A young woman was weeping. Pretty blonde hair swung in front of her face, but it didn’t hide her angst. From where I sat, I could feel the panic running though her body. It cut through the room like a chilly wet breeze and crept into my lungs until I was inside its orbit.
Her cell phone was pressed to her ear. “I’m going to get a parking ticket,” she said in a breathless voice. “I thought I’d only be here an hour.” Two small children shared a screen in the chair next to her, oblivious to their mom’s angst.
Three other women sat across from them, and I was in a corner seat. All of us, except the kids, were wrapped in thin blue robes just like the blonde. I glanced at my book, but it was hard to concentrate, and so instead I took in the scene unfolding around me.
“They found something,” the lady whispered into her phone. She was obviously trying to keep her voice down, but it came out sounding terrified and aggressive. “Can you come and get the kids. I don’t know how long this is going to take. And we can’t afford a parking ticket.”
I guessed she was talking to her husband, that she was trying to communicate how scared she was without alarming their children. But the tension she radiated infected everything and I have no doubt that her anxiety came through to him clearly.
Her panic reminded me of my own diagnosis, even though my experience was very different from hers. I started out at a rural hospital and had the waiting room to myself. A single tech did all the work, and there wasn’t a parking meter for miles around. My husband found a lump in my right breast, as hard and defined as an almond, just below the surface of my skin. During my mammogram, the tech told me she knew where I could get cheap chemo.
I must have cancer, I thought. It came to me like a math problem that suddenly makes sense, the proverbial light bulb blinking on over my head. While my breast was clamped in a vice, I understood that my life was going to change. But at least my kid was safe at home with my husband and I wasn’t worried about parking tickets.
Over the course of my treatment, I’ve sat in waiting rooms over and over again. I’ve waited for biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, mammograms, and scans of every size, shape and color. Sometimes the women I wait with talk like sorority sisters at a pillow party, and sometimes we keep to ourselves like strangers in a train station.
But once in a while, I have an encounter that’s memorable.
That day, while I sat in that waiting room, I identified with that blonde-haired woman and wondered if she had cancer too, if her life was going to shift in ways she couldn’t possibly imagine. I looked at her kids and saw the face of my own daughter.
I wanted to tell her that the beginning part is hard, that it gets easier. I wanted to offer her reassurance that wasn’t mine to give.
But she was on the phone anyway, and she appeared to be lost in the vortex of impending cancer. Then, I heard my name called and went in to hear my own fate. By the time I was done, she was gone.
I never found out what happened to her.
All these years later, I still see her face. I feel her terror. I wonder about her children and husband and about how all their lives are unfolding.
I’ve come to understand that it is the nature of serious illness to leave questions unanswered. And for me, the blonde in the waiting room is one of them.