Simple Social Graces

I was thinking about what would happen if I got up and left the surgery pavilion waiting room, which I was fully prepared to do after a few hours of being asked how I was or if someone could get me something, which was never the case. Each time I would say I was fine, and in my answer I could feel the asker searching for a hint of some incommunicable depths of sorrow they must have expected were opening up inside me. My father was on an operating table with his chest cut open for the third time, surgeons doing surgeon things to his heart that were supposed to save his life, or, more accurately, extend it. Meanwhile, I was making a conscious effort to not become a caricature of one whose entire history dissolves in a fit of existential anguish upon learning of their father’s death, so I tried to answer their questions as concisely as possible before returning to my book. The fact was that I didn’t enjoy talking to some of these people under even joyous circumstances, and would have preferred if everyone besides my mom and brother left altogether.

Most of them barely knew my father, but some liked to conjecture that he was their friend and made it their purpose for the day to comfort his family. James and Theresa both skipped work on this clear day in early December to sit in the waiting room with us, though they had only met my father a few times at most. They were oppressively sympathetic people, peppering me and my brother with questions about our lives and offering information about themselves freely, even when no one had asked. James was older than my father, and had made it known during Thanksgiving dinner at our house that his father passed away years ago. There was also Adam and his wife Nicole. Adam was a metal head and horror enthusiast who could never seem to understand that others didn’t share his particular media fetishes. He had the remarkable ability to be as inappropriate as possible under dramatic circumstances, which I found more humorous in a pitiful way than offensive. He would sometimes try to talk about music or film with me, but our tastes so rarely aligned that it would usually turn into a monologue where one person would give a synopsis of a movie that the other had no real interest in. There were a few others with our party scattered around room, sitting in chairs provided by the hospital—including two Gnostic priests of my mom’s invitation—who didn’t say much, for which I was thankful.

I was anxious about what was happening in the operating room, or what could happen, but didn’t exactly feel like talking it out with the ostensibly available strangers. As I understood it my father was, by most definitions, dead at this moment. His heart was stopped under the pretense it would be able to start again after the necessary repairs to the malfunctioning valve had been made. The surgery was expected to last up to seven hours, the whole time a case of Schrödinger’s Father for me and my brother; Schrödinger’s Husband for my mom. We sat in a room and waited for someone to deliver the news of one of life’s most profound losses, otherwise biding our time with books, music, or light conversation. Through this I found that, despite heightened levels of anxiety, I thought about things more or less how I always did: with a vague anthropological interest in the environment and its inhabitants, and also looking for material to write about.

The mousey old volunteer who ran the desk in the waiting room was accommodating and non-intrusive. She would often get up and leave for intervals of 10-15 minutes—periods of time during which the phone would ring incessantly until either Theresa or my mother picked it up and took a message. There were some paintings on the walls, mostly idyllic landscapes of places that may or may not exist in reality. Knowing very little about painting, I wondered whether the artist they came from was as passionate about art as people like Picasso or Pollock apparently were, or if they just did it to supplement their income, or maybe to garnish their social lives with the declaration of being an artist, even if their work probably never furnished a room more effectively than their ego. It seemed a bit absurd to me that these particular paintings, hung in a room where people wrestled with crises of varying degrees, could be expected to provide any amount of comfort in the immediate presence of loss. Could art do that?

In the middle of this rumination late in the afternoon, a surgeon walked in. He had begun work early in the morning and emerged from his labor—unimaginable to me as one of the ignorant but admiring gadflies orbiting the horse of medical science—at about the expected time. He walked directly to our group and everyone stood to greet him. I quickly scanned his face for signs of failure, horror, or grief, but mostly he just looked tired. He said my father was alive, but remained in critical condition, and they would have to wait before they could close him up and take him to the ICU. The surgeon left and everyone went back to their chairs. People asked me if I was OK, if they could get me anything, taking my silence as a sign of unpronounceable despair at the thought of my father’s condition. I was fine, I said, and picked up my book. About a minute after sitting down, I saw a look on my mother’s face and she got up and went into the hallway. I followed her, saw her burst into tears, lean against the wall, and lower herself down to the floor. I sat next to her, put my arm around her, and rested my head on the wall behind me. Perhaps it was the phrase “close him up” that suddenly cracked her, language that struck me as particularly vivid and confrontational, though I don’t know what kind of language I was expecting the surgeon to use. It was a phrase that forced one to acknowledge that open heart surgery not only required cutting open a person’s chest, but also pushing the chest back together, expecting the person to resume life, and then applying that idea to a person she had seen almost every day for over 25 years. I felt strangely removed from it all in the hallway, as if it simply weren’t happening or if my brain somehow refused to fully process it. I half wondered if there was a standard I could refer to in order that I might judge my expression, or lack thereof, as adequate or not according the circumstances.

My mother cried for about 10 minutes, during which time nobody we knew came to investigate. She was free to experience the crisis, and I was able to escape the projections of those in the waiting room. I thought that maybe my lack of intense feeling had something to do with how I patterned my behavior over the years, which could be described, more or less, as a constant and eager state of observation. I sat next to my mother and watched as hospital employees passed us by, sometimes wheeling equipment, sometimes looking down at us briefly before returning their gaze to the floor in front of them. I almost wanted to tell them not to worry about us, that we were going to be fine and that nobody was dead yet. Somehow I wanted to relieve whatever vicarious grief may have entered them as they went from one place to another on this late afternoon in early December, to them a day not unlike all the others. This, of course, would have been ridiculous.

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