Six-AM sunlight streamed through the windows of the hospital waiting room, stretching polygonal sheets of light across vinyl couches, coffee tables, and armchairs. Each piece of mismatched furniture faced another in a tessellated labyrinth of living rooms across the industrial carpet. CNN chattered from a TV in the corner, but no one listened. A couple in matching True Religion jeans sat near the TV, staring blankly past CNN and out to the driveway lined with silent ambulances. Another man snored from an armchair in the middle of the long room, waking every few minutes with a start, only to settle back into uneasy sleep. For the fifth time, the increasingly peeved voice on the intercom said "Chin family and translator, please report to the information desk."
“Are you going to check?”
Emily’s words snapped me back into my body. I looked across at her, sprawled across the gray couch on the other side of the coffee table.
“I thought you were asleep," I said.
“I was.” She sat up, pulling her gray leggings down over her kneecaps, “How long has it been?” She squinted at me from behind the frames of her cat's-eye glasses with her mouth in an unconscious, nervous pucker. Right after a nap my 21-year-old sister moved like a septuagenarian -- uncertain, shaky limbs and a hunched spine.
“It’s all over, you missed it. You’ve been asleep for like four hours," I said.
Without looking at me she leaned over the coffee table and illuminated the screen of her phone with a finger.
“Fuck you.” Worn dull by years of usage, the words had become more formality than insult. “Are you going to check?”
“They said they would buzz us when he was done.” I held up the translucent plastic buzzer. It was the kind of thing the hostess hands you at the Cheesecake Factory when you're waiting for a table: a small textured-plastic pager that will eventually vibrate and flash. “Our table’s not ready yet.”
She leaned back and shut her eyes. “You’re awful.”
I dropped the pager onto the coffee table and leaned back. “The fact that they’re making me think of Dad in the same terms as a bowl of Spicy Southwest Pasta, that’s what’s awful.”
“It’s efficient,” she said, eyes still closed.
“So were concentration camps.”
She didn’t take the bait. Her eyes and mouth stayed firmly shut.
I looked around the room again, tapping my fingers against the cold pleather surface of the couch. The couple in the corner bickered about something under their breath as the woman dug for something at the bottom of her purse. The man snoring in the middle of the room had moved to a couch. “I’m going to check out the gift shop.”
She opened one eye. “Why?”
“I just can’t sit still.”
She settled back and closed her eyes again. “I want to go after you.”
“Fine. Make sure no one steals my laptop.”
I stood and walked across the waiting room, adjusting my too-small gray sweatshirt, feeling more conscious of my own skin with the fabric stretched against it. My skin prickled with sweat, even in the air-conditioned waiting room. Other people sat around the room like silent islands. Some tried to read but most just looked around at the others, losing themselves in someone else's nervous shifting. A family that I felt sure were the infamous Chins sat in a tight circle in the corner near the door.
I stepped out of the uneasy glow of the waiting room, through the circular lobby and into the yellow-lit haze of the gift shop. Even though it was July, the interior seemed decorated for Easter: all pastels and leafy greens. Weather-Channel music drifted from speakers obscured by racks of bouquets and gift baskets, all offering the hopeful imperative: “Get well soon!” Suddenly I pictured my dad on an operating table somewhere upstairs, the interior of his neck exposed between stretched flaps of skin. The tumor exposed, too, clinging to his thyroid gland: both of him and consuming him. The image was there for a moment, superimposed over a novelty-sized glass chess board. A Beer-can cookbook. A magnifying glass made of bamboo. Get well soon. Suddenly I missed the waiting room.
He had looked so small in the hospital bed that morning. Smaller than a father should look. I looked away as he changed, both of us behind the privacy curtain of the surgery check-in section, but I still caught glimpses of his skinny legs as he slowly pulled off his jeans, and how he waited until the gown was on to quickly slip off his underwear and tuck them between his folded pants and t-shirt. He had never looked older as he sat there, undressed, earnestly answering the nurse’s questions.
“What’s your full name?”
“George. Herbert. Rosok.”
My father could only have one of us with him when they took him upstairs, and in the confusion if that moment, it had ended up being me. I unconsciously assumed that it would be my sister if there was ever a choice — she was the more empathetic of the two of us. She let herself feel things instead of cracking a joke to puncture the moment. And she had always held some symmetry with our dad in my mind; she looked more like him, while my features always took after those of our mom.
It wasn't supposed to be me. Someone had made a mistake.
Having answered all of the nurse's questions to her satisfaction, and having placed all his clothes in to the black garment bag, the nurse handed my dad a robe and led us both to a long, brightly lit room on the next floor. My dad climbed in to the waiting bed. As he took off the thin hospital robe, I saw his bare back through the loose gown before he laid down. I wanted my father to be covered; the small, uncooperative gown wasn’t enough. I wasn’t ready to see him like this, exposed and small in a hospital bed, surrounded by hanging bags and beeping plastic monitors. This was supposed to come later, I thought. But maybe no one is ever ready for this. Maybe this is just how it feels.
They covered my father with a heated, inflatable blanket called a “Bair Hugger.” We shared a laugh over the name and I let him chat about work problems I didn’t really understand. His words were fast. He needed the distraction. Various nurses came and asked the same questions as before, then the anesthesiologist, differentiated by her surgical green shower cap, came to attach his IV. Her words were practiced to the point that the meaning had evaporated long ago.
And then it was time. Two nurses clicked the railings into place on either side of the bed. Losing the moment, I squeezed my dad's arm.
“I love you, dad.”
“Love you too, Kiddo.”
Kiddo. Suddenly I was back at the King Dome after a Mariner’s game. I was seven, clutching an oversized baseball mitt to my chest. My father was so much taller than me then, I had to crane my neck to see his face. The game was over and we shuffled out with the crowd. His hand rested on the back of my neck, guiding me through the towering mass of people. ‘This way kiddo.' I felt safe in his shadow, then, feeling the comforting weight of his hand.
But now he looked up at me as I walked away from him. The moment had passed and another was slipping away. I looked back once before turning the corner. He fussed with the hem of his gown as the nurses wheeled the hospital bed down the narrow room. And then he was gone, and I was on my own.
I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and wiped them away with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
Coming back to myself, still standing in the gift shop, I realized I had been staring at a calendar of New Zealand landscapes. I looked around quickly to see if anyone had noticed. There was no one there.
I walked back to the waiting room, and the Chin family was gone. Emily was asleep again, and the couple in the corner had pulled out a deck of playing cards. I sat down on the couch, closed my eyes, and waited.
Photo by Sean Williams