The Waiting Room, by Christina Ortega Phillips
Harold tried not to wince as the anesthesiologist inserted the needle into his left hand. His wife let out a nervous chuckle.
“My Harold,” she said, stroking his hair, “always so scared of needles.”
“I’m not scared,” he said, scowling.
“Sure you’re not, honey.” She leaned over the rail of the bed and gave him a kiss on his forehead.
“Okay,” the anesthesiologist said, pushing his chair back from the bedside and rising. “Now I’m going to give you a little something to help you relax. The nurse will be in in a few minutes to wheel you down to the operating room and we’ll put you to sleep once there.”
“Okay,” Harold mumbled, staring at the needle in his hand.
“How long until I can see him after the surgery?” Her hand had moved to hold Harold’s right hand and her grip was increasing as the time for him to go under was nearing.
“Probably no more than twenty minutes, but that’s just an estimate,” the man answered. “We will take him into another room after the surgery to give him time to wake up. Once he’s awake, we will bring him back here.”
Harold’s wife nodded. “Thank you.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Harold told her once the young man left. Despite his nerves, he forced a smile. He hated seeing her worry like this.
“I know,” she said, but she didn’t sound very convincing.
He wished he could say something to make her feel better, but he was beginning to feel fuzzy because of what the man had given him. The nurse came then and as she pushed his bed to the operating room, he was drifting off to sleep.
* * *
In the waiting room, the swishing sound of the corduroy fabric was beginning to grate on Celeste’s nerves. The man next to her was either very nervous or had a serious twitching problem because his leg had not stopped moving the entire time Celeste had been sitting in the waiting room. Celeste bit her lip, trying to not say something to him.
Maybe it’s a very focused form of Parkinson’s, she told herself. It’s a disease he can’t control and I would be a jerk to say something to him.
Swish, swish, swish.
Celeste closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. The man with the noisy pants was obviously very nervous for someone there at the hospital. So am I, Celeste thought irritably. I hate hospitals, but I’m not disturbing everyone. Celeste opened her eyes. Hospitals were full of fear and hope, life and death, and everything inbetween…
Swish, swish, swish.
She tried to distract herself by looking around the room at its occupants:
There were the two parents: the man with his arm protectively around the wife who finally said she could not just sit there and wait and was going to go get them coffee.
There was the elderly woman who was on the phone with someone saying that they had just taken Harold into the operating room. Her other hand was clutching her purse so tightly, her knuckles were white. Poor woman, Celeste thought. She’s terrified.
There was the woman around Celeste’s age whose nose had not been taken out of a book the whole time Celeste had been in the room. Celeste saw that she was reading A Great and Terrible Beauty and continued staring at her, hoping to catch her eye so they could talk about the book.
And then there was the twitchy man who looked to be in his late forties.
Celeste sighed, and then pulled out her Kindle hoping to distract herself from the swishing sound. She didn’t get very far, though, since not long after she had opened whatever book she was working on, she heard a frustrated grunt, making her look up.
The elderly woman was glaring at her phone and trying to punch buttons. No one else seemed to notice so Celeste put down her Kindle.
“Ma’am,” Celeste said, moving to sit next to her, “do you need any help with that?”
“Oh, yes, please,” the woman said, sounding relieved. “This phone’s buttons are so darn small. I’m trying to call my son, his dad’s in surgery and I am just so nervous and-” she stopped suddenly and smiled. “You didn’t ask for all that, though, did you?”
Celeste smiled back at her kindly. “It’s okay. I can help you call your son. And I can listen, too, if you need me to.” She gently took the phone from the woman’s hands. “What’s your son’s number?”
* * *
Harold heard his name being called. He opened his eyes, bracing himself for the pain he assumed he would feel, but there was none. He tried to look around: there was no oxygen tent on his mouth like the nurses had told him there would be.
And no one was near his bed.
So who had called his name, waking him up?
Harold sat up slowly, again bracing himself for pain and again feeling none. He saw a nurse sitting at the foot of the bed behind the curtain to his right.
“Excuse me,” he called out, but the nurse did not react.
“Excuse me,” he said again, just a tad louder. Again there was no reaction.
Frustrated and painfree, Harold decided to get up on his own. He was obviously fine as there was no oxygen on him nor was he in any pain. Heck, the IV had even been taken out from his hand. He wanted to hurry back to his wife, to let her know that he was okay. He figured he would just try and walk himself there since no one seemed to be paying him any attention.
“Miss,” he called out, sitting on the edge of the bed. The nurse got up and walked away in the opposite direction.
Fuck it, Harold thought. I can walk on my own.
There was another nurse at a nurses’ station not far from his bed. He was filling out some paperwork.
“Excuse me,” Harold said.
He kept writing.
“I just woke up from surgery. I’d like to be taken back to see my wife now.”
The nurse finished writing and got up and walked over to another patient, giving no indication that he had even heard Harold.
Harold gritted his teeth and turned to walk away. He walked slowly at first, looking for signs to tell him where to go, but he was not sure which ones to follow. Nothing was clearly labeled “pre-operation room you were just in.”
Harold ended up in a hallway he hoped would lead him to the waiting room or at least to someone who would acknowledge him. At the farthest end of the hallway, he saw a nurse wheeling a patient in a hospital bed and they were heading in his direction. Good, he thought, maybe they can help me.
“Excuse me,” Harold called out. “Do you think you can help me?”
The nurse just kept wheeling and didn’t reply.
Harold frowned and called out louder, but the nurse just kept heading his way and Harold had to flatten himself against a wall so as not to get hit by the bed.
“Hey! What’s your problem!?” Harold yelled out after them. He continued to walk in the direction that they had come from.
After walking for a minute more, he saw a woman sitting by herself. She was hugging her knees to her chest and her dark hair was draped over her arms, as if hiding her face from anyone who would pass her by. Harold briefly wondered if he should leave her alone, but his desire to see his wife beat his consideration for the weeping woman.
As he neared her, she lifted her head and turned, looking in his direction. She made a puzzled face, but quickly made her face blank and looked away. Harold shrugged, knowing it must have looked odd, a middle-aged man in nothing but a hospital gown and footies wandering the hallway alone; he didn’t blame her for the odd look…but she had seen him. She reacted to my appearance, he realized. When others had ignored him, she had seen him. He was even more determined to disturb her and talk to her now.
Celeste shifted uncomfortably as he rushed over to her. She had seen him and worse, he knew that she had seen him. She wanted to curl up in a ball and mourn. She did not want to help him. But she had always had a hard time saying no, especially to them.
He hurried his steps until he was next to her and squatted by her left arm.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said. “Can you tell me where I am? I’m trying to get to the waiting room.”
The woman shifted uncomfortably and turned her head to look down the opposite end of the hall. Maybe, she thought, I can just act like I didn’t see him and he will leave me alone.
“Miss,” he said urgently.
She still did not answer.
“You saw me,” he said, his voice rising. “I saw you. You looked at me. You saw me.”
The woman shook her head. “Not now,” she muttered, still trying to avoid looking at him again.
“Excuse me,” he insisted.
She let out an irritated noise. “I’m sorry,” she said, finally turning to look at him, “but I just can’t. Not right now. I’m very sorry.” Her voice cracked. “I just can’t. At least, not right now. Maybe later.”
She wanted to kick herself. Later? Like she was going to willingly hang around the hospital until she felt better? Felt like helping him?
Harold was confused. “Can’t what? Can’t help me?” He tried but couldn’t keep the increasing anger out of his voice. “I’m just trying to find my way to the waiting room to see my wife and everyone is ignoring me. And you—you’re the first one to see me, to acknowledge me and you can’t do something so simple as to point me in the right direction?” By the time he was done, his voice practically filled the hallway, but he didn’t care. If this woman wouldn’t help him, maybe his yelling would attract someone else’s attention, someone else who would help him.
Celeste looked at him. Fresh tears stung her eyes as she was hit with a new wave of sadness, this time for him, not herself.
“Crap. You don’t know,” she muttered before she could stop herself.
She shook her head, realizing he had heard her last statement. This was a first for her. Normally by the time they found her they already knew. Well I sure as hell am not going to tell him, she thought.
“Where you are,” she said quickly. “And you know what? I don’t either. I was in the waiting room and I got some bad news and started walking and I’m not really sure where I am either so I can’t help you. Sorry.” She went to grab her purse, but he did, too. He didn’t want the only person who had acknowledged him to go, but his hand went right through her bag and he fell forward. Something was obviously wrong and he thought he was beginning to figure out what it was, but he had to hear someone say it to be sure and this lady seemed to be able to help him.
“Please,” he said, not getting up yet from the floor. He just looked up at her and let her see the frustration on his face.
Celeste’s resolve broke. Maybe it was a combination of the desperation in his voice, or the sad sight of him there on the floor. Or maybe she would have rather helped him than deal with her own mess. She sighed and leaned her head back against the wall. She looked at him, an ocean of sadness in her eyes. “Okay,” she said finally. “I’ll help.”
He got up slowly to sit up next to her. He was slowly figuring something out but needed to hear someone say it to be sure.
“Am I-am I dead?”
“Yes,” she said, sadly.
He nodded and looked down, avoiding her eyes.
That was easy, Celeste thought.
“But you can see me?”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s just this thing I can do,” she said and let the bitterness fill her voice.
He looked at her questioningly, but he did not want to ask her about specifics. If he was dead, then she would be the only one able to get a final message to his wife.
* * *
As Celeste and Harold walked back to the waiting room, she found herself walking slowly. Even though she had told Harold she would help him, she was not eager to return to the room where her life had been forever changed. As she stood in the doorway she was relieved to see that it was emptier. The relief was quickly replaced with jealousy and anger. Obviously the others, including the annoying man with the noisy pants, had gotten good news unlike her. She shook her head, trying to shake away the negative emotions. You have to help Harold now, she chided herself. She could take of herself later. Herself could wait. It always did.
Celeste sat near Harold’s wife. She shifted uncomfortably, not knowing how to start.
“Tell her that I love her,” Harold said, sitting on Celeste’s other side.
Celeste nodded slightly and kept thinking about how to start talking to the recent widow.
“I saw the doctor talk to you,” his wife said, interrupting Celeste’s thoughts.
“Oh. Yeah, he did…” Celeste bit her lip. She couldn’t talk about herself right now.
“It didn’t look like good news.”
“You just lost someone?” Harold asked. “I am so sorry, I didn’t realize…”
Celeste shook her head, fighting off the tears that were stinging her eyes.
“I’m not trying to pry. I just-I just want to tell you I’m sorry. I want to offer my condolences.”
“I appreciate that. Thanks, but he’s in a better place now…” She cleared her throat softly. She wiped away the tears before they could distract her from helping Harold.
“Her name is Mabel,” Harold said, leaning more into Celeste’s space.
“Mabel, I wanted to tell you…”
Mabel looked at her, puzzled. She clearly didn’t remember telling Celeste her name.
“Well, go on!” Harold said.
“What is it, dear?” Mabel asked. “Do you need to use my phone? Is there someone you’d like to call?”
“You’re very sweet, but no.”
“Come on! She needs to know!” Harold said, getting more impatient.
“Shh,” Celeste snapped before she could stop herself.
“Sorry,” Celeste smiled apologetically. “Those insurance papers you were talking to your son about?”
Mabel’s face hardened.
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” Celeste said quickly. “I just-”
“Go on, tell her,” Harold instructed.
“I just thought that maybe you should look in his bottom desk drawer,” Celeste rushed out. That said, she got up and retreated to a corner of the waiting room. She pulled out her phone, pretending like she had a phone call to make.
“What was that?” Harold demanded, sitting next to her.
“I told her what you wanted me to,” Celeste said quietly, pretending to be on the phone.
“You-you told her to find the papers,” Harold said angrily. “What about everything else I said? About love? About going on with her life?”
“I told you before I couldn’t help you right now,” Celeste said. She got up and hurried out of the room.
Harold found her in the hallway, crying softly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But you’re the only one who can help me. I needed you to tell her things and you chickened out.”
“She’ll find the damn papers, won’t she?” Celeste snapped. She took in a deep breath. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I said I would help you. I’ll go back in there and—”
“It’s my doctor,” Harold interrupted her.
“That’s my doctor. He’s headed this way,” Harold said, pointing down the hall. “Oh, my, she doesn’t know yet.”
Celeste felt relieved that she had spoken to Mabel the way she had. Mabel would have thought she were even crazier if she had gone to her with Harold’s full message before she even knew Harold was dead.
Celeste followed Harold back into the waiting room. Harold went and sat by Mabel. He tried to touch her, but couldn’t so his hand just hovered over her shoulder.
Celeste went back to the corner of the waiting room. She wanted to give Mabel some kind of privacy, but wanted to be near in case she took the news too badly.
“I am so sorry,” she could hear the doctor saying.
“No,” Mabel said, her eyes filling with tears. “Not Harold, no.”
The doctor kept talking, but Mabel just stood there, shaking her head and clutching her bag to her chest. When he left, Mabel slumped down into her chair and began sobbing.
Celeste watched as Harold tried to talk to his widow and comfort her, but she couldn’t hear him and was clearly too upset to feel him. Celeste’s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t know which was worse: a loved one crossing over immediately or a loved one staying behind and not being able to communicate with his or her family.
“Help her,” Harold told Celeste, suddenly in front of her.
“I can’t,” she said. “She needs to grieve.” She looked down, not wanting to see the desperation in Harold’s face.
“She does or you do?” Harold snapped, losing patience with Celeste. “Tell her I’m still here.”
“But you’re not…knowing you’re here, like this, it might hurt her more.”
“You need to try,” Harold pleaded.
“How did you know?” Mabel asked sharply. She was standing in front of Celeste, looking angry and sad.
“The insurance papers you told me about,” Mabel said impatiently. “How did you know to tell me about them? Are they really in a drawer? Who are you?”
“I’m no one,” Celeste said, sighing.
“Please,” Harold begged. “Tell her I’m here.”
Celeste sighed again. “Mabel,” she said, preparing for the old woman to hit her or yell, “Harold’s spirit is still here.”
There was no slap or anything. Celeste slowly looked up to see if Mabel was still standing near her.
Mabel sat down next to Celeste. “I-I don’t believe you,” she said, but her voice let Celeste know that she wanted to believe her.
“Tell her that I love her,” Harold said, moving to sit by Mabel’s feet. He stared up at his widow and smiled sadly. “Tell her I wouldn’t have left her if I had had the choice.”
“He said he loves you,” Celeste repeated. “And that if it were up to him, he’d still be here with you.”
Mabel began to sob again. “Stop it. You’re lying.”
“She doesn’t believe me,” Celeste told Harold. “I told you.”
“You need to tell her something only I know.” Harold’s brow furrowed, trying to pull out a special memory, sacred to the couple. “Hawaii,” he said, finally.
“Hawaii?” Celeste asked.
Mabel heard, and turned to look at her. “What about it?” She regretted reacting to the state’s name, knowing she just gave the maybe crazy lady an opening to continue playing with her.
“We went there on our honeymoon,” Harold continued quickly.
“He said you went there after your wedding and you were…intimate on the beach and you got an infection from the sand.”
Mabel closed her eyes and looked away, telling herself that Celeste could be playing with her. That could have happened to anyone.
Harold groaned, seeing that Mabel wasn’t fully convinced.
“She has a tattoo of my name on her upper thigh,” he said, and after Celeste repeated the information continued to list secrets. “We were going to retire together and move to Arizona to be near our grandkids. Every Sunday morning we do the crossword puzzle together…” He kept going on and on, each new piece of information making Mabel more inclined to listen. “And she thinks that I don’t have life insurance.”
“That’s how you knew about the papers,” Mabel whispered.
“Yes,” Celeste said. “He found me in the hallway and told me to tell you that he took out a life insurance policy on himself just before he found out about the surgery. He put the papers in his desk and wanted me to tell you where to find them.”
“Thank you…” Mabel said. “He’s here now?”
Celeste nodded. “He’s sitting on the floor in front of you.”
At the sound of his name, he leaned forward and placed his hand near her cheek.
“Harold,” she said, smiling. “I can feel you.” A single tear rolled down her cheek, sliding through his hand.
“Tell her to go to Arizona. Tell her to live the life we planned and to take my ashes with her.”
Celeste repeated his instructions.
Mabel shook her head. “I don’t want to be in a world without you,” she sobbed.
Harold frowned. “I don’t either…”
Celeste saw it then: a soft light coming from the opposite corner of the room. It wasn’t very big or bright, but she knew what it meant. “Harold,” she said softly. She nodded her head towards the corner.
He looked and must have seen something different than what Celeste did. “Is that for me?”
“What? What is it?”
“He needs to go now.”
“Harold, I will never stop loving you.”
“He knows,” Celeste said. “He said he will be there for you when it is your time.”
Harold got up and walked into the light.
“He’s gone now,” Celeste told Mabel.
Mabel nodded. “Thank you.” She reached over and grabbed Celeste’s hand as if trying to hold on to her last connection to Harold.
The two women sat there like that, not wanting to leave the waiting room and not yet ready to start their lives without their loved ones.
Christina Ortega Phillips was born and raised in northwest Indiana. A graduate of Valparaiso University, she received her BA in English and Psychology and an MA in English Studies and Communication. She is an ESL teacher by trade, but a writer and geek at heart. She has contributed to Being Latino in the past. Her work has also been published in River Poets Journal and Infective Ink. Her writing group, Blank Slate, recently published an anthology, Midnight Oil, available at Amazon. To keep up with Christina and her writing projects, go to MyWritingDom.blogspot.com.
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Tags: Christina Ortega Phillips, death, relationships