When I was a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time waiting.
Some of this waiting happened in actual waiting rooms, places of concentrated calm in the midst of the sadness and fear of hospitals.
I was surrounded by sickness growing up. I’m the youngest of three, with two older brothers. My oldest is 11 years older than me. My next oldest is two years older.
My next oldest brother was born with spina bifada and clubfeet. As a result, he had to have multiple surgeries as a child and spent a lot of time in the hospital.
My father had a major stroke when he was 54. I was 12 at the time. His speech and movement were badly affected, and he had to retire from his job as a rural letter carrier for the post office. Later that same year, he suffered a blood clot in one of his kidneys and almost died before the kidney was removed.
My mother also had her share of illnesses and hospital visits.
So the waiting rooms in the hospitals in the nearby city were very familiar to me.
The nicest one was at the then-private, church-supported hospital. The large main waiting room had real furniture, like you’d find in a private home. Chair railings ran along the wall. Paintings covered the walls.
There were volunteers stationed at a counter who watched over things. They were usually older women who wore the pink-jacket “uniforms” of hospital volunteers. They were called “Pink Ladies.”
Though people came and went, there was a hush over the room. No one spoke loudly or laughed or cried where you could hear. It was like a church.
At that time and in that place, my parents felt safe leaving me alone in the waiting room while they went up to be with my brother.
I always had a book with me, and I would sit and read in one of the nice green armchairs, my always-present purse tucked up against me. Sometimes, I would look up and stare at the paintings or the signs on the wall and on the swinging doors that went back into the main part of the hospital.
I started reading signs and dividing the letters into threes—my counting ritual—in that room.
If I wasn’t in a waiting room, I was usually with a relative. I grew up in the same community with many of my relatives. I stayed a lot with my father’s great-aunt or his cousin, who had two daughters near my age, or my mother’s sister.
My great-aunt made over me, and I felt safe with her. If I stayed overnight, she would sleep in the same bed with me.
I remember waking up in the early mornings. I could look out of the top of a nearby window while I was still lying down, and I’d watch the sky get lighter until my aunt woke up and then got me up.
I brushed my teeth in her bathroom and ate breakfast on her dishes and got on the school bus at the end of her driveway, feeling comfortable and homesick at the same time.
I never knew when a medical emergency would occur and somebody would have to go to the hospital. I got used to waiting somewhere.
My mother told me years ago that one morning when I was a child, I asked her, “Who’s going to keep me today?”
She said it made her feel really bad.
But it couldn’t be helped. The sick person needed her, and she couldn’t be everywhere at once.
I felt guilty sometimes because I didn’t have lots of illnesses. I thought that since I didn’t suffer as a child, God would have me be sick as an adult.
What was ironic was that even though I wasn’t physically sick where anyone would notice, I was beginning to suffer from OCD and depression.
My therapist told me that the content of OCD symptoms can be influenced by different things. I think my scrupulosity was probably affected by my life experiences. My prayers were meant to protect my family from harm and illness. They had to be said a certain way, and I had to be free from sin, or my family would not be under protection.
In a real way, though, I was praying for myself too. Because when my family got sick, I was back to waiting for someone to get well or die, for everything to be back to normal.