At Large : Good wishes when you need them
He had never visited a hospital waiting room with Christmas in the offing. It's not one of those places one associates with Christ's birth or Old St. Nick, however you season your Christmas celebration.
One expects, as he had, to attend a party or two, to drink a cup of kindness, in the company of friends. He had thought, thank God this bloody year will end with Christmas, an upbeat climax. He remembered that every year did end with Christmas but, he decided, this one needed a bigger lift than many others had.
Then, happily, there were the children, home for the school break, jolly, sleek, and playful as well-kept otters, changing the quiet music of the nest he and his wife had made in the children's absence. He had imagined all this in moments of hopefulness, but he had not imagined the waiting room.
There was a wreath but no Christmas music in the waiting room. The mood was not musical. Among his fellow waiters, there were young people sitting near him, awaiting the emergence of groggy elders who certainly should not be driving themselves home after surgery. These youthful escorts - as the receptionist called them, when she announced the availability of the recently invaded - had iPods strung up to the ear buds stuck into their heads. They had music to pass the time, but he doubted it was Silent Night or Good King Wenceslas. He heard the receptionist, "Escort for Escobedo, please come to the receptionist's desk," and a son or daughter, or perhaps a granddaughter, unplugged, gathered up parka, laptop, backpack, scarf, and Boston Red Sox cap and shuffled toward the summons.
There was a young couple, he a keyboardist whose career awaited liftoff, she a student in a New Hampshire junior college. She was the patient, he the escort. They passed the time playing cards, she in her patient's gown, he in a jacket with his band's dark, inscrutable and, he thought, mildly disturbing logo emblazoned across its back. They laughed over the game, which she won repeatedly. He could not find a category for these two, he decided. Whatever their story was, it was not a story with which he was familiar, probably never would be.
He realized that he, like all the others, was a waiter too, an escort, a worrier, along with most of those crowded into the waiting room. Some had their music, some their phones and PDAs, some - older mostly - had books, thick ones of the sort you pick up just before waiting in the lounge for your flight to Paris or, it turns out, your vigil in the hospital waiting room with Christmas coming. One chooses books that read quickly but last long. For him, the watching and the eavesdropping served, in lieu of phones, iPods, best-sellers, or People magazine - another popular choice for his waiting room colleagues.
He watched carefully to see if any of his fellow waiters looked the way the people in People looked, and he decided they did not come close. He decided that this Christmas waiting room was a microcosm of America - rich, not so rich, young, old, sick, well, hopeful, worried, oblivious, self-conscious, incipient, exhausted - and he decided that People - whose subject poseurs were impossibly polished, airbrushed, Photoshopped and lied about - was not. America does not look like People or television (even the reality shows) or movies. They are not us.
We, he concluded, are more like the gargantuan fatso sitting across, his belly extruded a full foot, maybe a foot and a half beyond his chest. This fellow was well dressed, well scrubbed, and apparently untroubled by his elephantine-ness. He sat next to his wife - at least the quiet watcher assumed it was the man's wife, also well turned out - who was tiny, midget-like, and not merely by comparison. If they had been standing naked next to one another (a shudder ran through him), an untutored evolutionary biologist would have written, Species A, massive, apparently masculine; Species B, birdlike, perhaps a relative of the hummingbird; no apparent evolutionary links to one another. Species A - no one will believe this when I tell them, the watcher said - occasionally patted Species B on the head, thumping to some inner tune. Species B's expression did not change. He wondered which of them was the patient, which the escort.
Or, the elderly couple a few seats away. He was a small, mild looking man wearing a cap announcing his membership in the crew of a WWII battleship. His eyes were huge and soft behind thick square glasses. His wife looked as though she had grown powerful and unbending as he had become more pliable over their many years together. She pawed through her purse. "Where are my glasses? What have I done with my reading glasses?" Both of them had thick paperbacks on their laps. He, out of step, repeatedly pressed her volume onto her lap. She said, "What am I going to do with that, I can't find my glasses." He took his spectacles off his face and offered them. "They won't do any good," she said. Thankfully, the receptionist called her away to the surgeon.
When his wife returned, after a long absence for necessary preparations, she stayed only briefly, before it was time for her to leave for the surgery. He realized that this had been only the preliminary waiting. A more wracking waiting would now begin.
As different as they all were, it had been long enough that he recognized all the waiters with whom he had been passing time, and watching. Except one, he realized. A large black man, maybe six foot three, wearing a nylon scull cap, waited with him, sitting alone 10 chairs down the row. He wore a huge, bright white, nylon parka, so stuffed with down that it and its hood magnified the man's physique by at least a factor of two. As his wife rolled away, he found the white parka at his side. The man inside pressed a note, scribbled on the back of a hospital information sheet, into his hand. The man spoke, "Good luck, brother." The note said, "If God gives us breath in the morning, everything else is easy ... Bless you and yours." It was signed with the name of the bricklayer's website.