Issue Nine - May 2005

Thoughts from a Seat in the Waiting Room

by Amalia Driscoll

I watched from my waiting room chair. A snow-headed ancient, bundled into a thick car coat, came in through the automatic double doors of the hospital specialty center. He leaned heavily on a cane with his right hand as he lurched forward, steadying himself with his left hand on the shoulder of a slight and equally snow-headed woman with glasses and handbag and long coat.

“He couldn’t manage without her,” I thought. And then, “But he is keeping her alive.” The two checked into the reception desk and sat on adjoining chairs. They didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t search out magazines from those splayed out over the tables.

A well- buffed young thing walked purposefully by. Her legs were muscled, filling sheer black stockings fully as they emerged at mid-thigh from a short black skirt. She wore an immaculate white jacket with a name- tag announcing her as staff. “Does she see anyone else?” I wondered. But why should she? She was supremely confident of her strength, her youth, and her erotic appeal. She disappeared behind the surgery front desk.

Four old fashioned square oak tables with captain’s chairs around them shaped the waiting room area where I sat. There were single chairs at the walls. It was to the pharmacy at one side of this grouping that a woman with a stroller and two small children approached. The stroller baby was asleep. The others, a girl of about three and a boy of about five, busied themselves with a steel measuring tape. The boy repeatedly got the girl to pull out the tape for him and then he let it loose with a gay shout. The little girl liked the game but I cringed. My moma experience said that girl was going to get cut when the tape snapped on her. Mother did not pay any attention. She was busy having a prescription filled.

Four laughing seniors took over an entire table. Here a booming voiced mid-sixties fellow acted as it he were piloting his Bayliner on the Sound and the three women were his crew. The women were well-coiffed, with purple and crimson and blue polyester fleece jackets. They wore their lipstick with assurance, but one needed help. Beside this one knelt a social worker, exuding the crisp air of the efficient employed, writing information on a clipboard.

Now the old ones were called in for their appointment. They went together, still supporting each other. And where did I fit into this picture? I thought of my obviously aged face, but then of the way I carefully extricated myself from the chair without using the support of the arms. Just who was I kidding? Ruefully, I acknowledged my fierce need to state to the world that I could do for myself. Just like a two year old I once had who had a mantra: “I can do it myself.”

Certainly, my hold on such independence is tenuous. One misstep and I could join the walker crowd. There, but for the grace of good genes and luck, go I. No longer do I have the exuberance of the mid-sixties. I am making my way reasonably well today, in my early eighties, but I know this point of equilibrium on which I rest is fragile. I continue on as if I have a future but in my heart of hearts I know how problematical that may be.

All these waiting room people exist, with me, on a continuum. Call it life. An awareness of where you are on that arc can make you embittered or compassionate. My son David, who faced his own inevitable and relatively young end developed deep concern for others. I watched him explain foolish clients in court and assist ordinary mixed-up people who came to his office for help. I know he grew into that kindness from his daily realization of how close he was to death.

The old usually have more time than my son did, but they can come to this same gentle awareness of life as gift and reflect back compassion to the struggling people around them.

I am sure the young mother of the waiting room was too immersed in immediate problems to think of life and death. Nor could the vital staff member possibly think of endings right now. The mid-60s quartet was coping well enough to ignore the approach of extreme age. The elderly couple was just hanging on with no visible choices. It is easy enough to think you are not personally included in the general picture of impending dissolution you see about you in a medical waiting room. But you are there, as am I.

To be old is to sustain losses as you march off from the rest of the community. Family die and friends die. The energy you are used to depending on vanishes. You lose the comfortable feeling of a future onto which you can project your plans. You must find different ways to keep connected to the living or you will descend into despair. Each of us survivors has this need.

©2005 Amalia Driscoll