I’ve been doing a lot of it, waiting, that is. Since we made the decision to relocate several months ago, it’s seemed like “hurry up and wait.” Four months ago, I began sorting through books and clothing, optimistic that we’d be headed north sometime in late April or, at the latest, mid-May. But it’s now June, and we are now waiting for escrow to close in just less than a month. Even though I realize these next weeks will now be dominated by a flurry of activity, our time thus far has seemed elongated and the waiting interminable.
What you do with time
is what a grandmother clock
does with it: strike twelve
and take its time doing it.
You’re the clock: time passes,
you remain. And wait.
(From: “Mother,” by From The Plural of Happiness: Selected Poems of Herman de Coninck, 2006
Waiting. We all do it–and often. It can dominate our daily lives. We wait in lines for tickets or to get through security at the airport. We wait to be served in restaurants or for a train in the subway station. We wait for calls or letters from employers, editors or loved ones, for acceptances to schools, or the results of medical tests. And we wait in doctors’ waiting rooms for an appointment scheduled an hour earlier, thumbing impatiently through outdated magazines and checking the clock a dozen times, unable to concentrate on much of anything but the waiting.
Waiting, a novel by Ha Jin, captures the poignant dilemma of a Chinese man, Lin, whose life is dominated by duty. He is caught in a loveless marriage arranged by his traditional parents Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. He becomes attracted to a nurse in the hospital where he works, but Communist party rules prevent him from divorcing his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years. Year after year, Lin returns to his village to ask his wife for his freedom, and year after year, he returns, still married, unable to consummate his love affair. The irony comes at the end, when Lin concludes that he “waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.”
The narrator in the short story, “Waiting,” by E.C. Osondu, also spends his days in wait. War has destroyed his village, and he is one of many in a refugee camp faced with the threat of starvation. They spend their days waiting.
Here in the camp, we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do. We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run. And then we begin to watch the road and wait to see if the water trucks are coming, we watch for the dust trail, and then we go and fetch our containers and start waiting and then the trucks come and the first few containers are filled and the fight and struggle and tearing and scratching begin because someone has whispered to someone that the water tanker only has little water in it. That is, if we are lucky and the water tanker comes; oftentimes, we just bring out our containers and start waiting and praying for rain to fall.
We are all forced to wait at many times in our lives. Those toe-tapping, check-our-wrist watches moments are minor irritations that we all endure. But there is another kind of waiting that no one finds easy, waiting that is punctuated with worry and sleepless nights. Waiting that could be a matter of life and death. Anyone living with cancer knows this kind of waiting intimately. In the course of treatments and recovery, waiting can be torment, as writer Susan Gubar describes in her article, “Living With Cancer: Hurry Up and Wait.”
As a cancer patient, you endure “waiting for a doctor, waiting for radiation, waiting for the delivery of chemotherapy drugs, waiting through interminable infusions or transfusions, waiting for a scan or a biopsy, waiting for the results of a scan or a biopsy, waiting (sometimes starved and unclothed on a gurney in a hall) for surgery… Hurrying up to wait is, of course, the fate of most patients, whether or not they have cancer and no matter how impatient they may be. But for cancer patients, waiting entails being enveloped in heightened fears about harmful protocols and the difficulty of eradicating or containing the disease. While I’m waiting, who knows what appalling cells are conspiring within my body to destroy my being? (In: “Well,” New York Times, December 3, 2015)
A 2011 research study reported in The Annals of Surgery found “wait times for cancer treatment have increased over the last decade… potentially resulting in additional treatment delay…Although cancer incidence rates have seen modest declines during the last decade, the overall number of patients diagnosed with a solid organ malignancy has been increasing, likely due to an increasing elderly population. An extended interval from diagnosis to treatment, the researchers concluded, adds to patient anxiety, leads to gaps in care, and perhaps affects disease progression.
If you’ve been faced with the anxious period between any test for cancer and its results, your experience may be echoed in Muriel Fish’s poem, “In Cold Dreams Before Dawn,” as she captures the fear of waiting:
Enters, snaps the x-ray film into a wall unit lit with
…the bite of the biopsy needle reminds me
most lumps are benign…
…I wait, remembering long
Bittersweet days sitting with my mother and sister,
each with their own small malignancy and dead within three years.
(In: The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)
Robert Carroll, MD, is a UCLA psychiatrist who utilizes poetry to help patients cope with their illnesses and struggles. In a 2005 article, “Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” he explores how poetry can help us find the words to express trauma, illness, death and dying. Remembering my father’s death from lung cancer several years ago, I was drawn to one of the featured poems: “What Waiting Is.”
We sit on the bench in the hospital corridor
next to the cafeteria, and we wait.
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…
In matters of death and dying, as Carroll describes, we may be forced to do little but wait, but finding ways to express our pain and emotion, by writing or finding meaning in others’ poetry and prose, has therapeutic benefits. In this poem, Carroll captured another kind of waiting cancer imposes on us, the experience of waiting while a loved one ends his cancer journey. As I read it, I recalled the experience of waiting while my beloved father was dying of lung cancer several years ago:
In the bathroom you look in the mirror.
What do you see?
Your father’s sad face?
Your mother’s eyes?
You catch the water cupped
in your thickened hands, splash it on your face,
and hope against hope you can wash it away—
the aging brown spots, the bags,
the swelling truth of waiting—…
you get home to see the light
flash on your answering machine…
you push the button,
and it’s your sister’s voice,
but it’s choked,
and she can’t speak.
Waiting never seems to get easier, and there are times, particularly in the midst of illness, trauma and suffering, that the waiting we do seems never ending. Yet, we learn, as we sometimes are forced to do, to wait. And we hope, as T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The faith and the love and the hope are … in the waiting. These words make me reconsider why life makes us wait. I am still learning, even after all these years, to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will. “This is life. You learn to wait.”
The waiting I’ve been doing lately will, once it’s over, make me wonder why I expended on the energy on it I have. But I, like you, have sat, worried and anxious, in waiting rooms while a child undergoes surgery, or waited, dreading the call I knew would come, when my father died, and waited, caught between hope and fear, for the results echocardiograms or a biopsy. Think about all the times you’ve waited for something or someone. Write about an experience you’ve had of waiting.