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Category: Memoir

The Waiting Room: Excerpt from Memoir

Snow makes the world silent. The streets of Aurora are deserted. It is three nights before Christmas in 1991. My big Buick Le Sabre—like other items in my life—is a hand-me-down from my parents. The blue beast rolls along, crushing the snow beneath her weight. She is not a pretty thing, but her heft ensures my safety. The Buick was stolen once from outside the nursing home where my mom works. When the police finally found it and returned it, my dad knew how the thieves carried out their crime. The steering column was busted open. My father didn’t repair this defect; instead, he put a start switch underneath the console on the driver’s side. After I flip the switch, I use a screwdriver inserted into the steering column to start the car.

I was one of the closing servers at the restaurant where I work. My co-worker Diane suggested we get breakfast after finishing our side work. We spent several hours eating cheesy omelets and hash browns, drinking coffee dosed with milk and sugar, and talking. I pull up across the street from my house. My parent’s new Buick and my younger sister’s Pontiac are not parked on the street outside. That’s weird, I think. Where could they all be at this time of the morning? Last minute Christmas shopping?

I go inside and look around. The lights in the kitchen and living room are on. Our Christmas tree stands in one corner of the living room next to the window. Small, white blinking lights adorn the tree as well as round and odd shaped Christmas ornaments, and those aluminum-looking fake icicles which always fall all over the floor and clog up the vacuum cleaner. Presents of all sizes litter the floor.

I walk past the kitchen down the hall. My parent’s bedroom is the last room on the right. Their light is on too. I look through the doorway. The bed is in disarray, and empty. On the floor next to the bed is a white t-shirt with a yellowish-brown stain on it. Something about that stain prevents me from looking around any further. I leave the t-shirt on the floor, turn off the light, and go to the bathroom to start getting ready for bed.

I have already washed my face and put on my long red and black flannel nightgown when the phone rings. It is my sister Cheryl.

“You need to come to the hospital,” she says.

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Mom’s had a heart attack. You need to come.”

“Oh my God. Is she ok?”

“You need to come. We’re at Aurora Presbyterian in the emergency room.”

I quickly change into a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. I grab my coat and run for the front door. As I hurry to my car, I can see my breath coming out in big white gusts, like a thoroughbred racing through the night air. There is no noise, only the sound of my boots impacting the packed snow. It is snowing again. It comes down in big, fluffy flakes. One lands on my left cheek and melts.

The hospital is six blocks from our house.  As I drive my hands grip the steering wheel. Even through my gloves, the wheel is freezing.  Please don’t let her be dead. Please don’t let her be dead. Please don’t let her be dead. I wish it over and over and over into the biting air, all the way to the parking lot of the hospital. 

The hospital is decorated in twinkly red, blue, and green Christmas lights. They look like small colored icicles. There is a big inflatable Santa Claus propped up outside the main entrance. His left arm waves back and forth in the air as a gesture of welcome. His rotund belly and ruddy cheeks irk me. Why is that fucker smiling?

I find the entrance to the emergency room once I enter the hospital. At this late hour three days before Christmas, it is as quiet as a church. I go to the receptionist desk, but there’s nobody there. I look to the left to see the waiting room. Beyond the grimy chairs and televisions suspended from chains in the ceiling is a room enclosed in glass. My two sisters, my brother, and my dad are in there, an aquarium of family fidelity. My dad is in the middle, and my sisters sit on both sides of him. My sister Cheryl tucks into the crook of my dad’s right arm. He is holding on for dear life. My sister Catherine sits in the middle of the room. Her wheelchair won’t fit anywhere else. My brother Steve and my sister-in-law Liana sit a couple of chairs down on the right. My father’s eyes are red and watery. Even at a distance, his vulnerability is palpable.

I walk towards the room, and my dad looks up and sees me. He looks up and locks in on me. I know my mom is dead. I hear someone saying, “She’s not dead! She’s not dead!” It is the cry of a wounded animal, a shrieking, high-pitched wail. I realize the person screaming is me, and I can’t stop. I have to get to where my family is but my legs won’t work. I sit down cross-legged on the floor near an empty Doritos bag. I keep saying, “She’s not dead,” but soon this is unintelligible because of my sobbing.

Cheryl comes and picks me up off the floor. I go to my dad, and he grabs me and hugs me harder than he ever has in my entire life. I can feel his breathing, jagged and broken against my winter coat. Tears run in rivulets down his face.

“We lost her,” he says. “Oh God, we lost her.” He sobs uncontrollably. I cry too, along with the rest of my family.

We sit in this room and time recedes. A nurse comes in and tells us we can go in and see our mother, but we cannot touch her or move anything attached to her body. I have no idea what this last part means, but I nod my head in agreement. My dad, Cheryl, and I get up. My brother, his wife Liana, and my sister Catherine do not go with us. None of us talk about why we’re going in while they are staying. We are operating in unknown territory.

I don’t see any other patients or families. We must be the only people in the emergency room. We follow the nurse down a long hallway. As we move away from the waiting room, the air becomes cooler. The nurse brings us into the room where my mother’s body is lying on a metal gurney. She has IV tubing inserted into both of her arms, and there is a plastic breathing tube in her mouth which is taped to her face. Her face is a yellowish-bluish color.

Despite the nurse’s instructions, my dad lunges for the gurney.

“Barb, oh God,” he says. “No, no, no Barb,” he cries. My dad grabs my mother as if he wants to hug her or pull her off the table and take her with him back home. Cheryl and I each catch one of his arms and tell him to stop, that he’s not supposed to touch her. He isn’t listening. He keeps repeating my mother’s name and holds on to the side of the gurney.

We stay in the room for a while longer. The same nurse comes back to the room and asks us if we want to speak with a grief counselor. My father shakes his head. We go back to find the rest of our family, still the only people in the waiting room.

“We have to go home,” my dad says. “We need to clean and get the house ready for condolence calls.”

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