The Waiting Room

For this entry, I am going to veer off from my usual sort of topic. I imagine many of you have either had the misfortune to have a life-threatening disease, or have stood by a loved one as they dealt with one. Since dealing with a serious disease is, unfortunately, more common the older one gets, I thought my readers could relate to my personal experience as I describe it in the below piece. I sincerely hope you will share your stories–how you felt, coping mechanisms–in the Comments section below. As always, thank you for reading.

 

I see the same people every day.  We smile at one another, exchange looks, but rarely does a word pass between us. As fellow members of a club to which none of us wanted to belong, we share a common experience for weeks on end and then will go our separate ways, not even knowing each other’s names, never seeing one another again, having no idea who recovers and who does not.

A mother and son sit diagonally across from one another. He looks to be around 18 years old and wears a brace to support his neck, possibly weak from a tumor pressing on his spine. I have a son about the same age. He holds a small, worn book in one hand and rocks back and forth, deep in concentration as he recites t’hillim (psalms). His mother clutches a similar book in her hand but barely glances at it, spending most of her time speaking on her cell phone in rapid fire Yiddish.

I spot a man who I remember seeing in the waiting room on the day of my first doctor’s visit. Just a few weeks ago he appeared healthy and fit. I remember wondering whether or not he was a patient. Now he is gaunt and weak; he shuffles as he walks. I reach for my husband’s hand and squeeze it, trying to focus my attention elsewhere. I notice one glove sitting on the receptionist’s desk, waiting for whoever left it behind to come back and claim it.

People hammer away at laptops or hold books, some reading, some just staring at the same page without ever turning it. People slump in their seats, balling up their coats to make a headrest, trying to get comfortable in the rigid chairs. Every time we go to the hospital I bring a bag packed with books, puzzles, magazines, my iPad. Distractions so I won’t notice the long wait, won’t ruminate on the reason I am here. But I rarely take anything out of the bag. Too many choices. Do I want to play Sudoku or check my e-mail? Should I read a book or the newspaper? It’s too hard to make a decision, even about something so inconsequential. My husband goes to the beverage station where the hospital provides free drinks. He comes back with two cups of bitter, lukewarm coffee.

The great Jewish scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that humans, “may shape and change the things in space as we please. Time, however, is beyond our reach, beyond our power…no one possesses time…time transcends man.” I would add that time not only transcends man but that it also possesses us. Certainly, that is true here in the hospital waiting room where we are all in limbo. You’re waiting for someone to see you or something to happen and you have no idea when the waiting will be over. Should I start this chapter or is the doctor about to call me in? If I leave to use the bathroom will I miss my turn in the blood lab?

A thought experiment created by a physicist in the 1930s is known as Schrodinger’s Cat. It posits the paradox that if a cat is in a box, before the box is opened it’s as if the cat is simultaneously dead and alive. In a few weeks I will sit in the doctor’s office, waiting for her to tell me the results of my post-treatment scan. Has the cancer come back? If so, is it localized or has it spread, that ugly word “metastasized”? Until I hear the verdict, there will be that sweet, blissful kernel of time where no matter what the reality is I can hold onto the possibility that I am a NERD—no evidence of remaining disease. I can almost convince myself that reality might change as long as the words remain unsaid. This is pure self-deception. Once you look inside the box, once the doctor sits on the stool in front of you with your chart on her lap, the illusion that there were options evaporates.

Yet even good news comes with a “caveat emptor” attached. Cancer may yet launch another stealthy insinuation into my body at any time in the future. For the rest of my life I will need periodic tests and follow-ups and scans, and I must resign myself to the fact that uncertainty will now be my permanent companion.

I think back to that unclaimed glove. It’s hard to not notice that you only have one glove. Maybe its owner can’t bear to return to the hospital. It’s worth it to buy a new pair of gloves to not have to go back where you will be reminded there is always the chance for that other shoe to drop. There is no choice other than to accept the waiting.

Legacy

Last weekend, I went to see the Broadway musical Carousel. I had been anticipating seeing it for months. Three bars into the opening number, The Carousel Waltz, my eyes filled with tears. Not because I was anticipating the sorrowful plot elements or the poignant ending (though of course I was). I was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.

My reaction was visceral. In the space of a few seconds, I felt the gorgeous music take root in my gut. It surged through my chest as if it were a powerful river tossing my emotions in a rushing current. Moved and overwhelmed, I wept.

I know that this must sound like overwrought hyperbole. I promise it is not. To say I love music doesn’t come close to describing its effect on me. I don’t just listen to music. I devour it. I experience it with all my senses, not just my ears. It takes me out of the here and now. Unlike most people, I can’t have music playing in the background while I work, or tidy up, or have a conversation. The music commands my full attention, pulling me in and enveloping me.

When I was growing up, the house was filled with music. The phonograph played all day long. It was one of my mother’s greatest joys. She could fall into music as if down a rabbit hole in the same way I do now.

Mom played many different types of music. There were the Yiddish songs of The Barry Sisters, World War II-era popular music such as The Andrews Sisters, classical music, even some soft rock such as Simon and Garfunkel or Don McLean. She didn’t expose my brother and I to this variety of genres and sounds with the conscious intent of providing us with a solid music foundation. She simply played what she loved, what made her happy, and shared it with us because she wanted us to be happy too. I know you can’t teach someone to love music. However, by creating a musical environment in our home my mother most definitely nurtured and reinforced an innate predilection.

The deepest musical bond my mother and I shared was a love of Broadway show tunes. We played the same albums over and over and over, inhaling the songs and learning every single lyric. Our standard rotation included Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Man of La Mancha. You can see she had great taste. These are arguably the greatest musical scores in the musical theater canon of that era (from the 1940s through the early 1970s).

While our passion for music created a bond between us, it didn’t follow that I appreciated it. When we went to see a musical play or movie, my mother would inevitably sing along. Every. Single. Time. Not loudly but most definitely audibly. Typically, she was set off or inspired (depending upon your perspective) when the actors performed one of her favorites, either something especially upbeat (think Seventy-Six Trombones) or intensely poignant (The Impossible Dream). Every time, her behavior annoyed and embarrassed the hell out of me. I would tap her on the hand, and if she didn’t get the message I would hiss at her, “Shhh! You’re disturbing everyone.” I knew I could have said it in a nicer, gentler way, but I didn’t care. I thought a grown woman should know better. Now I wish I had been more generous of spirit.

In the late spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a virtually incurable type of leukemia. One day I will write of her courage and grace during the 14-1/2 months she lived after her diagnosis. The chemotherapy and clinical trials (eight of them) she underwent during that time required many lengthy stays in the hospital. Since my mother felt fine until the last two months of her life, she was bored to tears during these periods that she was trapped (as she justifiably called it). My father and I were there nearly every day, but there was no escaping the ennui. We passed the time with small talk, reading, watching sitcom reruns, and staring into space during periods of silence.

One early evening, the three of us were sitting in her hospital room watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that we had seen at least twenty-five times before (if not more). There was a knock and in walked a young man holding a guitar. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked if we would care to hear him play on the guitar and sing for us.

My swift and cynical reaction, one I fortunately kept to myself, was no I don’t want to listen to some corny amateur musician. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to plaster a fake smile on my face while he performed.

My mother, on the other hand, replied, “Yes, thank you, I would love that.” I looked at her and saw she was beaming with delight. When he asked what she wanted to hear, mom thought for a moment before she asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?” “Of course,” he replied. “How about The Sound of Silence?”

That was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Throughout the performance she was smiling with her entire face, and singing along, which made the young man smile back at her. Swept up in the moment, I sang along too. He played a second song (I don’t remember which one) before he left. My mom’s smile and upbeat demeanor lasted the rest of the night. To this day I thank the Lord that I didn’t voice my contemptuous view about an experience that gave my mother such joy, as music always did.

During the last few hours of my mother’s life, she was uncommunicative. I remembered someone telling me that hearing is the last sense to go at the end of life. It was possible she could still hear the world around her. I positioned myself on a chair near her head and tuned in to the music I had stored on my phone.

There were a lot of songs from which I could choose, from many different genres. In many ways the music collection on my phone mirrored the musical life she and I had shared. I turned up the volume and held the phone to her ear. I played some classical music. Then I played some country music, a genre she and my father had come to love later in life. Finally, I played If I Loved You from Carousel. Soon after that she died. I hope the music she loved was her final awareness of this world.

Thank you, mom, for a gift that has transformed and enriched my life. I miss you.

………………………

Most of us have memories of our mothers, whether they are still living or have passed on. Memories may be happy, sad, heartwarming or any combination of emotions. These memories–not material items–are the true legacies our parents leave us. In honor of Mother’s Day, it would be great if you would share a memory of your mom in the Comments section below. Thanks and to those of you who are mothers, Happy Mother’s Day!

Maybe I Should Not Have Come to This Place

The first time we went to the town of Duck on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was during the summer of 1986. I was pregnant with my first child. My husband and I fell in love with the wide soft beaches, the absence of crowds, and the ocean water that was so much warmer than what we were accustomed to in New Jersey.

The easiest types of vacations to take with young children are beach vacations. It’s hard to interest a four-year-old in the Coliseum. So we returned to Duck every summer for about ten years, with our first son (beginning when he was six months old), and later with two boys in tow. All four of us grow a bit tender inside when we pull out a memory of those days from the back of our minds, where it has been slumbering.

The island on which Duck is situated is a spit of land tucked between the Atlantic Ocean and Currituck Sound. It’s on one of the many barrier islands along the North Carolina coast. Each side of the island is a different world. The air on the sound has a ripe smell, like plowed dirt. It’s so unlike the sharp salt smell on the ocean side, it’s hard to believe the two are less than a mile away from one another. I would go to the ocean to get some sun while I read, or to take a walk, or jump in the waves with my delighted and laughing kids. I went to the sound to sit, look across the water at the horizon, and think. Even now, I think of the ocean as outgoing and appropriate for the daytime. Conversely, I think of the sound as introspective and well suited for the end of the day as the sun is leaving, telling us it’s time to rest.

Our family’s favorite activity while on vacation in Duck was, hands down, crabbing. This consisted of sitting on the pier and dropping chicken necks, hooked onto strings, into the shallow brown water of the sound. It’s surprising how strong those chicken necks are. You would expect these fragile crescents of tiny, thin bones to snap after one or two insistent tugs from a crab’s pincers. But they never do. They always hold up until the crabs have picked away nearly every sliver of slimy, three-day-old meat.

For us, crabbing was always an end-of-the-day activity, having spent the day at the beach and therefore feeling lazy from the heat and the fresh air. I liked to end the day on this calmer water. The boys would be brown, despite my conscientious application of sunscreen, with a red flush across their cheeks and noses. We would go to the sound before returning to the house to shower. If I kissed one of the boys, I would taste salt and smell cocoa butter.

Sitting on the dock I would notice the sun softening into runny shades of orange and pink, as if someone had run a hand through it and smudged it across the sky. As dusk drifted in, the daytime sky deepened into dull silvery tones that matched the dock’s weathered boards. The horizon would blur and I could almost believe the sky was melting into the sound.

While I was contemplating the water, a great deal of action was going on around me. A tug on the string indicated that a crab had taken the bait. My husband would call out “Netman!” and the boys would spring into action.They took turns fetching the net. What pleasure I felt watching them hop around with anticipation.

We all would eye the water expectantly as my husband gathered in the line. The boys hoped for a big, fat one because my husband threw the little ones back into the water immediately. Once my husband eyed the size of the catch and gave the OK, whoever was “Netman” would bring the net underneath the crab. Together the boys would caution, “Be careful Daddy, don’t drop him,” as the crab wriggled until, with a flick of the wrist, my husband dumped the funny looking creature into the bucket. The boys would giggle at the scratchy metallic sound the claws made as the crab scuttled around the bottom of the pail.  After we’d been there a while, a pile of crabs accumulated.

Eventually, the boys would beg, “Ooh Daddy, please, let them dance, please.” My husband would smile at the boys’ pleasure in this small thing and dump the crabs onto the dock. For a moment they sat perfectly still, as if they were dazed and uncertain where they were or what had happened. Then they would skitter sideways along the dock, making a scratchy sound as they moved over the graying wood planks. It’s remarkable that they always know which direction will take them back to the water. Both boys would clap, glad that the creatures were back where they belonged.

One day we were joined on the dock by another family. They mentioned that they were going to keep the crabs they caught and have them for dinner. Since we never ate them, we offered them our haul. When they left with their buckets brimming, I looked at one of my boys and saw his lips quivering, his eyes shiny with the tears he was trying to hold back. He had overheard the other family talking about eating the crabs and he was shattered. Quick moral assessment in my head: Would it be acceptable to lie to him so he wouldn’t be so bereft? No brainer for me—of course it was. So I told him the family was taking the crabs to play with them on the sand near the ocean, and would put them into the sea when they were done. Big mistake! Through the copious tears that now coursed down his cheeks he asked, “But then how will they find their families?” My sweet boy.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Duck for the first time in many years. It was only the second time we were there without children. We had perfect weather and enjoyed a wonderful week being relaxed and lazy, noting what had changed (not much), and visiting favorite old haunts. One new addition was a wooden walkway that meandered for about a mile along the edge of the sound. We enjoyed walking there every morning. Then, one day, we came upon this scene:

 

A family with two young boys crabbing. The family we used to be so many years ago. Sadness wrapped me in a tight grip and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t just cry—I sobbed, for at least an hour. I cried for time lost that I could never retrieve, time that I viewed as possibly the best time of my life, come and gone. I wanted to be on that dock with two little boys, my little boys.

I longed for all the sensations to which young parents are privy. I wanted to feel the dense weight of a baby in my arms, with legs and arms so fat there are creases where there are no joints, with chubby, dimpled hands that look as if you could screw them on and off. I ached to again feel my baby burrowing his creamy face into my neck and to listen to his tiny little baby grunts.

I wanted my seven-year-old son back, the one who climbed into my bed and snuggled as close to me as possible. He would be slightly damp from his bath, and I would be able to smell the shampoo in his hair, the soap on his young smooth skin. That boy who was now a memory would slip his slender arms and legs around me in a full body hug, listening with rapt attention as I read a story I had read to him hundreds of times before.

But then I thought about what I have now. Two beautiful (inside and out) young men, who work hard and have a strong moral compass. Who have already achieved great things, and overcome serious challenges that would have defeated me. Who have each taught me fundamental truths through their exemplary behavior. Who make me laugh. Who have amazing lives ahead of them that I have no right to wish away by longing for the past. Who always make me feel happy and supported and loved.

What more could I ask for? I am extraordinarily lucky. Why would I want to go back twenty-five years when what I have now is so precious and rare? I think of a saying I once heard:

Don’t be sad because it’s over.

Be glad that it happened.

The next day we walk by that same family. I hope they are making memories they will cherish. It’s their turn. I smile and wave and continue walking.