The Waiting Room Reader: Stories to Keep You Company was published in 2009, with generous co-sponsorship by The Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism in Medicine and support from the Liana Foundation. This series, which is designed to help reduce the stress and anxiety of patients and their caregivers waiting for medical care, follows a belief that high quality literature should be available to anyone when they might need it most.
Contributors include: Joseph O. Legaspi, Sondra Gash, Christine Korfhage, Catherine Doty, Howard Levy, Ross Gay, Karen Chase, Andrea Carter Brown, Jack Wiler, Richard Jeffery Newman, Susan Jackson, Celia Bland, Peggy Penn, Robert Cording, Georgianna Orsini, Joan Cusack Handler, Teresa Carson, Christian Barter, Laurie Lamon, Joan Seliger Sidney, Eloise Bruce, Moyra Donaldson, Sherry Fairchok, and Mark Nepo.
“Like you, we too have been patients in waiting rooms of doctors’ offices and hospitals. Sometimes for routine care; other times for critical care. We too have waited for x-rays or our annual physical. We too have undergone surgeries and waited long hours alone while a loved one—somewhere beyond our reach—drifted in and out of surgery-induced sleep. In all cases, the wait seemed endless. We’ve needed patience; we’ve needed laughter; sometimes we’ve needed hope. We’ve wished we had company. We thought you might need these too.
In that spirit, we have gathered here a collection of stories and thoughts that focus on life’s gifts and experiences: love and family, food and home, work and play, dreams and the earth. Each piece is short—a page or two at most, some a few lines—to read in any order. So start anyplace; read one, read two, read them all. Hopefully, your wait will seem shorter.” —Joan Cusack Handler
Put your hands beneath his armpits, bend your knees, wait for the clasp of his thinning arms; the best lock cheek to cheek. Move slow. Do not, right now, recall the shapes he traced yesterday on your back, moments before being wheeled to surgery. Do not pretend the anxious calligraphy of touch was sign beyond some unspeakable animal stammer. Do not go back further into the landscape of silence you both tended, with body and breath, until it nearly obscured all but the genetic gravity between you. And do not imagine wind now blowing that landscape into a river which spills into a sea. Because it doesn’t. That’s not this love poem. In this love poem the son trains himself to the task at hand, which is simple, which is, finally, the only task he has ever had, which is lifting the father to his feet. Ross Gay
On the day of your scan I make a soup to wean us from meat. Beans soak and blanch an hour while I slit open the cell- ophane wrap on the celery, chopping the ribs into small pieces, the size of the stones that follow an avalanche. Carrots sliced into see-through orange mem- branes, others hacked into jagged boulders, bi- sected as though by the pressure of shift- ing plates. Onions at knife point, suppurate and toss themselves into the hot oil. What is left? two blind see-no-evil potatoes. Sweet herbs: I pull apart ovate leaves of basil and sweet marjoram. Red kidney beans slip out of their bladder skins, rubbing against the Great Limas. Together, they give off a kind of scum which keeps down the foaming boil; instead it heaves and swells, trembling like a bosom but does not spill out. Thank God for scum! I rinse my knife, watching its gleaming edge rotate under the water; now there is only the wait. Peggy Penn
I. What would this cell be saying if cellos could speak? But that is a silly question; it is already muttering behind, soaring over in sudden realization, conversing matter-of-factly with the piano, which is clearly the timid one, the one who makes excuses for his outspoken friend, restates things ironically, without emphasis, that we might remember them as being something less than the heartbreaking visions of a mad soul. Listening to this sonata, we may realize that the thoughts we put into sentences have no grip on us, take on meaning only in long legato lines that could have been made of anything, even the scratching of a horse’s hairs on his own guts. II. What I love about Beethoven is what I so often hate about myself: he never finishes anything. The strain that labors cadence after cadence toward resolution, wresting its course away from the pestering piano, arrives only after everything is so changed that where it meant to go is no longer possible, is there only as a memory of where we might have rested. Perhaps it isn’t me, but life itself I hate for this deception, though without it (am I right about this?) there is no beauty anywhere. Christian Barter
If I arrived early, I had to listen To hundreds of sewing machines Spiraling their high-pitched arias Up against the mill’s metal shell. Each woman, a soloist withdrawn Into her small cubical of work, San the crazy hope of piecework – Another zipper, another dollar. A wall chart traced their numbers In money’s green line. It didn’t Record the pain when someone Ran the needle through her finger. I came at noon – between classes At the state college where I read Marx, and day-dreamed revolution – To eat lunch with my grandmother. Exactly at noon, there was a moment Of quiet between the machines Shutting down and the women rising In common with their bag lunches. They gathered at long metal tables. High above them, a narrow strip Of eave windows gave the only sign Of weather and, sun, or gloom, Let down a long flume of light In which the women’s bodies Slowly relaxed, their lunches spread Before them, and the patter of talk Began in all those different tongues – Haitian Creole, Canadian French, Mexican and Puerto Rican Spanish, Polish, Romanian, English, Jamaican English – that spoke as one The gospel of sacrifice and hard work. They shared frayed photographs, Smoked, spread the good news Of children and grandchildren, This one smart as a whip, this one Taking dance lessons, this on a sight To see hitting a baseball. There were Some they worried about collectively, And one who actually gave up booze And became the man of their prayers. Many more, of course, would not Be saved no matter how hard They worked. No end to the curses And slammed doors, the hands And faces bloodied by impotence And rage. I often left the mill Wondering if their hard ritual Of work-eat-sleep-work ever changed The state of daily lousiness at all. The women believed, or had to Believe. Over thirty years ago, And still I see them returning to Their machines, the unforgiving Clock running once again, The women bending to their work, Losing themselves freely in that noisy Oblivion because each of them Cradles a secret happiness – that someone, Working at his own sweet time, Might tell the story many years later Of how he had come to be saved. Robert Cording
On the spring nights we drove them home our first cars were beautiful: sprung seats padded with greasy pillows, chrome corroded, dings as endearing as freckles and, when we leaned on the horns, nasal bleats, foggy duck calls, or low and solemn farts. We named our first cars: Perdita, Joe Pickle, The Mermaid. We had so many places we wanted to go. Some mornings, when we weren’t home but waking up, the sight of our cars from a second-story window was all that we had to lash us to the earth. When one of our cars was broken our friends roamed the terrible cities to find us in front of our houses, waving frantic, and took us into their cars, safe between their laundry and their lovers. And what was as pretty as young, unbreakable bodies tumbling from old Volkswagens at Sandy Hook? And, if a parent died, what rich consolation we felt at the sight of a dozen or so of us spilling like clowns from a Day-Glo painted Valiant. No, I don’t need to be nagged to buckle my belt in a voice as cold and fake as a Burger King milkshake. Here’s to a car that a pal can puke Southern Comfort in! Here’s to a car with a creamed corn can for a muffler! Here’s to the discontinued and disenfranchised, longing for those parts no longer available. I’ll drive my rusting bones in a clamoring wreck, a car like our first cars, the cars that we loved when we thought that we knew where it was we wanted to go. Catherine Doty
I’m out driving with my friends. We’re driving down US 1 from Russian River. We’ve been to several wineries and I’ve had six great wines and several bad wines. It’s a beautiful day in a beautiful land. The red wine I can’t taste because I’ve lost my sense of smell. Then, at one winery, we’re offered a Shiraz That’s so rich and deep, it explodes in my nose and mouth and my head and I lean back and say thank you. Thank you for this wine, for this day with my friends, and then we leave. So right here you’d think it all ends and you’d be wrong. Because right here it begins. We drive down through the valley and it’s not all that impressive. Then we wheel out to the coast and God says, take a look chump. It’s spread out all around. Glory. Like you’d never expect. Sheer cliffs, sun glinting off beaches no one should ever see. Jack Wiler