Waiting Room – Intimations of mortality

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EL PASO, Texas — The doctor has an understanding look, a tender look in his eye and I see that he is a man who is moved by his patient’s anguish. He reminds me a little of Brother Juniper, the old comic strip character, because of his tender eyes and the slightly bent-over aspect as he reads the just faxed results of the CAT scan. “Negative,” he says looking up at me and he says it loudly and leans forward and grasps my hand. “Nothing, nada.” He smiles.

And I…am thinking of the other examination room just a week earlier when another doctor said, “I’m ordering a CAT scan. There’s a spot on your lung X-ray.  You said you never smoked, right?” He lights up the big negative and points to a white treacherous thing spidering into the dark hollows of my chest. “Well, …” I wanted to explain that I had puffed a little now and then but to my dismay asthma put a stop to my smoking career. Then I felt faint and I leaned on the examination table.

My wife was away on a business trip so I went home to my little dog Gracie and waited for my daughter to come home. They say dogs can tell if one has an incurable disease, I thought, but Gracie didn’t want to get involved. She tore the treat out of my hand and scampered away to the backyard barking at the neighbor’s dogs. In about two hours I had scoured the Internet, gazed terrified at all the probabilities and finally took a nap grateful that I hadn’t cancelled my life insurance policies. I called my older daughter, an Episcopal priest, and I told her that a little prayer would be in order. Then to be on the safe side, I called my sister, a devout Catholic and told her a little prayer would be in order.  My daughter Miranda arrived  and said she would go with me to get the CAT scan in the morning.  “It could take a while,” I said.  “That’s O.K.,” she said, “I’m reading a novel.”  She held up The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “Well, at least it’s not Slaughterhouse Five,” I said. “We’re reading that next,” she said.

It was a chilly morning and I had dressed lightly thinking I would have to take everything off anyway.  So I shivered through the empty hallways of the hospital until we found the outpatient registration office. “I’ll call you,” the lady at the desk said as she paged trough stacks of documents. I sat.  Miranda read.

By this time, I had stopped thinking about possible outcomes. A strange kind of fatal osmosis had permeated everything in me and I if anything I felt a strange kind of serenity. The lady continued to leaf through the papers and I thought that once, just a day ago, this waiting would have made me crazy. Now, I just counted the papers along with her. A young woman pushed a wheelchair past me to the desk. She swiveled the chair around and an old woman —mind you, I’m 63, so if she looked old to me, she was old— gazed calmly at me. She wore an odd cap on her head that looked like a piece of discarded pantyhose. It reminded me of the knit caps they put on newborns. The young woman gave a name to the paper-counting lady and whirled the wheelchair to the far end of the room near the door. I wondered about that since we were the only ones in the room, but then the old lady began to talk.  She spoke in loud, carefully articulated Spanish, knowing that I, at the other end of the room would be interested in the conversation —a monologue really since the younger woman would answer in monosyllables.

It was all about Jalisco… but then the paper-counting lady called my name and Miranda and I were escorted out into the cold halls to a cashier and then into the CAT scan waiting room where a TV set blared. It was the post mortem of a basketball game. I sat, now hating the sports analysis as only a former sports writer who wrote that same story every Friday night could hate sports stories. Then the old Jalisco lady wheeled in and settled in a corner away from us. I rose, walked confidently to the TV set and turned it off.  Old Jalisco took that as the signal to continue the epic saga. Miranda read Kundera. I settled back.

Old Jalisco talked about the river, the Santiago River, el grande, when it didn’t stink and how it rose once and pummeled through mountains into valleys sweeping away trees and bouncing houses, carving the barranco de Oblatos deeper into the earth…  Oh you should have seen that river my, my… and then her words turned into melody and she sang —tienes el alma de provinciana, hueles a limpio a rosa temprana, ave de jara fresca del río, son mil palomos to caserío, sabes a pura tierra mojada— you taste like the good wet earth…

Then two angels appeared in white lab coats and said David, David…  The young women led us into the scanning room —in its center a huge white donut, its hole blankly enveloping. I lay before it and the angel smiled down at me, “Do you have any nipple rings?” she asked.

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