Tuesday at Ten O’Clock in a Waiting Room


Tuesday has not begun the way I planned.

At ten o’clock, I should have been spooning out third helpings of blueberry crisp to purple-smudged mouths, filling Easter eggs for Lucy’s egg hunt at school, sketching out the napkin note to be packed in today’s snack bag.

But I’m in the waiting room at the urgent care center instead, texting about these things to a patient husband. I’ve been up all night with knives in my throat and sharp-stung sinuses that seem to be breathing in air made of horseradish. I remember feeling this miserable at eight months pregnant, with a wicked infection of a souvenir from a full day’s jury duty, and I’m here in hopes of avoiding a sleepless week this time, if I can.

I sign, I sit, and I’m reminded of all that I loathe about sickness and its isolating effect on people and their loved ones.

A college-age girl in the corner has a chest cough that she buries into her shirt sleeve, directing it towards a dividing wall. An older couple sits silently in the middle of the room, and it’s the wife who’s sick, I think; she gives an occasional sniffle while the husband’s alert eyes watch the comings and goings in the room. At eleven o’clock, parents begin to arrive with their children, many of them gently putting surgical masks over small watery-eyed faces.

The room is starting to fill up with shuffling bodies and sneezes, and the occasional yelp from a small child.

I think I’m cured. I can go. Really, it’s nothing that won’t ease up in a few days.

But they’ve taken my copay now, and there’s no escape.

So I pull the shawl collar of my cardigan up around my neck, and let my eyes close for a little while. Beside me, a woman strikes up a conversation with a stranger who’s wearing the same uniform. She speaks in low and friendly tones, audible enough for the others in this circle of chairs to tune in.

“I been here since nine o’clock, and still sittin at number 6. I’m all right with that, you know, it’s all right… just got to get the kids at 2, so it’ll be good if I can get out of here before then. I hear you can get them to text you too, like twenty minutes before it’s your turn, so you can go shopping or somethin.”

Across the circle, a mother with a teenage son looks up from her phone. “Sometimes they don’t. Text you, I mean.”

“Oh, yeah?” The woman clucks her tongue, unfazed by this new commenter. “Good to know, then! Yeah, I been sittin here this whole time anyway, might as well wait it out. No harm.”

The electronic doorbell rings, and a woman enters carrying a toddler. The receptionist asks the question all of us are now used to hearing: “Is he having trouble breathing?” And for the first time, the answer is yes. A few minutes later, the nurse calls the little boy’s name, and mother and child disappear into the coveted back halls.

There’s a slow, almost imperceptible nod around the room when this happens. Yes, of course. Get him back there and help him breathe. Same thing, a few minutes later, when a man walks in with his hand wrapped in gauze.

“Is the bleeding controlled?”

“Well now, that’s why I’m here.”

The Today Show switches over to Rachael Ray in the background, and I glance around the room. No scowls, no grimaces. Oddly enough, under the too-vibrant colors of the cooking show’s table, and between the rounds of canned applause, there’s a slight sense of camaraderie.

Right below the TV screen, a mother’s voice that’s been steadily rising for the last twenty minutes finally peaks in exasperation: “Knock it off, you two! What is wrong with you?” Two little pairs of hands scuffle over the right to choose the next Netflix show, but they suddenly stop, stunned, as the husband from the older couple behind them cranes his head backward.

“Hey, when’s it my turn? Do I get to pick now?” He pauses long enough to let them see the twinkle in his eye, and the little girl tentatively grins back. “Oh, I think it’s my turn. Looks like a lot of fun.”

By this time the mother is smiling, and I am too, in my chair across the room. God bless people who have patience for the small souls among us.

The waiting list flashes again on a different screen, and I’m at number one now. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse the local news. Three bullet points next to the anchorman tell of how and where a police officer died, a few hours away. A car crash – two vehicles – this many years of service. I shudder a little at the report, wondering how coldly my own story could be summed up one day.

But as I scribble these thoughts down on an expired restaurant rewards card, I think I already know that God will do better than that.

He isn’t cowed by our sterility and isolation, or the circumstances that bring them.

In this shadow of life and laughter in a waiting room, right here, I glimpse Him: in the non-emergent pain that has brought each of us here and peels our tougher hides back to reveal some humanity, in this motley combination of people in uniforms and jogging suits and construction gear and faithful black cardigans, in Spirit and present in this very space.

Not the Tuesday I planned, indeed.