basset Hound.
After the corner and the bench came more hallway hikes with fresh ventis, whole new wings and their portraited benefactors discovered, turns, elevators, retraces, lefts, rights, inquiries, and finally my relative’s assigned nook for the night. Loopy on meds and tucked in tight, she rested in the care of the kind nurses, and we, the waiters, emerged through the sliding glass doors gulping lungfuls of cold air and reveling in the spanse of sky above our heads. Only then did I realize that I had felt the weight of the ceiling on my head and all the floors above it the whole time I was waiting. I also realized that I smelled like a band-aid.
John Milton, the poet going blind, said “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton was right. Waiting is good for us. It forcibly teaches humility and patience. It shows me a true picture of myself – all my productive days are no more productive or valuable than this one in the sidewater.
This day was a labor of love, as all waiting must be.