Wednesday, November 15, 2006

a rainy morning

I drove my mom to the hospital this morning for a CAT scan. She asked me a week ago if I'd do it and I'd said I would. Then my middle child asked me to sit in on his classroom this morning as part of American Education Week, and I couldn't because I'd already said I'd do this first. So right away the day starts with a shift in the line: first this, then that if there's time for it.

This time my son missed out. My mother and I were in the hospital most of the morning.

The radiologist wouldn't let me come along when they called my mother's name. We had been sitting there in the tiny waiting area, she and I, sandwiched in with twelve other people waiting for more or less the same thing. I didn't even have a chair; I was sort of squatting on the floor next to my mother, having acquiesced so she could have the last available seat.

An old man with an oxygen tube clipped into his nose saw my cell phone and asked me nervously if I'd turned it off. "It'll mess up their computers," he said fretfully. I took the phone out of its case and showed him the blank screen: "No worries. I turned it off when we walked in here."

He nodded. The oxygen tube made a brief gasp every few minutes as we went on waiting. I tried to act like I didn't notice it.

When my mother was led away I followed anyway, as far as the X-ray tech would allow. "It won't take long, right?" I asked, more for my mother's benefit than my own (I had a feeling my mother wouldn't ask, for once). "No, not long," the lady said. Then they rounded a corner and disappeared.

I turned around. A man in an electric blue sport shirt wearing flip-flop sandals with thick hunting socks was lolling in the doorway, smiling and laughing and nodding his head in my direction like he knew me. I frowned a little: there's nothing funny about what I just said.

A nurse walked past and announced: "Those of you here for the drug testing, come with me." Two young men slouching against the wall stood up straight and followed her out. Good luck with your whiz quiz, I wanted to say. But I didn't.

Then I walked out into the hallway too, not wanting to hang around another minute in the crowded little room with pink pinstripe wallpaper. I could feel a claustrophobic episode coming on. I studied a bulletin board under glass that displayed instructions for using the time clock on the right. While I stood there reading another old man tottered past and said loudly, "Can I brush that pretty long hair of yours?" I jumped.

He grinned at me broadly. Some of his teeth were missing and his eyeglasses were the very thick-lensed kind with heavy black frames.

I changed my mind about avoiding the lobby. I went back into the waiting area and took a seat. The man in the electric blue shirt kept looking over at me and grinning. I decided he was probably a drinker.

The wife of the man with the oxygen tube was telling someone how she'd always wanted to be a dancer. "I have a sequined dress at home in the closet," I heard her say. "All these years, I've never worn it. Never had a place to wear it to."

I looked over at her, this white-haired lady wearing a red and green Christmas sweatshirt. She even had a little gold Christmas bell pinned to the lapel of her coat, so unexpectedly festive that it made her look brave, somehow. Or determined, in a cheerful kind of way.

"Thought they said it wouldn't take long," the man in the blue sport shirt said. I looked up. Apparently, he was talking to me.

I smiled politely. This is a phenomenon I've observed more than once in a waiting room. It's like being at the beginning of a high school dance, that stage where no one wants to be the first one to venture out onto the dance floor. At first, everyone is courteously silent, pointedly pretending casual disinterest. Then, as time yawns on, small chit-chat starts bubbling up and before long everyone in the room is engaged in animated conversation. No one escapes it.

"They stuck me pretty good," he said, holding out his arms to show gauze wads taped to the insides of his elbows. "They couldn't get a vein, I guess. Now I'm getting chest X-rays so I can see what twenty years of smoking has done to my lungs."

"Quite a bit, I'd say," I said.

"Oh, I don't smoke that much," he said.
The man with the oxygen tube rolled his eyes.

When my mother re-emerged ("Look at my hair, Sharon! Look what lying on that thing did to my hair. I look wild," she said, exasperated) I told her about the old man wanting to brush my hair, to make her laugh. She did laugh. She, too, showed me the insides of her arms, both of which were taped with awkward mounds of gauze.
They had trouble finding a vein, she said. I nodded (they have the same trouble with me).

"So they gave you a contrast dye," I said. (She'd been worried about having to drink barium.)
"Yes," she said. "I think that's what's making me feel so lightheaded right now."

"Well, you'll know something by Friday," I said. "I asked the nurse when you were dressing."

Something about the whole morning was starting to remind me of that book I used to read to my oldest when he was little -- Love You Forever by Robert Munsch: how the son grows up and comes back to his mother when she's older and rocks her in his arms, instead of the other way around, the way it used to be.

Outside in the parking lot, the skies were grey and gloomy, spitting rain that -- you could tell -- wanted to turn into snow, but couldn't quite do it. I could have said something reassuring -- I wanted to -- but instead I just drove with extra care, as if we can all be soothed just by knowing and not knowing, some nameless lullaby that goes along to the tune of windshield wipers beating time in the rain, some Circadian rhythm.

Mother, daughter. Round and round.