Christmas in the Waiting Room

The hospital was the last place she wanted to be, but the spirit of the season prevailed.

- Posted on Oct 24, 2013

Kathy Howard

Dreary. that was the only word for it. The waiting room was a U-shaped space outside the hospital’s cardiac ICU in Greenville, South Carolina. Stiff gray chairs with metal arms lined the walls; stains blotted the carpet. A dozen people were gathered in clusters, heads bent in weariness and worry.

The air felt still and stale. Could there be a more joyless place to spend Christmas?

We were hunched in our own corner. Mom and Granny had been here since the night before, the twenty-second. I made the five-hour drive from our home in Georgia as soon as I got the news that Granddaddy had suffered a heart attack and needed surgery.

I hated seeing him in his hospital bed, a breathing tube in his mouth, a tangle of wires attached to his 87-year-old body. The surgery was successful but the doctors were guarded. “We have to wait and see,” they said. But how long? Days, a week, a month?

No way around it, this would be our place to celebrate Christmas, not at home baking cookies, humming carols, stuffing stockings, decorating the tree. That antiseptic hospital smell instead of pine boughs; fluorescent lights instead of candles.

I flipped through a year-old magazine, too distracted to actually read anything. I glanced at the two women across from us and wondered what their story was. As if on cue Mom nudged me.

“They’re sisters,” she murmured. “Their mother had an aneurysm. She was a photographer and took some beautiful photographs. Let me introduce you.”

A minute later we were talking about the amazing places their mother had traveled to. One of them took out a bag of bagel chips and passed them around. Our crunching seemed incongruous in the tense silence. We almost laughed, then put the bag of chips out by the vending machines for everyone to enjoy.

I returned to my magazine. My husband, Moye, was staying at Mom’s house with our two young girls. We’d had to throw everything in suitcases so fast I couldn’t believe we hadn’t forgotten anything. At least I’d wrapped the girls’ presents. There were still their stocking stuffers, though.

I tossed my magazine aside. No use. Granny took out her Bible. She and Granddaddy had been married 65 years. She was beyond tired, but insisted on staying at the hospital, waiting. I wished I could do more than just sit here feeling helpless.

An older woman in an overcoat and a scarf walked in and sat down by herself. Mom and Granny seemed to know her too.

Granny went over to talk while Mom filled me in: “Her husband is a heart patient too. They haven’t been in town for very long and don’t have many friends. Their son lives nearby but he’s sick and can’t come. She’s all alone.”

“How’s your son?” Granny asked. “And your husband?”

A girl in sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt had taken over three chairs and was curled up on them with a blanket and pillow. She couldn’t have been more than 18. A big plastic garbage bag sat on the floor next to her. It looked like it held everything she owned.

Mom followed my gaze. “Her boyfriend was in a shooting,” Mom said. “He’s in for surgery right now. We’re waiting to find out if he’ll pull through.”

I closed my eyes and said a prayer.

Every few hours we were allowed into Granddaddy’s room to check on him, but just for a minute. Then it was back to the waiting room. Doctors would come and talk to a relative. Nurses reported on a patient.

The stock of food by the vending machines grew. Nuts, pretzels, cookies. Someone added candy canes. A splash of holiday cheer.

The girl in sweatpants sat up and stretched. Mom went over to her and sat, holding her hand for a moment, bowing her head. I couldn’t have imagined the two of them meeting anyplace else, Mom in her perky Christmas sweater and the girl in her sweats.

Here in the waiting room the barriers fell away. We were one. Worried. Waiting. Hoping. Praying.

I called Moye.

“I’m sorry you’re not here,” he said. “We just hung some ornaments on Mom’s tree. The girls did the lower branches and I filled out the higher ones. They’re putting up their stockings by the fireplace and then we’re going to watch White Christmas. You know how they love to sing along. We miss you.”

“I miss you too. But I’m glad I’m here.”

Granddaddy spent two and a half weeks in the ICU and then three months in a rehabilitation facility. When he went home, though, he walked through the front door on his own.

I can’t tell you how happy we are to have him home this Christmas. But we won’t soon forget how we celebrated the holiday last year in the ICU waiting room.

It wasn’t where we wanted to be or hoped to be, but it turned out to be just the right place to honor the birth of a King who came for us all, rich and poor, young and old, the lonely, the sick, the distressed.

No smell of balsam, no radio or TV blasting Christmas music, just the quiet conversations of strangers looking after each other. Praying. Waiting. Hoping.


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