I work in a hospital. No, I'm not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV. But I spend a lot of time around the waiting rooms of departments like the Cardiac ICU -- what a close friend affectionately calls "Gateway to the Sickest Four Walls in America". Despite the fact that miracles take place daily befhind those walls, this is still a place of mortality.
These rooms are filled -- nearly 24/7 -- with worried, frightened people. Parents, holding each other, waiting to know if their precious child has survived a difficult operation. A husband, passing off bored and active children to siblings or parents, and hoping, praying, that his wife will sit beside him again soon. A old women, alone, sitting with incredible patience, staring at a memory only she can see and hoping that she won't go home a widow today.
Conversations are always strained, unnaturally cheerful. Football games are watched with glassy-eyed stares and comments that are not really meant to be heard, but spoken only to fill the silence. But the silence creeps back in, inexorably, as each person in the room is left to contemplate mortality and inevitable change. The waiting room is one of humanity's great equalizers.
Despite the tastefully invisible floral wallpaper and the warm colors of the upholstery, if these places had a color, it would be grey.
Today, I passed a large family gathering -- three generations, with Grandpa conspicuously absent. I mentally categorized them as a "death watch". You can spot them a mile away; each member waiting, in turn, for his or her 10 minutes with the patient. This family was a little different, however. The entire group was sitting in a circle of loveseats and chairs and staring at the floor with great intensity. They were smiling.
I followed their gaze to see a baby girl, perhaps 6 months old, laying on a pink fuzzy blanket. She was an absolute beauty: dark hair, blue eyes, porcelain skin. And she was playing well to her audience: kicking her feet and laughing the way only babies can -- starting with her toes, entire body convulsing with joy, and ending with a squeal most adults would struggle to produce. I couldn't help but smile.
"You have a big responsibility there, little one", I thought. There, embodied in her wiggling pinkness, were the collected hopes of an entire family. While she lay there, squealing, joyful, oblivious to the tension around her, the family could focus on life. They could pretend they were just there to see the newest family member, and not waiting to say goodbye to perhaps their oldest.
I went on to my destination. Papers delivered, explanations proffered, a joke shared, a task procured. As I passed back by the waiting room, the baby started to cry. Dad scooped her up to offer a bottle or a bit of comfort, and the spell was broken.
The light slowly faded and the room turned back to grey. And one by one, I watched the face of each family member close up as each retreated slowly back into personal solitude, where the sounds of crying babies, overhead pages, IV alarms and televisions are drowned out by the roaring din of reflection.