Real Life Stories


The doors have warning signs on them, yellow triangles with exclamation points in the middle. Only patients and hospital staff are allowed beyond those doors. The rest of us have to wait in a room with old magazines and artificial plants, permeated by the sweet, dusty smell of doughnut holes and coffee.

My teenaged son has just disappeared behind those exclamatory doors. He’s not the only one here for nuclear medicine; the waiting room is full. A family fills the row of chairs along one wall: two young parents, two elementary school-aged children, a baby, and a grandmother. They’re all dressed up, as though for church. I smile at the grandmother, who is wearing a small felt hat and holding the baby in her arms. She returns my smile and rocks in her seat, patting the bundle against her full bosom. I wonder which member of the family is here for treatment. Maybe there is a grandfather behind those doors. Maybe the young mother, who is whispering a story to her son to keep him from squirming, is waiting for her name to be called.

My husband and I used to tell our children stories at the dinner table to keep them in their seats. “Real Life” stories were their favorites, tales of adventure from our youth. The kids were particularly keen on stories involving injury, though accounts of humiliation and unjust punishment also held their interest. They liked stories about getting lost, too, or almost drowning, or about outwitting grownups. And we liked telling those stories, spinning yarns out of the thin threads of our resilience.

In waiting rooms, where I spend much of my time now, I often occupy myself by imagining the stories of those who linger in these places. Like the emaciated man, lost

somewhere in his thirties, who lists beside the coffee counter and tries to shake powdered creamer into his drink. He has the high forehead of a poet and his gestures, though tentative, are graceful. He flicks his wrist over his coffee cup as though he’s casting a tiny fishing line into his drink. After a few shakes, he puts the canister back down on the counter and seems to rest for a moment. I want to tell him that it looks as though the dial top on the canister is closed, but those don’t feel like the right words. “What is your name?” I would like to say. He looks like a man with a beautiful name. His eyes are the color of shallow water and he’s wearing a crinkled linen shirt of a deeper blue, the cuffs turned back so that the knobs of his wrists show. His khaki pants are tightly cinched and the end of his belt is looped around itself. On his feet: slippers. Is that surrender or defiance? He takes up the canister of creamer again and notices that the dial is closed. Twisting it open, he gives it another shake and a big clump of powder splashes into his drink. He closes his eyes and smiles. I decide he must be an artist.

Beside me, a neat, shorthaired young woman sits with her legs crossed, a jeweled flip-flop dangling from her suspended foot. She’s made up in an array of pinks: rose lipstick, a streak of cherry on her cheekbones, cotton-candy eye shadow. Her toenails are a glossy crimson. She herself is pale. She’s also busy. Balanced on her lap is a stack of postcards. On each one she writes, “Welcome to kindergarten! It is going to be a great year!” Over and over she writes the phrases, using a turquoise gel pen.

I envision being a parent in her classroom on Back to School night, squeezed into one of the diminutive chairs around long tables. I would be sitting at my son’s place. His name would be written neatly on a placard taped to the table. There might be some of his work stacked in front of me – some pictures he had drawn, a worksheet full of attempts at

writing his name. I would sift through the papers, gazing fondly at his artwork, and then the neat young teacher would introduce herself and welcome all the parents to kindergarten. She would speak in superlatives about circle time, classroom jobs, and free play. She would introduce the class pet, a box turtle named Lettuce. She would cover safety rules and ask us to donate a picture book to the classroom instead of serving cupcakes on our child’s birthday. She would answer questions and then she would tell us how much she enjoyed our children. “This is going to be a great year!” she would say.

And which of the parents, balancing on those little chairs, would know where the neat young teacher went two afternoons a week? How many would know that she placed stickers on worksheets while sitting in hospital waiting rooms? Of course, I don’t know her real story. I don’t know if she’s at the end of her treatment, returning to work after a long absence, or if she’s in the midst of it, carrying on. I don’t know any details about the lives of the people in this room. All I know is that the old woman in the felt hat presses her cheek against her grandchild’s head and sings a Spanish song into the bud of its ear; that the young father plays tic-tac-toe with his daughter, covering both sides of five paper napkins; that the emaciated artist holds his Styrofoam coffee cup with both hands, as though to warm himself; that the teacher ties a ribbon around the postcards and carefully places them inside a gallon-sized Ziploc bag when she has finished signing each one. It is not an exaggeration to say that I love these people. If I knew them more, I might love them less. I might learn that the old woman starves her cats, that the young father cheats on his wife, that the coffee-drinker never votes, that the teacher is a racist. But all I know is that they are here because they’re sick, or someone they love is sick.

Every hour spent in a hospital waiting room is like a day in a lifeboat. An emergency has thrown you in here. You’re holding on. You’re watching how others hold on. You’re in shock. You’re bored. In another moment you might be heroic. You could be rash, too. You could turn to the man drinking coffee and ask his name. He might say, “Orlando.”

Then you would extend your hand and he would take it, his palm still warm from the coffee cup. You would tell him what you’re called and he would shrug, smiling. So much for names. It’s the shape of his wrist that interests you, anyway. You might circle your fingers around it, rub your thumb over the faint map of veins. You might open his hand and tell his fortune, tracing the long life line that forks in the middle of his palm and continues clear around to the knuckle of his index finger. You might tell him that he will live deep into old age, that love will come late, but that it will be sweet and lasting. He might ask you if he will ever see his home again.

You would say, “Is it by the sea?”
He would look at you in recognition. “Of course.”
Then his name would be called and he would throw his coffee cup into the trash

and follow an intern through the pneumatic doors. You would never see him again, but you would continue to cast wishes of wellness into the universe, like messages curled inside bottles, hoping they’d wash up on the shore of his dreams.

But it’s the teacher’s name that’s called next. She puts her things away in a bright flowered backpack and walks purposely toward the Cardiovascular Imaging Department. Soon after she’s gone, a broad-shouldered young man with a crew cut arrives and paces around the waiting room. Finally, he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and leans against

a wall. He can stay still as long as he thumbs the keypad of his phone. I, too, have accessories that help me through the wait: a paperback novel (which lies unopened on my lap); a journal; two pens - one with black ink, the other blue; a smooth granite stone that fits the hollow of my palm. I think about taking up knitting again. It would be a good task for my hands during these waiting hours. And I would have something at the end of all this - an intricately cabled sweater, or a soft blanket. Otherwise, what will I have? Blurred memories. Stretches of blackout. Emotional scars. Perspective, maybe. The real question is: when is ‘the end of all this’? When my son is cured? Not likely; I imagine these days will always be echoing in us.

When the teacher returns, the man with the crew cut puts away his phone and walks toward her. They don’t touch, but she smiles at him.

“I thought I was supposed to call,” she says, “so you didn’t have to park.”

He doesn’t answer, but he puts his arm around her and they turn toward the exit. This is what we all wait for in here: the moment when we can leave. I check my watch. I’ve been here just over an hour. Not long. Not as long as the well-dressed family. The parents have unwrapped snacks for their kids, string cheese and grapes. The coffee- drinker stares into his empty Styrofoam cup. He begins to pinch off pieces of the rim, dropping them inside the cup as he works his way around. While the outside of the cup diminishes, the pile of Styrofoam pieces inside grows. I wonder how much of the cup he’ll be able to deconstruct before the Styrofoam pieces fall to the ground. But I won’t find out; his name is called. It is not “Orlando,” but it is beautiful nonetheless. He pulls himself out of his chair and drops what is left of the cup into the trash. Then he looks toward the attendant waiting by the doors. He’s gazing across a chasm. The attendant

hesitates for only a moment and then comes across the room and offers his arm. They walk back toward the doors together, like an old couple.

I will not find out which member of the well-dressed family is here for treatment, or whether they are all waiting for someone else to come back out through those alarming doors, because my son appears. He’s smiling in an odd, loopy way and shaking his head. His hair, newly sprouted after chemotherapy, creates a copper nimbus around his skull. I drop my book into my bag and get up, moving to him quickly, ready to offer support. He tells me there was some kind of malfunction with the HIDA machine, which was supposed to create images of his liver and gallbladder as a radioactive liquid snaked its way through his system.

“A red light started flashing and the technician asked me if I could possibly climb out of the tube,” he says, “but she told me not to touch the panel on my left because it reflects gamma rays!”

He’s laughing as he tells me this. I pull him into a hug and he pats my back gently. After a moment, I start laughing too; this far in, it’s the safest response.

Before we go, I turn toward the singing grandmother and give her a farewell nod. She responds with a slow blink. My son and I walk the maze of hallways, moving as fast as he’s able, past doors with Authorized Personnel Only signs on them, past framed posters of David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings, past a water fountain and a bank of elevators. Finally, we make it to the lobby. We’re heading out into sunshine, breezes, bus exhaust and noise. It’s all out there, beyond the glass wall.