Someone is vomiting into a paper bag. Across the room someone else holds a bloody rag to his head. Smells of Jack Daniels and fried chicken waft through the cluttered waiting room.
Some people are yelling at one another, others are weeping. Parents, I suppose they are parents, are disciplining young children, too harshly in my view. The children are tired, cranky; it’s way past bedtime for these little ones. None of us really wants to be here. But here we are – in the Emergency Room waiting area.
My husband has been hospitalized numerous times in the last five years, and I think I have become an expert at waiting. Waiting to be “allowed” to be with my beloved. Waiting to hear how he has tolerated yet another operation or procedure. Waiting to learn if the tumor is malignant. Waiting for our children to “relieve” me so that I can go home for a shower and a glass of wine. Waiting to get back to the things my husband and I love to do together – going out on a photography shoot or taking a walk with the dogs. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
I’ve not always been a very patient person. But when forced to wait, as I have been these last few years, I’ve learned a few waiting skills. While our children and friends are often there to support me, I’ve learned that to connect with strangers who are also waiting is a pretty good “waiting skill.” We are not family in the traditional or literal sense. We will never see one another again. Rather, we are family in the communal sense. At times I think it’s easier to wait with strangers than a close family member. There is no need to maintain an appearance of bravado “for the sake of the children.” No need to shield those family members and friends I love from the distress they might experience if they really knew of the depths of my anguish. But with the stranger, I can speak the truth about my experience. This is liberating, and helps me stay grounded in the reality of that experience.
A young, nice-enough looking man waits alone in the chair across from me. Dressed in his brown UPS uniform and sporting neat dreadlocks, he looks to have come directly from work.
“What are you here for?” he asks, as if I am the patient.
I reply, “We think his bowel is obstructed,” referring to my husband as I gesture back behind the closed doors. No one here bothers with saying things in a way that is polite or ladylike. We’re in the ER. We call it like it is. “How long you been here?” I ask.
He responds, “Oh, a couple of hours. They’ve brought in some real bad people. You know, a car wreck and someone’s been shot. They get seen first, you know.”
Thinking ‘yeah, I’ve been here 8 times in the last five years, I’ve got this gig down pat,’ I reply, “Yes, I know. It looks like we’re in for a long night.” And then, quite naturally, we begin to talk more. I learn that his Mother has sickle cell anemia. She is in “crisis” tonight, and he proceeds to explain “sickle cell crisis” to me in great detail. Like me, he is an ER frequent-flyer. We talk about the dirty waiting room, littered with food wrappers, a tattered and forgotten backpack, a lone mitten, and wonder when the cleaning crew might arrive. We mention the sweet-faced but hard-talking desk clerk who assures us that we haven’t been forgotten by the staff that is “working on” our family members. We commiserate about the cold snap, and whether there will be snow this year. Then, he asks, “You scared?”
Until that moment, I hadn’t really felt afraid. It was just another trip to the ER. Was I so sensitized to the ER experience that I had become numb to the fear that my husband was quite ill? Although Bob had experienced some pretty serious problems – prostate cancer, repeated small bowel obstructions, heart disease, and a severe infection – he’s always bounced back, and I had expected him to do so this time, too. But the question from my new ER friend stopped me cold. For a few moments, I sat there amidst the chaos that is an ER waiting room. Then, I looked at him and said, “Yeah, I am. What about you?”
William Blaine-Wallace, a chaplain who opened the nation’s first acute inpatient center for persons with AIDS, and who authored Water in the Wastelands: The Sacrament of Shared Suffering, believes that the strongest tie that can bind one to another is “mutual woe.” This is what connects me to the stranger who is waiting along side me. We are there, together, woefully waiting. The shared experiences of anxiety, fear, helplessness, and powerlessness connect us. Blaine-Wallace writes that there is “resonance and resilience of the human spirit” that comes from people being connected to others in a shared experience such as waiting together. The man with the neat dreadlocks and I find that we are more alike than unlike. The connections empower and energize us. I say to my new friend, “He’s been back there a long time. Do you think it would be OK for me to check with the nurse? I don’t want to get in her way, but I’m worried.” And while I get his thoughts about my question, what really helps is just having the opportunity to talk with someone who is sharing my experience, and likely struggling with the same question himself.
Then, the stranger says he is going for coffee and asks if I want a cup. He wants to know how I take my coffee. I reassure him that if the ER staff come looking for him with word on his Mother’s condition, I will let them know he’ll be back soon. Together, we are keeping vigil. Waiting.
Blaine-Wallace, W. (2002). Water in the Wastelands: The Sacrament of Shared Suffering. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications.