Tragic Fragility

Submitted into Contest #49 in response to: Write a story that takes place in a waiting room.... view prompt



The dirt-streaked windows give the waiting room a dingy, run-down feel. For a room where so many people spend so much time, you would think there would be a bigger budget for upkeep. The overhead lights are dim and weak, so the majority of the light comes from the large windows that take up the south wall. The room itself is well furnished, but it lacks the pristine, sterile quality of the rest of the hospital. I wonder if the depressing nature of the room and the people in it contributes to the overall grimness of the space. Outside the windows, birds sing and leaves rustle on the tree, but inside, no one speaks or moves. The waiting room has been the scene of countless moments of torments and relief alike.

No one talks in the waiting room. Talking disturbs the quiet, almost tranquil feel of the room. The silence almost tricks the mind into thinking it’s in a calm, safe place. Almost. The waiting room is one of the quietest rooms in the hospital, but there’s a tension in the air. When you enter the waiting room, you submit to the unspoken rule of not disturbing anyone else. You don’t want to live through their horrors on top of your own.

There’s a small coffee table in the center of the room with magazines on it. The issues date back five years since no one cares to replace them. Also on the table are some children’s toys that were certainly purchased at a discount shop. But there are no children in the waiting room. A hospital’s waiting room is not the place for children. Children, with their endless amounts of energy and happiness, wouldn’t survive long here. The waiting room has a habit of sucking the life and hope out of people. Adults have already grown accustomed to the weight of the burdens of life, and to them, the waiting room is a place of sanctuary.

The composition of the waiting room has remained constant every time I visit. What changes, though, is the people inside, and the stories and experiences they hold. Today, there are five people in the waiting room. A grandmother sits in a red armchair in the corner, knitting. She looks old and frail, as if any bit of bad news could shatter her into a million irreparable pieces. I wonder why she’s knitting in the waiting room instead of at home in a rocking chair with grandchildren at her side. I have no inkling of her situation, but I commiserate with her nonetheless. Something about the waiting room makes you sympathetic, I guess. I imagine myself in her position. My friends and family, my loved ones, either gone or about to be. And I myself will be close to death, when will my family have to suffer in the waiting room?

At this point, she finishes knitting what looks to be a small sock. She holds it up in front of her to examine it over her glasses, and I see that it’s pink and fit for an infant. She slips the sock off the knitting needle and places it in her purse. Immediately, she starts on the second sock. She wastes no time, as if she knows her own time is limited. She’s making the most of the time she has left. Her time is short, while the receiver of the socks has all the time in the world. What a drastic contrast, life, and death. When you find yourself in the waiting room, it’s because your loved one has limited time left. And yet, this grandma has it in her to not only brave the waiting room, but also make gifts for a newborn. I may have misjudged her strength. She’s not frail because of her age, she just might be stronger than the rest. I wonder how long she’ll be sitting in that armchair, knitting that little sock.

On the other side of the waiting room, on a small yellow couch, is a mother and her teenage daughter. No father. I wonder if that’s who they’re waiting for. I stare at the girl. Maybe they’re waiting for a sibling, a son. The daughter stares at her phone, her leg jiggling impatiently. I wonder if she’s genuinely irritable and unhappy to be in the waiting room, or if she’s just acting to protect her true emotions of worry and concern. Her mother sits next to her, reading a book. Her legs are crossed, and she’s about halfway through the novel. I wonder if she started the book at the start of her waiting room visit. The book in her lap is a timer, showing just how long she’s been waiting, suffering. I wonder what the book is about. Is it about human suffering and pushing through hard times? Or is it just another distraction from the cruel world these people have to live in?

The mother and daughter don’t touch each other. If they didn’t bear a striking resemblance, no one would guess they were related. I wonder why they aren’t hugging each other, offering support in a hard time they’re forced to brave together. Why would you face suffering by yourself when you can face it with the support of someone you love? What situation would give a mother and daughter reason to not comfort one another in times of need?

A young man sits alone on a hard-backed chair. He looks to be about twenty-five, but you wouldn’t know it from the expression on his face. His face is hardened and creased with slight wrinkles. He looks young, but his face is aged with worry. His feet are planted firmly on the floor, grounded. He stares blankly out the window, but I can see his reflection in the glass. What could have happened to him to wipe his face blank? I wonder who he’s waiting for. A spouse, a child, a friend.

Unlike the others in the room, he doesn’t distract himself, doesn’t try to pull himself out of the world. He simply looks out the window. I wonder if he’s lost in his mind, stuck in his thoughts. How many tragedies must he have experienced to have accepted the fates of the world? And at such a young age. What kind of person will he be when he leaves this waiting room. I wonder what all these people will become when they walk out the door.

Waiting rooms have this effect. There’s an air of finality in the room, like your life will never be the same when you leave. You’re leaving behind your old life in lieu of a new one, one filled with even more sorrow and pain. You’re enduring a life-changing event for yourself and others, and you’re forced to be patient in this depressing room. And in the waiting room, a single word or phrase can derail you, change your life forever. It can leave you empty and without hope. Tragedy is fragile like that. It’s so simple, but it has such heavy repercussions. This single room holds that tragedy, that weight, yet it is so often overlooked.

There’s only one more person in the waiting room. A middle-aged woman sitting by herself. Her hands fidget relentlessly in her lap, like she can’t bear to sit still for even a second. She looks around the room, as if she can’t focus on any one thing. She can only focus on what she can’t see, what’s out of her control. And there’s nothing she can do, nothing she can say, to change the outcome, to make everything okay. She just has to sit and wait. Wait, agonizingly, as her loved one’s life is put in the hands of people she doesn’t even know. I wonder who she’s here for. A husband, maybe. Or a friend. I see her hands shaking, and I feel the despair she feels.

I look down at the clipboard in my own hand. I flip through the pages of reports. The last page has those two words that every nurse dreads seeing. Operation failure. 2 simple words deliver a wave of bad news and emotions for the people in that waiting room. I flip back to the first page and see the name of the patient who has recently left us. It’s always a burden when we lose a patient, but it’s nothing, nothing, compared to what the people in the waiting room have to bear.

I take a deep breath and push open the doors to the room. Everyone looks at me, expectantly. Their eyes emanate both hope and despair, ready to tip to either side of the scale at a moment’s notice. I look down at my clipboard, at the name on the paper. Patrick Daniels.

Who was Patrick Daniels?

Was he a son? I look at the grandmother, whose hands clutch her knitting needles for dear life, like they’re the only constant thing in her life.

Was he a father? I look at the teenage girl, and all the misgivings I had about her intentions fly out the window. She has the most pained expression on her face, one not meant for such a young face.

Was he a friend? The young man at the window doesn’t shift his body or move his head to look at me, but I can see his eyes in the reflection of the glass. He still doesn’t have an expression, like he won’t allow himself to see what might be coming. Like he’s preparing for the worst. 

Was he a husband? The middle-aged woman’s hands have steadied for the first time since I’ve been watching. It’s like she’s frozen, holding her breath for the deliverance of news.

“Patrick Daniels?” I ask. I don’t speak very loud, but in the silent room, the words cut like a knife.

No one steps forward, no one signals they know Patrick Daniels. The grandma goes back to her knitting project, focusing hard on the task at hand. The mother grabs her daughter’s hand and squeezes it, the first notion of physical contact I’ve seen between them. The young man’s eyes dart back to the window, his face remaining expressionless. And the woman’s hands continue fidgeting, her moment of adrenaline has passed. I wait for someone, anyone, to step forward.

He had no one. Patrick Daniels was utterly alone in the world. No one came to his death bed, no one braved the waiting room for him. How ironic that in the end, I am the one left waiting.

July 09, 2020 17:18

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