Wednesday, August 10, 2005


sunflowers ★, originally uploaded by *helmen.


Yesterday, I had a chance to spend some time observing life in a doctor's waiting room.

I'd brought the novel I'm currently reading along, and planned to make some progress through its daunting (but wonderful) 500 pages while I waited for a family member.

I had just found my place in the book and read a few sentences when a man in his late thirties entered and made a point to say good morning to everyone.

Hmmm...I wondered, hasn't he heard of the rules of the anonymous waiting room? These people are not your friends; what's more they're ahead of you in lines so you better hope their maladies are neither too serious, nor too trivial. (The trivial ones are usually those of hypochondriacs; and we all know how time consuming their proliferating imaginary complaints can be.)

A few people grunted; I gave him a cautious smile and returned to my book.

However, only a minute or two later, I was again distracted by the entrance of a woman who carried her life through the door like a heavy sack she'd been dragging around for far too long. I immediately closed my book in deference to her misery.

Yes, she was elderly, though not terribly (70 maybe?) and perhaps sick, but the weight she carried was heavier than mere age--or even illness. I studied her flaccid arms, the downward slant of her face and voice, and wondered if she had once been pretty. If she'd ever been in love, had once entered the room as cheerily as the man who came before her. Of course, she had. As she sat down heavily beside me, the small space was infected with her private sorrow.

I couldn't even pretend to read.

Soon after the woman entered, her husband followed, complaining loudly that it would have been nice if she waited for him. Didn't she knew he needed help getting up the stairs?

"I was trying to do you a favor by checking you in," the woman grumbled.

"Well you could have at least helped me up the stairs."

He then announced to the waiting room (also in defiance of the unwritten code) that he'd hurt his acchilles tendon in a recent tennis match, and was having trouble walking.) In truth, he was tanned, wearing an explensive looking gold outfut, and looked far healthier than his wife.

The friendly younger man immediately offered him a seat, and some commiseration. "That's a painful injury. Friend of mine had that once."

The old man grunted, but his curiosity was aroused. "What are you here for?"

"My knee. After arthroscopic surgeries, I'm still having trouble. Might have to get a knee replacement."

Briefly, the miserable woman looked up from The New York Times where she had retreated from her husband's castigation. "I had one of those. It was horrible. Worst thing I ever did."

"It was her own fault," her husband scoffed. "She never did her exercises. How did she think she was going to get better?"

The question hung in the air. I wondered if he ever addressed her directly.

"You two havent' been married long, have you?" the young man smiled.

"Too long. Far too long." The man in the golf shirt shook his head, as if dislodging the years. "Never thought I'd spend my retirement like this. I've got a house on the ocean, a winter place in Palm Beach, but what good does it do me? She never wants to do anything."

Again the young man laughed. "You better watch out. I think your wife's about to give you a left hook." (In truth, the wife had once again withdrawn, and seemed impervious to her husband's words.)

Briefly, the waiting room fell into an awkward silence. I thought of taking out my book again. But once again the older man interrupted my thoughts, turning to the resolute optimist across from him.

"What do you do for a living anyway?" I had the feeling he was accustomed to sizing people up with this question.

"I'm a mechanic over at the XX Plant. You know, one of the working stiffs waiting for the trickle down."

"Better leave politics out of it, young man, because I don't think we agree."

"You're right. We probably don't." The smile never left the younger man's face.
At that point, he was called into the office, and the conversation ended.

I managed to read five or six pages before he emerged.

"So what did he say?" Golf shirt asked. "Are you going to need the knee replacement?"

By now, the entire waiting room was engaged. We all looked up.

"Afraid so."

Even the wife was interested. She shook her jowls in warning. "The worst pain I ever had. More excruciating than childbirth."

"I'll be okay," the young man laughed.

But the woman was not going to give up. Pain was her subject and she would not cede a point to an obvious amateur. "You wait and--"

This time, however, he stopped her. "No, really, I'll be okay." And as he waved and wished us all luck, I knew that he would.

Soon, the husband and wife team were called inside, too; and the waiting room was quiet. But I was no longer interested in my book. Sometimes a half-hour in a waiting room is as complicated and profound as a 500 page novel anyway.

(So what do the sun flowers have to do with it? Not much, except that they remind me of a stranger's smile that briefly transformed an anonymous waiting room into a place where common humanity overcame any number of differences.)


S A J Shirazi said...

Incisive observation. Nice writeup.

Patty said...

I am constantly amazed not just by how perceptive and observant you are, but at how vividly you convey what you see. I had a fic prof who used to tell us to "slice it finer." Your writing is finely sliced!

gulnaz said...

yet again proof of your incredible talent!
i wonder at that guy's optimism, such people shoule be cloned and placed in every doctor's waiting room in the world. i loved the way you described the old woman...its amazing how you do it, i have seen it in your poems too.

Grendel said...

I dug the fact that you realized you couldn't read and put the book down. I don't know that I could have done that. I'm pretty good at blocking out those around me. But then I would have missed these characters and their drama.

Anonymous said...

The book of life. A wonderful, marvelous thing and you have captured a piece of it so well here. I really enjoyed reading this.

robin andrea said...

Great writing here. The woman's heartbreak was palpable, and you captured it so deftly. The old bitterness that sometimes exists between long-time couples is so hard to look at, it's so intimate. They'd plainly never have sex in front of an audience, and yet think nothing of engaging so personally for all to see. The younger man did a fine job trying to neutralize their acidic presence. You captured it all.

rdl said...

Yes, another great post!

Perfect Virgo said...

A cross-section of life is always there in those waiting rooms. I think you captured the mood and developed the characters beautifully.

Dale said...

Wonderful narrative. Wonderful. A villain worthy of Dickens -- pure self-absorbed nastiness. Ay.

Vickie said...

As you stated yourself, real life, while it may not be what you're looking for at the time, provides plenty of fuel. I do so enjoy your posts. I had forgotten to return for a bit, my bad.

Dave said...

Sometimes a half-hour in a waiting room is as complicated and profound as a 500 page novel anyway - as this post amply demonstrates. Great stuff.

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