Why you should care

Because waiting doesn’t feel like a game when it’s for someone you love.

Louise Nayer is the author of four books, most recently Burned: A Memoir, an Oprah Great Read. She has been interviewed on NPR and is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

These are the waiting rooms I’ve been spared: 37 operations over five years for my mother and more than 10 operations for my father. They had been burned in an explosion. I was just 4 years old in the 1950s, and children were not allowed in hospital waiting rooms. My sister believed our parents were dead.

I remember playing Monopoly at a farm in upstate New York, where I lived for nine months with my uncle and aunt when my mother almost died from the anesthesia while “on the table” at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.

My waiting room as a child was my face pressed against a second-story window, watching through all the seasons for my mother to return down the serpentine road through Peter Cooper Village, where we lived. When she got her “final face,” I strained to see it from the window. It was not the face the plastic surgeons had promised. It was “presentable.” People stared.

***

Many, many years later, my husband and I enter the Kaiser Ambulatory Unit waiting room in San Francisco. Jim registers at the desk and I see a board covered with numbers and strips of color. “It’s like at the horse races,” Jim says. He’s nervous, about to be called in for surgery. I gaze at the colored strips on the board, pick out his long number and scrunch closer to him until he’s called in by a nurse.

I rejoin the others who wait. Cellphones go off with generic rings, soul music and Latin rhythms. No one gets annoyed. No official says, “No cellphones, please.” I’ve talked to both my daughters, texted my stepdaughter and a close friend, and talked to my sister. There is no one else to talk to right now. I try to read. I can’t. I try to get work done. I can’t concentrate. The room feels warm. People text, stare into space, put their hands to their heads, rest their heads in their palms, get up to go to the cafeteria holding the pagers they give you at busy restaurants to alert you when your table is ready. The pagers look like spaceships. Our loved ones might as well be in outer space. Cellphones don’t work well in this room. I take the elevator down to the cafeteria to get some eggs, but I don’t like being so far from the waiting room, so far from Jim. We have been married 32 years.

People stare at pagers, whisper ‘I love you’ into cellphones and fidget while trying to be brave as they wait for their loved ones to emerge whole.

 

As I eat my scrambled eggs, I put my hand in my purse several times to make sure my spaceship pager is with me.

***

Back in the waiting room, I look at the board. Jim started in the pre-op room (light green) and is now in the OR procedure room (dark blue). When a patient moves to recovery, the color morphs to lavender. Who chooses the colors? I look too often and even go up to the board to study the “key,” which doesn’t explain everything. Some colors are ambiguous.

One woman has her finger in her mouth. I remember hearing that some Wall Street stockbrokers would suck their thumbs behind The Wall Street Journal on the train from the suburbs to New York City. I clasp my hands.

“Any family member for Ms. Lise?” A woman walks through the waiting room. I’m not sure why family members are being called back there. I wish one of my daughters was with me, but they live far away. It’s only hernia surgery, not open-heart surgery, I tell myself. It could have been cancer. Jim saw the lump when he took a shower.

I was told I’d get a call or a page when it’s “over.”

***

Jim is still in the dark blue zone. He’s almost 72. He’s always been in phenomenal shape. Last year he climbed Half Dome in Yosemite with our grandson. He backpacked 50 miles with one of our daughters two years ago. But he’s slowing down. He had respiratory problems for six months this year. “Harder to kick,” the doctor said, “when you’re older.”

He still runs in Golden Gate Park three times a week, rain or shine. “Keep moving,” he says, something he’s learned while working with seniors for most of his professional life.

The hernia was earned over many years of lifting: moving our daughters to and from Ohio, Brooklyn, San Francisco and Los Angeles and lifting children, grandchildren, suitcases, groceries and even a toilet recently to put in our downstairs room.

Still dark blue. It’s taking longer than I remember from the brochure I have in my bag. I pull it out: 25 to 40 minutes. Jim has been in there close to an hour. I go to the receptionist. “He’s still in the operating room,” she says. I return 15 minutes later. “I’ll check on him at 12:45,” she says. I take my seat and find my leg is twitching. When 12:45 rolls around, the receptionist makes a call. “Still in the OR,” she says. I’m getting worried now. I’m hoping the pager will go off and the doctor will say, “All fine, you can relax,” but nothing.

I sigh with relief as I look at the board. Jim’s color has changed from dark blue to green. Green means “closing” on the key, but what, I wonder, is being closed? The wound, the operating room, the door? I think about texting the kids but decide to wait until I see Jim in the flesh and not as a number on the board.

A man walks by with a cart offering coffee and tea. I want some coffee, but he has no milk or cream. We’re in the waiting room, as fragile as spiderwebs that could break at any moment. A cup of warm coffee or tea is such a nice gesture, but no milk?

“I’m sorry,” is all he says. The man and his cart push on until they recede out of view.

Ten minutes pass. Jim is still in “closing” — in green — and I stop looking for a few minutes. When I look again, he’s lavender — “recovery” — a spiritual color, a creative color, many adolescent girls’ favorite color. I breathe deeply and relax. I stare at the walls. There are photographs of waterfalls and one of San Francisco in the fog. A focus group probably picked the pictures, I think, and laugh. I want to tell Jim. Why hasn’t my pager gone off? Why hasn’t the doctor called? I go up to the receptionist, a bit sheepishly. Maybe I’ve become a pest, a bother. “They usually call,” she says, which doesn’t make me feel better. She calls again.

“A nurse will come out and get you soon,” she says. Five minutes later, a nurse says, “Family for Mr. Patten.” I’m escorted to my husband’s bed, where he’s sitting up, alive and well. He has mesh in his body, but he can go camping, backpacking even.

The nurse takes his blood pressure and talks to us about “discharge” and what to expect. I text my daughters and stepdaughter and attach a photo of their father sitting up in bed.

“He did great,” the nurse says. “He even peed already.” The system is working. I help him get dressed, help him with his socks and shoes. He doesn’t want a wheelchair. He wants to walk, to keep moving. I put my arm around him to steady him.

We walk out together through the crowded waiting room, where people stare at pagers, whisper “I love you” into cellphones and fidget while trying to be brave as they wait for their loved ones to emerge whole.

All over the world, people are in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in makeshift tents, in homes or perhaps looking out windows as I did as a little girl, hoping my mother would return. Some never even get to the waiting room.

Some are lucky, some not so lucky. I steady Jim as we cross the street in blinding sunlight to our car, leaving behind, for now, that room with the pictures of waterfalls, colors morphing toward recovery, cellphones beeping and voices saying “I love you.”

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