In the Waiting Room

I was in the airport in Seattle, waiting for a flight to arrive to take me to Chicago and thence home to Madison, Wisconsin.  The flight was coming in from across the Pacific Ocean.

As I sat there by myself, reading and watching the airport activity around me, I became aware of a group of people nearby — probably 6 or 8 of them — who were obviously together and waiting in excited anticipation for someone or something that was arriving on the incoming flight.  After overhearing much of their conversation during the next 15 minutes, it became clear what was happening; they were there to meet another member of the family who was coming home with a newly-adopted child from the other side of the ocean.

By the time the flight arrived, I think most people in the waiting area had become aware of the unfolding narrative, and we were quietly but intensely focusing in on the expected arrival.  And then it happened.  The new mother came out of the jetway holding the hand of a small boy. They entered the circle of family who were there to greet them.  Huge smiles all around, hugs, but also care taken not to overwhelm the little boy with too much emotion. The family members wiped away their tears and the rest of us did likewise.  I felt like we other travelers had been given a gift to witness a singular and fiercely private event in another family’s life.  The memory still warms my heart.

During our lives, we spend a lot of time in waiting rooms.  Waiting areas are ‘coming and going’ places where time is in suspension.  In one of her poems, my sister referred to the time spent in airports as “thick” time.  So too is time spent in other waiting rooms: before medical appointments, haircuts, bus boarding, restaurant seating or while the car is getting an oil change and its tires rotated (an experience unto itself that probably deserves its own posting). Sometimes, the waiting is one of happy anticipation.  Sometimes, it is full of apprehension or even fear.   And sometimes, the waiting is just that — simply waiting.

For children, waiting is often a basically difficult task.  I remember one time, when our son was probably about two years old, he and I had arrived at the clinic for an appointment with his pediatrician. We were in the corner of the waiting room taking off his snowsuit.  Once out of his snowsuit, John took off across the waiting room and, without any hesitation, climbed up into the lap of an elderly man — a total stranger.  He was a lovely man, a grandpa-type; he simply smiled down at John and patted him on the back.  Apparently, this was John’s way of handling the waiting room scene.


When I was an undergraduate student here at the University of Wisconsin, I took the passenger train to Chicago one weekend to visit my sister.  The train arrived in the ‘windy city’ and I got off and went into the enormous Chicago Union Station to meet Eleanor.  As I looked and looked for her among all the milling people, I slowly began to realize that she wasn’t there.  This was my first solo venture to Chicago, and a sense of fear and not knowing what to do welled up in me. Ultimately, I found a pay telephone, we got things sorted out and I took a taxi to her apartment.  When she opened the door to welcome me, I burst into tears.  I had definitely been scared and challenged in a way that neither of us anticipated.  When the waiting and watching have no known resolution, the experience can be full of anxiety and worry.

My mother was more brave.  After Ed and I moved into our present house, about 25 years ago, my mother agreed to take the Greyhound bus to Madison to visit and see our new home.  This would have been in 1988 when she was 88 years old.  At that point in her life she had significant macular degeneration and hearing loss.  One of her friends would take her to the bus station in Baraboo and I would meet her on her arrival at the bus station in Madison.  The day of her visit came, and when I got to the bus station, a little ahead of the posted arrival time, the waiting area was full of people and commotion.  I made inquiries at the ticket desk and, sure enough, the bus had come in early and all the passengers had de-boarded.    images (4)As I scanned the lobby, a woman came up to me and said, “Are you looking for your mother?”  Yes!  “She’s right over there.”  How did you know?!?  “You look so much like her.”  When I reached my mother, I apologized for not being there sooner, and she simply stated that she wasn’t worried — “I knew you would come.”  In retrospect, I think my sociable mother had made some friends on the bus and they knew she was to be met by her daughter and the woman who approached me had just put two and two together.  But I loved the fact that I looked “so much like her;” Sort of a built-in assurance that we would always be recognized as mother and daughter.

A less recognized waiting room exists in the context of hospice care.  One of my doctoral students did her dissertation on the meanings of occupation in a residential hospice.  In her analysis of the narrative data generated during six months of participant-observation, “Waiting” was a primary theme of meaning.  In effect, the resident’s room became a waiting room.  As Noralyn stated, “Residents waited, family and friends waited, staff waited.”  In the hospice study, one of the patients, who was struggling through the final week of her life, said at one point, “It takes so long to die.”  My mother, during the final night of her life, had said almost the exact same thing to my brother:  “Why does it take so long?” Waiting has been referred to in the literature as a “liminal experience;” perhaps the waiting during dying and death is the quintessential example of that liminal experience.

Meanwhile, the newly adopted little boy, who arrived those many years ago to meet his new family at the Seattle airport, must be a young adult by now. I hope that the loving welcome he received at the airport from his waiting family was a sign of what the years since then have held for him.  Surely this experience of waiting was, for the family, one of happy anticipation, and for the little boy, one of sweet resolution and promise.

Cohn, E.S. (2001).  From waiting to relating:  Parents’ experiences in the waiting room of an occupational therapy clinic.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55, 167-174.

Gasparini, G. (1995).  On waiting.  Time and Society, 4, 29-45.

Hasselkus, B.R. (1993).  Death in very old age.  A personal journey of caregiving.  American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 47, 717-723.

Jacques, N.D., & Hasselkus, B.R. (2004).  The nature of occupation surrounding dying and death.  OTJR:  Occupation, Participation and Health24, 44-53.

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