Unless your life has been kissed by the stars, you have undoubtedly spent time as a visitor in a hospital.
You’ve pulled in to a parking garage, dry-mouthed, befuddled. Perhaps it’s a structure you’ve navigated many times before, but at this moment you might as well be driving the Space Rover across Mars.
You’ve wandered through the dark and odorous maze. Punched a button to the bustling street above. Found the crosswalk. Slid through a plate glass door. Licked your lips with a parched tongue and uttered a loved one’s name to the man behind the desk.
You’ve found a chair. A hard and unforgiving chair where you shiver from an unnatural and untimely cold.
You’ve strained to hear Doctor Speak, a language that on any given day is as familiar as a grocery list. At this moment it might spring from Middle Earth or Deep Space, such is your lack of comprehension.
You’ve found the humming vending machine, gulped the welcome water, and bolted back to your chair. You’ve sent hasty text messages, misspellings and abbreviations their own kind of alphabet.
Finally you’ve been called, through a door, to a room, where monitors beep and lights flicker and tubes drape this way and that. You perch, poised for flight, on the edge of another, even harder chair. The arctic cold does not relent. Neither do you.
Later, after the hasty phone calls, the consultations, the brutal knowledge that you are ignorant, useless—you are just one of thousands who wait in hard, chilly chairs—you and your companions slide back out the glass doors in search of food.
The day has turned to dark. Lights glow down the street. You walk toward them, paying no attention to crossing signs or sleekly shiny cars. Lucky for you, the others do.
You go in to the brightly lit restaurant. Struggle to read a menu. “What are you getting? What are we taking back for him?”
Orders placed, you fill your drink. You set it on the table in a booth, unwrap the straw, and spill it, every last drop flooding across the table, into the seat, all over the floor.
You find a young girl, busy with her chores. You apologize and drop to your knees on the soaked carpet to help her retrieve the ice. All the while she croons, “You good. You all right.”
You and your companions eat every bite. Drink every drop. You talk about the person in the hospital bed, and about the person who sits by her side. He will never leave that room as long as she is there.
Sometimes you laugh. Sometimes tears fill but do not fall. Sometimes you forget what day it is, and then you think, “What difference does it make?”
Your companions tell stories, of this week and of years ago. Only part of your brain hears them. The other part, the largest part, is muffled, stifled, frozen.
Finally someone says, “We better get him his supper,” and the three of you rise and sidestep out of the booth.
Then you see her.
A woman, about your age. Short hair, glasses, a yellow polo, khaki slacks. The same woman whose swift hands filled your plates and bowls with lickety-split food. The same woman who prepared the extra order we forgot to make faster than we could even say the words.
There she is, sitting in a chair at a table by the back door. She is relaxed. No hurry. No worry. Scrolling on her phone.
You hastily re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and look around. Your mouth drops open. No one else is there. No solitary young man with a broom, no young girl rushing out with the last bag of trash. There is only the woman in the yellow shirt. You have no idea for how long.
She pushes her chair away from the table and says, “I’ll have to let you out back here.”
You begin to protest. You’re closed! I’m so sorry! We didn’t know! We’ve kept you here too long! You stayed for us!
For a brief moment her eyes rest on our small, weary group. “I know what it’s like to have somebody in the hospital.”
You want to hug her, but your brain is numb. You fumble through the door. Your thanks stumbles from your lips.
As you walk across the parking lot your face twists into the question you barely utter: “How….”?”
Your companion smiles and points at his chest. Yes, we wore the mark of the hospital, but she saw far more than a printed label. The hollow eyes, the hurried gulps of food, the conversation in a booth that could have lasted until daylight.
All we offered in return was our hurried gratitude as we hustled out the door into the night.
A paucity of words in exchange for her seeing eyes and caring heart.
For her willingness to stay put, quiet and patient, in a hard chair, on a Friday night, for as long as we might need.