“Mama n Em”: Tales of a Hospital Waiting Room

This post is a day late, but I have a good excuse! I won’t be writing about craft or language or blogging today. I won’t be clever. In fact, I’m going to be a little serious, so if you dare, read on:

Huddled Masses

My husband had surgery on Tuesday (he’s doing great, thanks), and we spent four hours in an admissions waiting room before his case was called. Such a cross-section of humanity you’ve never seen (or maybe you have). I was reminded of the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses . . .” Just add “your sick” to her words, and you’ll get the picture.

Waiting / image at http://www.microsoft.com

I’d believed the days of entire families gathering in hospital waiting rooms were long since over. My ex-husband, a surgeon, used to talk about hordes of family members in the hospital hallways, waiting to snag the doctor on his way in or out of a patient’s room. He called them “Mama ‘n ’em,” which is Mississippi Delta speak for “mother and all the rest of the kin.” Maybe it’s a Southern thing, this gathering of the clan. Anyway, it was happening in that big room on Tuesday.

Made-up Stories

To pass the time, my husband and I invented the lives of the folks around us. The couple across from us? Retired teachers. Or, because of her severe haircut and lack of makeup, I thought she might have been a nun and he a priest who . . . Well, you can finish it.

Down the way, a tall, elderly, elegant-looking African-American woman wearing a wonderful black and white caftan. She sat in a wheelchair surrounded by five or six older adults and teenagers who brought her blankets and coffee and catered to her needs. She was “in” for a hip replacement. Just before her name was called, a man who I took to be her son stood up and said, “You’re gon’ be all right. We gon’ pray before you go back.” I certainly hope she was. Those family dynamics? Who knows, but there’s a story for sure, one of close ties strengthened through hardship.

Next to me, a man in his forties, his complexion yellowed. Several family members sat with him: a sister, his mother (a woman with poufed, Mormon-wife-style hair, carrying a red plaid purse), a daughter who sat on her boyfriend’s lap, both preoccupied with their cellphones. Texting? Surfing? The young man had two dog tags tattooed on his left arm. Nobody talked.

A few rows over, three women in their sixties who had to be sisters. Their elderly mother was the patient. She must have been ninety, but she sported a pink eyelet sun hat and seemed the calmest of them all. How many years, how many relationships were represented there?

And one more: In the far corner, a couple facing away from each other. Enough said.

Two Fiction Writers in a Game 

So there we were, my husband and I, two fiction writers in a game of making up stories to keep our nervousness at bay. But you know, I haven’t stopped thinking about those people. I’ve wondered what happened to each of them after their names were called and they underwent their procedures. I’ve thought a lot, too, about the fact that they—and we—were only a small portion of a larger flow of humanity through rooms everywhere, undergoing “surgery”—physical, emotional, spiritual—at any given moment in time.

I couldn’t help being struck by the diversity, the emotions, the dramatic circumstances. But if we’re looking for stories, we don’t have to do it in a hospital waiting area. All we have to do is look around us. Really. See.

Wherever you go this weekend, take a notebook, sit, watch. You’ll find plenty of stories or poems, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you’ll become more aware of our common humanity. Come back here and tell me what you see. Leave me a few lines of a story!