I am sitting in a surgical waiting room at Piedmont Hospital in midtown Atlanta, Georgia. The room was designed for waiting. And that is what I am doing.
I am waiting along with a host of strangers. An adjoining waiting room is for heart surgery patients’ families; the section I am in is for general surgery.
I am waiting for my wife, today.
Her surgery has now been delayed, so the waiting time will be increased. Several hours, they think.
All my life I’ve heard that waiting is not a long suit for Americans; it has become axiomatic. But waiting has its values, of course; payoffs that are rewarding even though we do not seek them out. Serendipitous, I suppose.
While sitting in this waiting room the silence was broken when an elderly gentleman came in with his female companion, and started a discussion with the admissions worker who had escorted them over to general surgery. At first the worker seemed a bit perturbed, but soon it was apparent that he had her attention.
He said, “Eighty-one years ago I was born in this hospital. I spent a week here, and I have my mother’s bill for that week; it totaled $99.84.” He wanted to give this to the worker so she could hand it over to persons who handled the display of historical artifacts and papers at Piedmont Hospital. She told him she would get it into the appropriate hands.
Piedmont Hospital actually began as a 10 bed sanatorium and school for nurses in 1905. The first graduating class matriculated in 1907, around the same time my paternal grandmother and her sister (both orphans) graduated from high school in Columbia, South Carolina (at what would become the Epworth Orphanage). Grandmother would go on to attend nursing school in Augusta, Georgia.
The Piedmont Sanatorium and Training School for Nurses was originally located on Capitol Avenue where the now defunct Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium would one day stand. In 1957 Piedmont Hospital moved to its current location on Peachtree Road. The nursing school was closed in 1983, but the burgeoning hospital continues to grow and expand to the present day.
But I digress.
The 81 year old gentleman I mentioned previously broke the uncomfortable silence that typically surrounds such waiting areas. Several began a discussion of the cost of things, change, etc. One gentleman (in his early 70s) said he was born on a farm, and his doctor had charged $2.00 for the birth. A woman seated nearby shared her story of 34 cent gasoline, but was then trumped by the 81 year old who remembered 17 cents per gallon. (Factually, at 60 I can even recall 17 cent gas out in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1960s; my father said that was due to what he called “gas wars”).
Two women began a discussion of the common faith they shared (one of them was reading the Bible), then exchanged email addresses. Soon our small group had covered everything from kidney stones to the growing number of deaths of friends and loved ones, and the decreasing number of classmates still alive at class reunions.
Waiting can sometimes unite people who would otherwise never interact with one another. It creates a common bond, a shared experience, a conjoint journey (if you will). When you wait with someone, there are barriers that collapse, possibly because familiarity allays fear. We are social creatures. And so, given enough time, and a setting which either breeds emotional safety or forges inescapable dependance, we talk. We share. We accept.
I have been in lines at the grocery store where waiting was cursed. I have witnessed the same phenomenon at banks and post offices (and here the emotions tend to run very high, because people are in a hurry for a variety of reasons). Amusement parks are notorious in this regard. And I’m sure the same might be said of doctor’s offices, restaurants, and any number of other places we go. The axiom is true. We do not like to wait.
It is interesting to me that waiting comes highly recommended in certain ancient writings (Psalm 27:14; Isaiah 40:31; Acts 8:4; Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 11:33; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Psalm 40:1-3). Truthfully, I suspect that waiting has never won a popularity contest among human beings. It has always been hard on us.
No matter what society.
No matter what time period.
I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon when cooking my breakfast oats in the morning. We usually buy the old fashioned kind of oats at the grocery, but this last time we got the “quick” cooking oats by mistake. They are different in appearance from the old fashioned oats; they are smaller, more compact, more uniform. And they cook differently, too. If I microwave a serving size of old fashioned oats in a quart glass measuring bowl, I have to watch to make sure it does not boil over and spill everywhere. But the quick oats . . . they do not boil over at all. Hmmmm.
I wonder how much of life we miss because of the hurry we are in? When the experiences of our lives are so controlled that they cannot boil over? Predictable. Without surprises. And quickly gratified. But how nourishing?
Much has been written in recent decades about enjoying the journey and not just the destination. So, I will not go there, today. But suffice it to say that in this waiting room today, I have connected with the humanity of strangers in a way impossible to achieve in my insulated, routine, fast-and-furious lifestyle.
With the windows of my life rolled down, I may have a first-hand encounter with heat, or cold, or inclement weather. But I will likely do so in the company of others. And that will make all the difference.
When my wife emerges from surgery later today, and I discover that she is safe and will recover, I will experience great relief. And I’m sure that – if they were aware of it – each of the persons in that small section of the waiting room this morning would be happy for me. For us. And I would feel the same for each of them and their loved ones.
Waiting has both improved my character, and informed by life.