Monday, February 15

The waiting room

by Liz Flaherty

My God, I love to write. I love to feel what writing makes me feel. I am so blessed that I get to have
those feelings. And sometimes I wish I didn't have them.

On opposite ends of the state, two people I love are in hospitals right now. For privacy's sake, I'm not going into any kind of detail, but being in those hospitals, looking around the way writers do, gave me a through-the-window look at things I don't know how to describe.

In a room is a patient who is very old. She is so fragile it seems as if you can count her bones through her skin. I think her earthly days are probably winding down. But her hair is swept into a silvery knot that draws into relief the structure of her cheekbones. Her daughter has put lipstick on her. When she opens her eyes, they are still bright, still smile when they see the children she's loved all their lives. She's still ornery when she talks to her husband or a grandchild cracks a bawdy joke. "She's still there," whispers a family member with tears in her voice. "How can she leave us when she's still there?"

In a room is a nurse who has had a complaint issued against her and her department. I don't know what happened. It is hard sometimes when you see personnel clustered around a computer screen laughing and talking and drinking soda but you can't seem to get a little cup of vanilla pudding that the patient you're there with might take a spoonful of. But I worked with the public; I know how hard it is from the other side, too, when you're the one visible to the public eye but you really can't dispense the vanilla pudding they need. It makes me sad because the nurse is tired and she's done her best all damn day and this is what she gets. The family in question is probably tired, too. And frightened.

In a room a family gathers to wait while one of their number is in surgery. They may not be a close family, this may be the only time they gather in either the near past or the foreseeable future, but for now they are a unit. Laughing quietly. Saying, Do you remember when we...? and How long has it been? and We need to get together more often for reasons other than this. Life is too short.

In a room, someone hears bad news and even though it's a private space, the sound of grief echoes within all who hear it.

People-watching is the greatest research tool of all in writing. I never realized until this morning that even when your writing voice is silenced by the happenings of real life, you're still watching and absorbing what you see. And I feel so guilty because how can I even think about writing when there is so much else going on? When people I love are suffering? This is not about me, yet the writing voice still clamors. I still watch the people and write their stories in my head. I still hear the sound of grief and try to think of ways to articulate that sound.

So, today, regardless of how blessed I am to be a writer, I don't like that part of myself.

Have a great week.

20 comments:

  1. If you were at a wedding, would you feel the same way? Don't ever begrudge the writer/observer in you. We write the stories of people -- real and imagined -- and we mentally record the range of human experience (the good and the bad) to this end. By observing, and maybe even including one of these scenes if a book, you are immortalizing that moment in time. It is a beautiful thing, and a gift.

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    1. Thank you, Ava. I've been trying to put it into perspective (and failing).

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  2. Writing other people's stories is what we do. Many times they can't tell their own stories--they haven't the faintest notion how to start. But they recognize their own stories in what we write--we express for them what they feel and experience. Writing is our gift to the world.

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    1. I've just never felt quite like this before, as though I were--in a stretched out manner of speaking--capitalizing on others' pain.

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  3. I wish I could be eloquent as Ava and Judith this morning, but all I can say is Ditto! I know how you feel because I've been where you are and yes, the writer doesn't shut off no matter what the situation is. And even if you wish she would, do hold onto the gift of it.

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    1. I imagine I'll get there, but right now I just want myself to hush. :-)

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  4. I understand your feelings on some level. Taking someone else's pain and creating it in your head and even writing it down CAN seem like capitalizing on their pain. But I wonder how many readers out there are longing for a story they can relate to? Because for every one if those people you seen and hear today, there's a reader out there wondering if they are the only one hurting in this way. The stories you see today may be the stories a reader needs. And I know you'd never write another person's pain any other way but eloquently.
    But, yes, sometimes our writer voice needs to hush and give us a break now and then :)

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    1. Thanks, A.D. I don't know that I've ever thought of my words coming from the place of someone else's hurt before and it's a little difficult, a little achy. It's another one of the lucky things, though, I guess--there's always a new discovery right around the corner.

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  5. Ava and Judith and AD are right on the money - it's because your observing all of this now that your books will have more power later...and that isn't capitalizing, it's giving a voice to the pain you're seeing...so that someone else can realize they aren't alone, no matter what they are going through. Hang in there, Liz...

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    1. Thanks, Kristi. In time, it will probably feel less raw. A lot of waiting room hours the past few days.

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  6. Wow, I don't know which is more eloquent or touching your initial post or the responses. You may feel as if you are taking other people's stories and using them but in telling those stories you touch others. As a college professor I often tell stories to my classes about my experiences or experiences of others that are painful and heart breaking. I am trying to illustrate a point yet I have students come up to me in private and tell me that they have struggled with the same things in silence or alone. They tell me that knowing someone else has the same struggles helps them to see there is hope. So keep telling your (or other people's) stories. You never know when you touch someone who needs that connection you bring them.

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    1. Thank you, Carolyn. I have so appreciated the responses, too.

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  7. As a writer and a former nurse, I gathered all sorts of story ideas from my experiences at the hospital, some from my co-workers and some from my patients and their families. There are ups and downs in everyone's life. As nurses, we mostly see the downs, and sometimes our sense of humor is the only thing that saves us. While making your observations, you got a taste of that. It's all about perspective.

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    1. I'm sure that's true, Cheryl. I guess it's all so very personal and right now I feel like more of a voyeur than an observer. We always laugh about our voyeuristic tendencies--or at least I do--but this week I guess I just can't. Brighter days ahead!

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  8. Hi, Liz! I went through this four times last year and it is incredibly hard. I often journal about poignant events to capture the emotions because they will help me down the road. Happy or sad.

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    1. I think that's a good thing to do, Vicki. The emotions will still be there in the journal when the scars heal over a bit.

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  9. Hi Liz, This post brought back many memories of the years I spent visiting my father at a nursing home and my mother at a retirement home. So many vivacious personalities (in spite of their health challenges). Thanks for sharing. :)

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    1. Thanks, Joanne. I used to love visiting my aunt at the assisted living facility where she lived. The stories those people had to share!

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  10. I think that's how writer's deal--I just came across the email that I sent you girls after a family friend's husband committed suicide. The only way I could begin to make sense of the tragedy was to write the story down. Not that it made sense, but it did help me to sort through the emotions that were rambling around in my head.

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    1. I remember that! It was such a beautiful post and, truthfully, I wish I'd remembered it when I was writing mine. I think there's just so much pain around right now it's hard to process things.

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