In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view. A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever. So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.
Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer. Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing. Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.
As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays. That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.
I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago. And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again. As we rejoice today, I share these words again. Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now. These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”
- The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say. Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
- There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him. Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation. They all pass through. All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
- People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
- Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much. Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you. All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.” It was truly humbling. Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away. Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
- It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
- Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal. Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
- Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time. “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked. “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.) It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
- You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently. “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…” That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day. I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew. “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
- There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
- There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere. People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
- Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.