The Waiting Room

Back when my mother had cancer I would go with her to Sloane Kettering’s midtown outpatient facility for her chemo. A handsome blonde doorman in a blue gold-buttoned coat who looked like he belonged at Bergdorf’s would always greet us as we entered. “So nice to see you!” and, “Welcome back!”

But upstairs, inside the gynecological department, there were no luxury goods worth dying for, and my mother and I would simply take our seats in the large but crowded waiting room, listening to piped in QXR and amusing ourselves with trips to the mini fridge for complimentary child-sized cans of ginger ale and unlimited graham crackers while we waited for her name to be called.

“Goldberg, Lois. Lois. . . . . Gold-berg. . . . .”

“Feldstein, Dorothy. Dor-o-thy . . . .Feldstein. . . .”

Despite the fact that my mother and I were both chatty, inveterately curious people, we rarely engaged with the women around us because we didn’t want to hear their stories. My mother’s was sad enough, and the only thing worse than hearing someone else’s cancer story would have been my mother being forced to share hers, a story which we knew, nine times out of ten, would be far worse than the one she had traded for. She was going to die and soon. It didn’t make for casual conversation, not even here.

“Bucholtz. Ca-rol Bucholtz. . . . . ”

“Weissman. Frie-da Weissman. . . . .”

Waiting for my mother to be called into the “infusion suite,” I often felt like I was sitting in the office of a synagogue which had invited any Jewish woman in the New York metropolitan area sixty years of age or older to come in for a free adult Bat Mitzvah class. Or perhaps I just wished it to be the case. But try as I might I could never quite get the reality out of my head. The waiting room we were in was the absolutely worst kind of waiting room and no amount of free ginger ale or graham crackers could cover it up. We were in death’s waiting room and the guard outside, always happy to lend a hand finding taxis, might as well have just stripped down to a loincloth and admitted who he really was: Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

Occasionally, my mother and I would overhear whispers among the nurses of a patient who hadn’t “been seen in a while.” Death was everywhere and so the word was never used.

And then they finally called for her.

“Berkman. Judith. . . . . ”

It has been nine years since my mother died and every six months I visit an imaging facility on the Upper East Side which thankfully has no doorman. The waiting room has no free food, only a water fountain, and nearly as many male patients as female. CNN blares from a TV and the patients, a large percentage of whom are disease free but merely checking up on something due to a symptom or injury, or, as in my case, the vague genetic threat of family history, are secure enough in the belief that they’re going to be around for a while for today’s news to hold no interest. Instead everyone stares into their i-phones and when called upon, books next appointments for many months into the future. Still, despite all this healthful arrogance, death still looms around the edges. It’s not uncommon to see at least one wheelchair and a couple of canes, or a home health aide who has come to assist. It is not so much death’s waiting room as the room before the room. Death’s anteroom, death’s foyer.

Each time I come for my breast and pelvic ultrasounds I seem to get a different sonographer. They are always women, but some are younger than me and some older, some friendly and some not, some deeply concerned about my comfort while others masochistically seem to relish their role, brusquely smearing gels and wielding their sonographer’s wand as though I were some kind of sunken vessel and they were digging inside me for treasure. Of course I prefer the gentle ones but there’s really only one thing that matters to me, and that is that I get the kind of sonographer who is willing to break the rules and give me an off-the-cuff interpretation of my results rather than make me wait days to receive the complete report which needs to be approved by a doctor.

Luckily at my appointment last week, I had just this kind of sonographer.

“You’re all good,” she said, as I lay there in a gel smeared gown, a small platform uncomfortably wedged under my lower back.

“For now.”

Yes, she was one of the brusque ones and yet all the same, I put my hands in prayer position, and bowed to her as she left.

When I finally got back outside, the sunny day had turned cloudy and cold, the skies dark, rain clearly on the horizon. Nonetheless I felt so happy to be alive I decided to forego the bus and take a long walk home through the park. They hadn’t called for me.

Not yet.