Saturday, August 05, 2006

Commentary from a wonderful columnist

Waiting room awaits us all
May 22,1996 - It is church quiet in The Waiting Room when the woman in the knit pantsuit pulls out the jigsaw puzzle.
"If we all work on this together, we'll be done by the end of the day," she says, dumping 1,000 cardboard pieces of "The Beech Trees" onto a circular table in the center of the room.
Her no-nonsense tone, crisp and authoritative, confuses many of the dozen people waiting in small knots or all alone for word of relatives fresh from, or still in, surgery.
Who is this woman? Not a hospital employee -- no ID badge. Not a volunteer -- no pink smock. "Come on now," she coaxes, her good cheer jarring in a room thick with anxiety and exhaustion. "I had more takers last week."
This is her sixth week in the Waiting Room. It has been that long since her 85-year-old mother was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit deep in a coma after open-heart surgery.
Now she is the Veteran, the self-appointed recreation director for the Waiting Room, a one-woman entertainment committee devising ways to fill time between the 15-minute visits permitted on even-numbered hours between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
It is the Veteran who instructs newcomers that the pay phone takes incoming calls, that the wall clock in the Waiting Room is three minutes slower than the one inside the ICU.
It is the Veteran who steers newcomers away from the coffee in the cafeteria and toward the cappuccino from the pushcart outside Radiology.
The windowless Waiting Room where the Veteran holds sway is in a university medical center but, with its French Impressionist prints in pastel frames, its day-old newspapers and its gray carpeting blackened by coffee stains, it could be in any hospital, anywhere.
The room is dominated by middle-aged women suspended between their children at the end of the pay phone and their parents at the end of their lives. Some of the women come and go during the day; most just stay, adhering to their own routines, until it is time to return home or to a motel nearby.
The Napper curls up on the too-short, too-hard couch and manages to sleep. The Reader moves too quickly through Jane Smiley to Sue Grafton. The Weeper stakes out a corner chair, where her sobs are as quiet as her cheeks are damp.
There is no privacy here. Every emotion is on display, epecially when someone in blue surgical scrubs enters. The silence and the tension hang heavy until he or she alights.
Everyone eavesdrops, measuring their own fortunes against the good or bad news being delivered to someone else in the Waiting Room. The Veteran always hovers then. Over the weeks, she has learned to read the room, figuring out who needs a hug and who needs to be left alone.
She keeps a box of tissues at her elbow while she works the puzzle. The box comes in handy the night the surgeon tells a woman that a large blood clot, dislodged from her father's chest during surgery, has come to rest in his brain.
It is depleted after a nurse explains to a Russian immigrant that her husband's disorientation and paranoia is temporary, a consequence of narcotics and too much time in the netherworld of the brightly lit ICU, where day is indistinguishable from night.
When it is time for a visit, it is the Veteran who leads the group through the automated doors, past the nurses station where they separate, heading off to mothers on respirators, fathers on morphine.
Visitors go alone or in sometimes awkward pairings. The newly minted ex-wife meets her husband's lover in the ICU. He has had a massive coronary. His prospects are grim. The two women work out their respective positions silently. The younger woman moves from the side to the foot of the bed, giving 20 years of shared history their due.
It is church quiet late in the afternoon when the doctor slips into a chair at the blond oak table where the Veteran is hard at work piecing together "The Beech Trees."
"Did she wake up?" she asks, startled after so many weeks of benign neglect to find herself the focus of interest.
"No, she didn't," the doctor responds quietly, leaving unsaid what the room knows. The Veteran's wait is over.
The Napper brings her the tissue box. The Weeper folds her in an embrace.
When the Veteran has gone, those who remain in the Waiting Room pull their chairs up to the table and set to work on the unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

Commentary written by Eileen McNamara at the Boston Globe 1996.


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