I drove home tonight from a long day at work, thinking about the different qualities of waiting. What came to mind was a story I wrote several years ago. I’m not very practiced at fiction, but I’m proud of this story. If you will endulge me, here it is.
I do not want to be here. Deep breath. Through the door. Hang up coat. Empty chair. My head is pounding. One person glances over the top of a magazine. Another smiles. I put my bag in the chair. Move to the window. Knock. The smoked glass slides open.
–Hi. I have a nine-thirty appointment with Dr. Sutter.
–Yes, Mr. Henderson. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. This has been a crazy morning. Have a seat in the waiting room and I’ll call you when the doctor is ready to see you.
–How long will that be? It’s nine-thirty now.
–We’re running a little late. She’ll see you as soon as she can. Please have a seat and I’ll call you.
Time moves like a tire out of round, like a bocce ball, favoring the weighted side, a slow curve to an uneven stop. The waiting room is spotted with people in duets and trios of conversation, occasional soloists thumbing through old magazines. There is no difference between the faces in the room and those on the magazine covers, except the photographs are not sick. And I know more about the faces staring up from the table than those trying not to look. I am familiar with facts I do not want to know because I have lived this scene too many time already. This is the flat side of life: I am waiting again for an explanation.
Laughter from behind the smoked glass. A radio. The glass slides back in random intervals. The receptionist speaks a name into the room. Someone I do not know rises and moves through the door. The glass closes. The scene replays without casting me, again and again. My brain feels as though it is trying to hammer its way out of my skull. I cannot wait for an invitation for relief. I script my own entrance.
–Please. I’ve been here over an hour and I am in a great deal of pain. I had a nine-thirty appointment. How much longer will it be?
–I’m sorry, sir. We’re doing what we can. The doctor had some unexpected things to deal with this morning which have put her behind. I hope you will understand. I’ll call you as soon as possible.
–Unexpected things? Unexpected things? Can you understand that I don’t have all morning? I’ve got a splitting headache. I’m late for work. My time is important, too, you know. I can’t just sit and–and–“
–Look. I’m sorry. I know you have been waiting, but there’s nothing else I can do. Please take your seat. We haven’t forgotten you. Please be patient.
–You need to look. I’m here to get my test results. I want my headaches to stop. I want to know what is wrong with me. That’s all. Can’t you do something?
–The doctor will be with you as soon as she can. Please.
The glass closes and I move back to my spot in the room. One person looks up and forces a smile. He was here when I arrived, I think. Maybe he was in People. I can’t remember.
Time turns like the pages of a magazine. Moments stand alone, yet connected, one flowing into the next. We are a room of individuals who have somehow become a group on this page of life because we came in at about the same time, or waited together for awhile, or made each other late, or because we are all here now. I can name the people on the magazine covers in front of me, but the people around me are anonymous; I do not need their names, they do not need mine. I am waiting only for my name. My turn. A couple of folks trickle out and replacements arrive oblivious to those who have come before. Waiting is all we share in common. Onc we no longer have to wait, we no longer need to belong.
A model with a milk mustache is looking at me. How long have I been sitting here? No clocks. My watch. Eleven o’clock. The glass opens again. My name. Call my name.
–Mr. Henderson, the doctor will see you now.
I move to the door without looking around. The others do not care that I have been called; only that they have not. Door closes behind me. My anger has gone; I feel only fear. I have come to find out something that I am not sure I want to know.
Time stands on its head like a circus clown. We do not move forward, only up and down. We are every age we have ever been or will be in any and every moment, as if the moments of our lives happen simultaneously, though we experience them one by one.
I am fourteen at my brother’s military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal’s office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey’s pigtail;
I am twenty-five laying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife’s funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
The nurse’s face is neutral and practiced. She will not give away the secrets she knows. I follow her down the hall to an examining room.
–Dr. Sutter will be with you in a moment, Mr. Henderson. Please wait here.
I sit in the corner of this small pastel box. Chair. Sink. Examining table. White paper. Tongue depressors. Thermometers. Degrees. None of this should look so familiar. I don’t want to be here again. My luck is running thin. Perhaps I have come one time too many.
Time is an atmosphere that envelops me. I move in and around and through it. I am not a captive, but an inhabitant. If I do not get to a particular moment, it will wait for me; the experience will become reality when I arrive. Nothing can be missed, only delayed. But time is leaking out of the room where I am. The seconds which once seemed unnecessary now pass conspicuously; they will not return. I am gasping for more, for moments I took for granted. I am falling through time like a leaf to the forest floor. If only the leaf could stop a breath before landing, as if some invisible tether could hold the inevitable at bay, hold the moment on the precipice of meaning, on the edge of existence, in the final gasp when games are won and hearts are lost and hope disappears. The tether cannot hold.
–Hi, Mr. Henderson. Sorry you had to wait. How are you today?
–I’m here. My head hurts again.
–Any changes since last week? Or problems?
–More of the same. I got lost once at the mall. I keep feeling like I’m waking up, only to find myself talking to some checker or salesperson.
–Has the change in medication given you any relief from the headaches?
–More than the last one, I guess. I ‘m sleeping better, but I my head hurts more as the day goes on. What about the test results? What’s wrong with me?
–We do know more; in fact we know a lot more. The brain mass you have could have been one of three things. One is a collection of blood vessels called a hemangioma, which can be treated. The second is an infection called toxoplasmosis. The third possibility is a brain tumor called an astrocytoma. All of these tests we have run over the last few weeks have helped us narrow things down. This last test confirmed our suspicions. You have a brain tumor. An astrocytoma, grade IV.
–What does that mean?
–It means we have an explanation for your headaches and erratic behavior. And we know what we are fighting.
–Can you do anything?
–Surgery is our only real option.
–Brain surgery. Am I going to die from this?
–This kind of tumor grows quickly and is often large when we find it. The reason your head hurts so badly is because of the size of the mass.
–This is bad, isn’t it?
–Things do not look good, I’m afraid. If you are open to the surgery, we will do what we can. But we need to make a decision quickly.
–What does the surgery involve?
–We have to shave your head and then make an incision in the cranium around here. We will remove as much of the mass as we can without harming the brain tissue.
–Will it work?
–There is the possibility that we will not be able to remove all of the tumor, or that it will grow back.
–What if I don’t have the surgery? How much time do I have?
–That is hard to say. We have already been dealing with this for two months. This type of tumor grows quickly. We need to make a decision soon. Do you understand?
Time is the air escaping from a balloon. What appears to be substance cannot be held or stored. The balloon, once untied, flies willy-nilly, and the air inside joins the surroundings, no longer distinguishable, or usable. In a moment–in a sentence or two–I have become an old man. I no longer have life to look forward to; I have lived it. I can no longer be young. I cannot be middle-aged. I am only old. The number of years I have lived does not determine my age, only my proximity to death. I am dying, so I am old. I cannot find the time which has bled out into the air around me. It is still there, but it is no longer mine. The balloon spirals upward faster and faster in one final burst of energy and falls flat and empty to the floor.
–Mr. Henderson? Will you talk to your wife and call me tomorrow?
–To-mor-row. Uh–Yes. Yes, I’ll call.
–Are you OK? Do you need to call someone to come and take you home?
–OK. I will talk to you tomorrow. I make rounds at the hospital in the morning. Why don’t you plan to call sometime after ten.
I move down the hall. Through the door. Waiting room. A little girl smiles and offers me her bear. A quick glance from someone on the couch in the corner. No eye contact. I wonder what news shows on my face. No one looks at me for long. Perhaps they are being kind. Or they are worried that I am somehow contagious. As long as they do not acknowledge me, I cannot give them anything. I have nothing to give.
Time breaks like the glass at a Jewish wedding, in hundreds of tiny irretrievable pieces. We are most conscious of our lives when we know they are as fragile as they are certain. We live lives indelibly marked by pain and memory. I will not stay in this moment; time will break free and force me to move on like a refugee in a world that does not offer permanent residency. Wherever I go from here, time will be useless currency. I must spend what I have before I leave. I cannot give it away; I cannot store it up. I can only use it.
I take my coat from the rack in the corner of the room. Leaving. I will not be missed. The glass slides open.
–Mr. Henderson, I forgot to validate your parking. Let me stamp your ticket so they won’t charge you for the time.
Milton, a very moving story, thanks so much for sharing it!
Is this published anywhere? It should be.
I still need to send you The Best Hour of the Night by Louis Simpson. Several poems in there I know you’d appreciate.
Oh, wow. This is wonderful. The line “time…a slow curve to an uneven stop” is perfect. Freakin’ perfect.
My mother-in-law is battling an astrocytoma. Makes this especially poignant.
Amzing story, images, thoughts. I look forward to each new post.
Sorry to hear about your grandmother.
You are awesome. Thanks for sharing this.
I shared this with my youth tonight. Hopefully it left them wondering. It did me.