IN THE WAITING ROOM

John Thomas Tuft
4 min readFeb 9, 2024

IN THE WAITING ROOM

By John Thomas Tuft

“What doctor are you waiting for?” She is mid-70s, anxious, sitting across from me in the waiting room. “I’ve been here for a while and my appointment was at 1:00pm. Why do they make us wait so long?” I smile and ask which doctor she is seeing. We are waiting in the land of pain and fear, together yet separate in knowing that no one else can feel our pain. “It’s some foreign name, I can’t even pronounce it,” she fusses. I tell her my doctor’s name. “Yeah, that’s him. Is he good?” I’ve been in this world of pain long enough to know what she is asking. Does he listen? Does he care? Is he kind? Or am I just one more? One more complainer? One more worry wart? One more aging person who is not to be taken seriously? One more billing to the insurance company/Medicare miasmic myopathy? Does anyone see me, that is the question that hangs in the air in the waiting room.

The room is large, not unlike a waiting area in a train station or an airport. Long rows of chairs, doorways and hallways in every direction that I look. A man approaches the end of the row where we are seated. He moves slowly and gingerly. A man in pain. He ever so carefully lowers himself into a chair. Sighs. In the waiting room, the sighs are the soundtrack. He looks around, clipboard and pen in hand. “I told my boss I had to stop here on my lunch break. How long y’all been here?” Nobody has the heart to tell him the truth. We live here. “I thought that I’d be feelin’ better, but no.” He shifts uncomfortably, speaking volumes to those who know. “Are the doctors here any good?” Back to that universal question. We all nod, of course they are. Hope is the currency of meaning, here in the waiting room.

There is a steady stream of people making their way down the hallway which leads to the CT scanner, the MRI catacomb, plain old X-ray machines. If we can find the exact cause of the pain, we can…? What? Make it go away is the universal answer. Just. Make. It. Go. Away. An elderly couple is in the stream, but they break off to find seats in the waiting room. They both are moving well but I notice that she is wearing some kind of hard plastic rig that holds her straight up. As someone who himself had to wear a hard plastic complete turtle shell on my upper body for three months, I immediately feel for her. She is smiling, chatting, mentally unbowed. If you know where to look, the edges of the eyes and the set of the mouth, you can read the weariness that she tries to keep tucked safely away so others will not offer aphorisms or their uncle’s cousin’s best friend’s best man’s opinion on how you should deal with your pain.

I become aware of a sound at the edges. Like a baby crying, wailing in the distance. It goes on and on. I become aware that others are hearing it, as well. A soul has fallen in the restroom off to one side and is calling for help. The woman at the check-in desk, whom I’ve noticed is remarkably cheerful and helpful in the onslaught of souls in the waiting room, jumps up and hurries to the door to assure this despairing soul that help is on the way. She is not alone. She is not abandoned. I flash back to a long ago visit to a pain doctor’s office. Every so often I must produce a urine sample to be tested to make sure that I am only taking the opioids that they prescribed. I am in the restroom at their office, filling the specimen bottle. But when I turn to find the cap I lose my balance and sprawl on the floor, into a puddle of my own waste. I call for help, wanting to be known, but not seen. In the waiting room we guard our moments of shame.

Finally, the herd of pain is thinned out and it is my turn to enter the sanctum. Only the chosen can enter therein. I am adorned in the holy black and gold paraments of the greatest NFL franchise in history: the Pittsburgh Steelers. The apostate tending to my pain is a fan of the lowly Baltimore Ravens. He sees my jacket tossed on the exam table and shakes his head: “Oh, it’s you. You do know that we were in the conference championship game!” I offer absolution. “You do know that the Steelers beat your team this season,” I wave the censer of my pain through the air. “Twice.” He tries to protest, something about backup players, yada, yada, yada. I silently hold up two fingers. Twice. He turns the computer screen to face me. “Buddy, you’re a mess.” I silently offer my amen. Three fractured thoracic vertebrae. Three bulging discs in the lumbar. Lots of scar tissue. Lots of arthritis. Lots of reasons for pain. Just. Make. It. Go. Away. But of course, he cannot. “It’s a wonder you’re walking unassisted.”

As Lillie and I are walking back through the waiting room, papers in hand to get a CT scan for a lesion in my pelvic bone, I realize that here in the waiting room, these are my people. This is my tribe. And I want to go to each one and say, “I see you. I know. I know… I see. You are not your pain.”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.

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John Thomas Tuft

John is a novelist, retired mental health counselor and minister and sheep farmer, who now lives in Roanoke, VA.