Still going…maybe if I keep it up, I’ll get to be the Energizer Bunny?
Seriously, let’s look at a new story tonight, a story about a woman who is allowed to make her own decision, makes it, follows through, and…well, I won’t give you the spoiler. But let’s just say, I know many women who have made just this decision, and would probably have the same thing to say about it at the end.
The waiting room was full; there was only one chair, so Nathan stood beside me holding my hand. The room was loud with the buzz of nervous conversation, but that was okay. Neither of us wanted to say anything, anyway. This wasn’t the time for talking. We’d talked for a week, and now we were just glad to be silent together, holding onto each other in the warm, soft light of the waiting room.
I looked around the waiting room, startled to see it so comfortable and comforting. I’d expected it to be cold, sterile, like so many other doctors’ offices I’d been in, like the doctor’s waiting room I sat in a week ago, squirming on the uncomfortable chair, shivering from air conditioning cranked too high. This waiting room was warm and welcoming, as though it wanted to put me at ease. I relaxed, letting the tension escape in a long, low sigh.
Nathan heard the sigh, and looked at me. I think it might have been the first time he looked at me all day. Had he been avoiding my eyes? Did he realize I’d been avoiding his? Everything seemed easier that way, but the sigh caught his attention, and he looked at me. I was relieved to see the light of love shining in his soft grey eyes; sometimes in an idle moment, I worried we were losing each other, we were slipping past each other into a place of isolation. Sometimes lately it seemed as though I could see him, but I couldn’t reach him.
“Are you all right?”
I nodded, not speaking, but gave him a small smile to let him know I wasn’t speechless. I just didn’t want to speak right now, with all the noise around us, and all the people. I wanted this moment to be private, not shared with a dozen other people. He squeezed my hand; he understood.
“Are you scared?”
I shook my head, but it wasn’t true. Yes, I was scared. Of course I was scared. I felt angry, wanting to snap, to lash out at him in my fear. Sometimes it seemed so unfair…I had to go through this, and he didn’t. Oh, he went through it in the abstract, but in reality, I was the only one who would feel the physical reality of it. He could only imagine what I felt, and it made me mad. Why, oh why, wasn’t the world more fair? The anger sputtered and died out. Of course life isn’t fair. I learned that years ago, growing up in a large family where pain wasn’t evenly dispersed, and unfairness seemed to be standard operating procedure.
The woman sitting on the sofa next to me hoisted herself out of the seat and lurched across the room. She wrapped her arms around the shoulder of the younger woman who emerged from somewhere inside the bowels of the building, looking shaken and pale, but able to walk without difficulty. The young woman began to cry and the older woman held her, rocking her gently right there in the waiting room with all of us looking on. They didn’t seem to notice us, lost in their own world, but the uncomfortable silence which fell over the waiting room indicated that everyone else felt as uncomfortable as I did to witness this intimate scene.
Nathan checked to see if there was anyone else standing, another woman who needed the seat, and slipped gratefully into the chair beside me as the two women left the building. The room once gain buzzed with nervous chatter.
“That’s better. I really felt like everyone was looking at me, standing there like that!”
Nathan wasn’t being vain; in a room full of women, he was definitely someone who would be looked at. Over six feet tall and with the build of an athlete, he stuck out even sitting down. His soft brown hair curled naturally over one eye, and he brushed it back as he stared at the TV on the opposite wall, characters miming their way through a sitcom with the sound turned down. I moved closer and slipped into the warm comfort of the arm he slung casually across the back of the couch. His arm tightened around me and I sank into his light embrace, once again thinking how glad I was he came with me.
Men were definitely in the minority in this waiting room. Taking a quick inventory, I determined that men made up less than ten percent of the waiting group. Young women were scattered around the group, mostly alone or with another woman. Many of the women were accompanied by older women, perhaps their mothers. A few women waited with women their own age, and it was difficult to determine which was the patient and which the friend. The few men who were there shifted their weight uncomfortably, feeling out of place in this congregation of women. This was a place meant for women, and their nervous energy showed they understood that.
Curious about the other women who shared this single moment in time with me, I glanced furtively around the room, trying not to stare, pretending to read the book I still held open in my lap. The women in the waiting room looked like an advertisement carefully chosen for diversity. White women, black women, Hispanic women, and Asian women were all well represented, and the manner of dress and speech reflected a broad cross section of social strata and education. Some of the women were visibly nervous, scared to be here, while others draped themselves casually in the chair, looking bored and tired, as though this was just another daily routine for them. How many of them, I wondered, were deliberately cultivating a casual appearance, pretending to themselves I don’t really care, let’s just get it over with manner? I toyed with that idea myself this morning, trying to psych myself up to adopt an attitude of indifference. It hadn’t worked, and I gave up on it.
One young woman just across from me was animated, talking loudly and rapidly to anyone who would listen. Her eyes darted from one person to another, a hunted look betraying her apprehension. She was young, too young to have to be going through such an experience, and was accompanied by a stern-looking older woman who sat reading the Bible next to her, lips moving visibly as she mouthed the passages. She shot a disapproving look at the young woman by her side, and the girl cringed and fell silent. My heart went out to her, sitting there with a wounded animal expression on her face, trying to pretend this was just a normal day.
Another young woman appeared from the interior of the building, and the well dressed, confident young woman sitting by the fireplace leapt up and met her. She led her toward the door, murmuring comforting words as they disappeared into the bright sunlight of the outer world. Again, all conversation halted, everyone following her small, slumped form as she worked her way through the room. When the door closed behind her, everyone began to talk again.
The nurse appeared and called a name from her clipboard. The animated young girl sat up beside the rigid form of the Bible-reading woman, her face contorted with a look of stark terror. The woman looked up from her Bible long enough to give her a frightening look, and barked “Now!” The girl jumped and ran toward the outer door, but the older woman caught up with her before she could turn the knob. The girl’s body wilted as her companion touched her arm, and she allowed herself to be led toward the waiting nurse, who threw a fierce glare at the older woman as she put her arms around the young girl’s shoulder and led her, sobbing, back into the mysterious interior.
I felt a shiver up my spine as I looked around at the silent women staring at the door the girl disappeared through. I thought about the past week, the horrible hours in the doctor’s office, the feeling of hopelessness as I struggled to make a life-changing decision. Nathan was a part of the discussion the whole time, but he always made sure I understood he would stand by me no matter what I decided. I looked at him now and smiled a sick smile. He patted my hand and leaned over closer.
“Do you want to go home?” he asked. “It’s not too late, if you want to change your mind.”
He misread the look on my face, I realized as I shook my head. He didn’t realize the sorrow in my eyes was not for me, but for the girl who had just been sent back to face her fears alone, to become an adult before she was ready. I had no regrets; we made the right decision, and I didn’t need to have second thoughts.
“No. It’s just…oh, that poor little girl. Can you imagine, not having your own voice in a decision like this?”
“Well…we don’t actually know that. It could be this was her decision.”
Nathan patted my hand again, trying to reassure me the world was, indeed, fair, even though I knew already it wasn’t. His voice didn’t contain his usual confidence and I smirked at him, the secret smirk we shared when we wanted to assure each other we recognized the lie. He didn’t believe a word he just said, but he thought it was the right thing to say. He was trying to comfort me. I laid my head on his shoulder, and whispered.
“It’s all right. You don’t need to comfort me. I can handle this.”
The inside door opened again and a different nurse appeared. She read my name from the clipboard in her hand. It was time. Nathan gave me a weak smile.
“I’ll be here the whole time, don’t worry. I’ll be thinking about you.”
That was all. I moved toward the nurse, trying to show him by my confident step that I wasn’t afraid. I felt his eyes on me as I walked, felt the eyes of everyone in the room on me as I walked, and they followed me all the way down the hall even behind the closed door. It was one of the strangest feelings I ever experienced.
When I woke up, I couldn’t remember where I was. This was a strange room, not my room at all, and I was tied to a bed. What was going on? I struggled against the bonds tying my hands for just a minute, then lay still again. I felt nauseous and cold. I must have said something, because I was enveloped in warmth as a soft, heated blanket was laid across my prostate form. I murmured something unintelligible even to me, and settled back down.
“Looks like you’re finally waking up.”
The cheerful voice above me intruded on my attempts to go back to sleep, pulled me out of the strange place I’d been back to the real world. I nodded, then winced as a throbbing pain shot through my head. Where was I?
“You had us worried. You had a bad response to the anesthesia, but it looks like you’re going to be all right.”
The words came from the void which surrounded me, a brightly lit void, the words disembodied, falling through the air toward me as though through water. I frowned. I should know where I was, right? Was I dead? I didn’t feel right.
“Have you ever had problems with anesthesia before? Our records don’t indicate it.”
I struggled to make sense of the incomprehensible sounds coming my way, but I couldn’t. It was just gibberish. I gave up and sort of mumbled a low sound, perhaps something which was actually a word in some language, but meaningless to me, and apparently to the owner of the voice that insisted on speaking to me.
“What? I didn’t understand.”
I struggled to bring myself back from wherever I was; I fought against the darkness which still seemed to surround me, and with a determined effort I was able to focus on the words I was hearing. Finally I understood what I was being asked.
“I…maybe…I…I had…a strange response to anesthesia once…when I had dental surgery…I think….”
“Why didn’t you tell us when we asked you about it? Those sorts of things are very important, if you’re going to get the right sort of treatment.”
“I…I don’t know…I…I guess I…just forgot.”
Now I remembered. They asked me about anesthesia, and if I’d ever had any problems. I told them no, not because I didn’t remember the earlier incident, but because I thought it wasn’t important, and because I thought they wouldn’t do the surgery if I said anything.
“Why…why am I strapped down?”
“Because you were fighting the anesthesia…when you started to wake up. Everything was fine, but then you started having trouble waking up and you tried to yank the tubes out of your arms. We strapped you down so you wouldn’t hurt yourself.”
Yes, now I remembered. That was the same reaction I had the last time. I don’t wake up from anesthesia easily, and when I come out of it, I have a terrible headache. I struggled against the straps restraining me…I hate being tied down. I needed to get free.
“Here, stop struggling like that! You’ll knock your IV out. Settle down just for a minute, and I’ll try to get you unfastened. But you have to help me, by calming down and lying still.”
I settled down. I believed him. He was a gentle older man, and he had very kind eyes. I trusted him. As soon as I settled, the nurse began removing my IV. After the IV was out, she unstrapped my arms. I was free, not tied down, and I could relax.
“There. That’s better, isn’t it? You’ll be all right. You didn’t have any problems with the surgery, and you’re in good health. Now that you’re awake and calmed down, you should be fine. Just lie there until you feel like you can sit up. Don’t feel you have to rush it.”
Within a few minutes, I was able to sit up, but as soon as I did the nausea rushed over me again. I lay back down, sweating and exhausted. The nurse patted me on the hand.
“Don’t rush it. It’s always difficult, and you had a hard time coming out of it. You don’t want to rush things.”
I nodded and settled back down. I felt like maybe I’d just lie there forever. I was warm and comfortable, and everybody was kind to me. I didn’t have the energy to get up and do anything.
In a few minutes I was able to get up, and although the room did swim, this time I was able to stay up. The nurse helped me find my things and helped me get changed back into my street clothes. She gave me a list of instructions and a prescription from the doctor for pain medicine. I stared at it, the words on the page swimming before my eyes. I couldn’t understand a word I read.
“Do you have someone with you to drive you home?”
“Yes, I have…my fiancé. He’s…in the waiting room.”
“What’s his name?”
The nurse went out to the door and called out into the waiting room, called out the name Nathan. In a second he was beside me, his face full of concern. He grabbed my hand, sat on the chair beside the bed, and stared into my face like he was trying to memorize every feature.
“Are you all right? What’s wrong?”
The nurse explained that nothing was wrong, but because of my trouble fighting against waking up, they wanted to make sure he understood the instructions. She went over the instructions again with him; I saw him nod, but couldn’t make any sense of what either of them said. I sat on the bed, still holding his hand, and tried to force myself to focus.
When we left the clinic, the bright sunlight hurt my eyes, intensifying the throbbing in my head. Nathan helped me into the back seat of his mother’s car, and I stretched out gratefully. We had a three hour drive before we would be back home, home to our own hometown where I was unable to find a doctor who would provide the surgery I needed. He stopped at a nearby drugstore and filled the pain medications; I slept all the way home.
Nathan tucked me into bed and brought me a glass of water. He sat close by my bed all evening, making sure I had whatever I wanted. The next day I felt fine, the nausea gone, the headache only a distant memory, and we were able to resume our life. When I went to work, the color had returned to my cheeks and there was no visible trace of the experience the two of us shared.
This morning, Nathan rose early, and took his morning run as usual. I puttered around the kitchen, fixing a bowl of cereal for our teenage son, lost in his own world, his head encased in headphones which shut out any possible intrusive sound. I tapped him on the shoulder to let him know it’s time to eat. He slouched to the table, seemingly unaware there was anybody else in the room with him.
Nathan came up behind me and slid his arms around my waist; I leaned against him, feeling like a young bride all over again. He nuzzled my neck and whispered in my ear, all the little secrets of a life lived together. The spring sun shone through the kitchen window, burning away the cobwebs of a long winter. It was Saturday and I didn’t have to go to work; I had big plans for springtime.
In the bedroom, as I cleaned out the closet to put the winter clothes away, an old yellowed paper fluttered out of the pages of a book long ago shoved back out of the way, testament to the overflowing shelves which wouldn’t hold any more volumes. I read the instructions written for me all those years ago, for the first time able to understand the words, not addled by anesthesia.
Nathan slipped up behind me, looking for his favorite bowling shirt. Seeing me crouched, he knelt and stared at this paper, relic of a shared experience long past, a decision made years ago and long since forgotten. He glanced at me, not speaking, his eyes filled with a million questions. I went to the desk and picked up a pen. I wrote my answer to his million questions in large red letters across the sheet of instructions.