Until My Number Is Up

Spending time in a waiting room is an activity in itself


How much of human life is lost in waiting!

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I sit in the waiting room (though some would call it a gate area) in the Atlanta airport. I’m flying to Rochester, Minnesota, where my mother just died from lung cancer. I will meet my sister there to attend to the cremation. All the seats are taken. Suitcases, strollers, and parcels clog the aisles. I wish I could sit far away from crying babies, screeching toddlers. A gang of young men laugh boisterously, drunkenly.

Restless, I glance at the flight status board: Will the plane leave on time? Will I miss my connection in Minneapolis?

April sun radiates off the massive windows. Planes rush down the runway for takeoff. Others, after landing, glide up to gates.

The area seethes and buzzes. I feel suffocated, cramped.

I hold an unopened book in my lap. I can’t read because it’s noisy. I can’t read because I am checking the flight status every thirty seconds. I can’t read because although my mother wasn’t a good mother, she was, still, my mother, and I must comprehend the fullness of the loss.

Daily, thousands of passengers congregate in airport waiting areas: people on vacation, people abandoning or rekindling love, people rushing to or from emergencies. Whole lives change in these anonymous spaces. Yet everyone seems distracted, oblivious to their surroundings. How can they absorb the momentous events taking place?

Waiting rooms should provide decorum. To spend time in one is an activity in and of itself. It requires concentration in order to depart successfully—to leave here and to reach what lies beyond.

I realize, belatedly, it’s noisier than usual because the NCAA basketball “Sweet Sixteen” playoffs are being held in Minneapolis. How can this happen at the same time as my mother’s death?

But that’s the nature of this random encounter with strangers—washed ashore in one particular place, at one particular time, and all heading to the same ultimate destination, although for disparate reasons.

By the time the gate agent announces it’s time to board, we’re running more than a half-hour late. Once all the drunk basketball fans and parents with toddlers settle into seats, we’re almost an hour behind schedule. When the plane lands in Minneapolis, I reach the gate for my flight to Rochester just as the attendant has closed the door leading to the jetway.

“Please, can you let me on?” I ask. “My mother died.”

She expresses condolences but says she’s not allowed to open the door. The plane is ready to push back from the gate.

I feel stranded. I cry as if I have to make this connection even though my mother is already dead; it’s not as if I need to rush to see her or talk to her one last time. Upon arrival in Rochester, I will only spend the night in her deserted apartment.

But I want to depart this way station now. I need to escape.

Illustration by Anna Hall


For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.

Lily Tomlin

My sister and I sit in cushiony wingback chairs in the waiting room of the funeral parlor. On the end table is a cut-glass bowl of candy. My sister has been crunching one after another, while I’ve cradled the same lemon drop on my tongue for close to fifteen minutes. It’s almost dissolved. Still, my mouth feels dry; my eyes, drier. Who can mourn in a room that smells of formaldehyde, or something like it—mothballs, maybe? Maybe the desiccated scent of perfume that women wore in the 1920s.

I fold and unfold my candy wrapper as we wait for the funeral director to greet us.

The wait seems destined: I can neither rush it nor delay it.

The recycled air feels oppressively heavy; the dim lamplight, thick as honey. It’s difficult to breathe. The carpet absorbs all sound: no footsteps, no voices, no office machinery. No Muzak. No sudden screams from bodies springing to life.

Well, thank God for that.

My sister and I have little to say. We’ve already decided to buy the least expensive canister for our mother’s remains. My sister hates to spend money though she has a lot of it. I don’t have much money, but I don’t particularly care how much we spend. I just want it over with.

I want to be rid of the thought of my mother lying on a gurney, covered with a white sheet, no longer waiting for anything.

Or suppose another, unknown waiting area awaits her?


Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?


My parents, brother-in-law, and I sit in a Boston hospital waiting room. Well, my brother-in-law doesn’t sit; he paces back and forth, awaiting the arrival of his first child. My older sister labors in a different kind of hospital room, one imbued with magic, miracles, and luck. I can’t imagine, can’t imagine, a fully formed human being slipping out of another human being. I struggle to sit still then stand to look out the dark window. Tornadoes of swirling, thrashing snow virtually obliterate night. The view is also occluded by my own dim reflection superimposed over the immensity of the storm, over the cosmic-ness of imminent creation.

My nephew is wheeled in, in a clear plastic crib. He’s swaddled in a white coverlet, his arms free. I didn’t know his fingernails would be so heartbreaking in their tiny, clichéd cuteness. I press my own finger against the plastic as if I can touch him, but his cellular essence is just beyond my reach. I press harder. I whisper, Todd, Todd, Todd. Can he hear me? The thin rise and fall of his chest: how has he learned to breathe, all on his own, so quickly? Does this mean he’ll also know how to survive, to unravel the tangled vagaries of life?


“I waited half my life away.”

Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle”

I sit on a green upholstered chair at my doctor’s office near my house in Grand Haven, Michigan. Identical chairs line the walls, with an extra row down the middle; really, this is two waiting rooms in one. I find a seat as far away from everyone as possible and wish I could move farther still when someone coughs or sneezes, germs spewing through the air. These rooms should all be sterile and antiseptic so that going to the doctor doesn’t mean courting disaster.

On the other side of the room, a woman in a wheelchair softly snores while her husband dodders beside her. As much as I don’t want to die, I’m more afraid of becoming like her. But (looking on the bright side) unless I’m suddenly struck by a disease or hit by a truck, I am waiting to grow aged, decrepit. Once wheelchair-bound, I can always get up a head of steam and roll myself in front of an oncoming truck . . . before I lose my marbles, before I begin to drool, before I’m simply a bag of plasma and protein.

A solid wood door, shut and locked, leads back to the examination rooms. I wonder what my doctor will tell me today during my annual physical. Good news? Bad? As long as I’m in the waiting room, I can hope for, anticipate, the best—though I always expect the worst.

A nurse opens the door. “Sue.”

I cross the floor to my fate, leaving my fellow travelers—sick, prognosis unknown—behind.


In one month alone, I lost three hours of this ‘human life’ dawdling in [doctor] waiting rooms.

Lesley Alderman

I relax on a small couch at my acupuncturist’s office. All the chairs are soft, comforting. New Age music plays on the sound system: birds chirping, water sprinkling, wind soughing through trees. The room smells of citrus, lavender, and clove.

I’m surrounded by shelves of vitamins, minerals, herbs, food supplements, oils, and essences. There are books on alternative healing practices for asthma, allergies, stress, back pain—anything the human body might throw at you. This waiting room offers cures for life’s tragedies, large or small. Here, the near future is welcoming, to be embraced and enhanced.

Not that I believe that.


Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Zen proverb

My first appointment with a therapist I’ll call Dr. Coyne is on Halloween. When I arrive at 6:45 PM, even the receptionist has gone for the day. A sign propped on the counter tells me to Take a seat, therapists will fetch their clients at the appropriate time. Through a locked glass door, I’m able to see down the hall; all the wood doors for the therapists’ offices are closed. I’m fifteen minutes early.

On one wall hangs a quilt; on another, a large painting of springtime flowers. Both seem to have been here a long time. Two bulletin boards and a clock hang on the wall behind me, so I have to turn around to see the time. A sound system plays classic rock ’n’ roll: “You Are My Destiny,” “Travelin’ Man,” “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Touchstones from my teenage years.

At 7:10, I start to worry I have the wrong day, the wrong hour, that Dr. Coyne won’t walk down the corridor for me. The building seems deserted. I hear nothing from behind the glass partition.

Dr. Coyne specializes in mind-body therapy, such as hypnotism and biofeedback. I don’t fully understand either field, but, generally speaking, I believe a connection exists between mind and body. I’m here because I fear my own personal connection is damaged. Like, right now: my body feels a ribbon of anxiety ripple from the base of my neck to my knees. The rational side of my mind tells me Dr. Coyne will open the glass door and help me fix it. The irrational side, however, tells me I’ll sit here forever, unfixed, listening to classic rock ’n’ roll.

I guess there are worse fates.

I wonder what Dr. Coyne’s office looks like. I anticipate whether I’ll like him. What does he look like? Will he like me? Will he think he can help me, and accept me as a client? What’s the first question he’ll ask? Will I feel scared to talk with him?

The room vibrates with anticipation.

This small space is lined with chairs along two walls. Against the third is a child’s play table, with two red plastic chairs, next to a bin stuffed with toys. I’m relieved no children are here. Their voices—playful, happy—would make me even more anxious. On my lap is my red-and-green striped Boden purse. Inside is my wallet, a pair of glasses, my keys, a pen. It also contains my iPhone. I could post a Facebook status update: “Sitting in waiting room waiting to see Dr. Coyne.” But that would interrupt my intense focus on sitting here, waiting for Dr. Coyne to open the door. The most important job to perform in a waiting room, after all, is waiting.

Later, once I reach his office, I will understand the job required of me in therapy.

The space between the waiting room and his office is unchartered territory. During those few moments, I’m in a state of transit: neither here nor there. What’s supposed to happen in that corridor, that no-man’s-land? As months pass, as I continue to see Dr. Coyne, I will come to understand that we never speak when we’re between these two points: the here and the there.

Waiting in a waiting room can be sacred—but only if you banish to oblivion all that is not of the waiting room.


The ego mind always wants to “do” something or “go” somewhere in order to validate itself. It’s the human condition. Our spirit feels discomfort in our body because we are “limited” within this illusion of time/space.

Annie Zalezsak

I sit on a hard plastic chair in the waiting room designated for the Toyota service department. I received a recall notice on my RAV4—something about the rear lower suspension arm No. 1 and whether the rear-wheel alignment was performed using a proper torque specification. If not, backlash developing at the threaded portion of the arm, followed by formation of rust, could result in loss of control of the vehicle.

Sudden death, I think, though the recall notice does not suggest this.

At the same time, the RAV4 will undergo a tune-up: oil changed, filters replaced, tires checked for pressure. The car should be good to go.

The waiting room smells of oil, rubber, paint, and stale potato chips. The TV blasts an early morning game show: shrieks and laughter. On one side of me, a man talks on his cell phone. On the other, a woman digs in a box of vending-machine candy while reading an old issue of People. Another man does this. Another woman that. We are a strange conglomeration of humanity, Fellini-film extras with nothing in common except sitting together, awaiting our cars, which are currently in various states of disrepair.

Here, I’m faced with the trite but nonetheless frightening thought that life itself is a waiting room: waiting for breakfast, for school to start, for college, for marriage or divorce. Waiting for an airplane to depart, for a concert to begin, for a parent to die, for a phone call with bad news, for an e-mail with good news. Waiting, waiting, waiting at the grocery store checkout line, for a doctor’s appointment that will either cure me or end my waiting once and for all, for a therapist’s appointment that will only intensify my sense of loss and regret. Waiting for my body to fall apart.

After an hour, the Toyota service manager comes for me. I’m sure he’s going to tell me my car is a contagion of fluidy leaks and undercarriage rust, that the entire frame won’t make it out of the repair shop as far as the street.

Instead, he smiles and says the repair work is complete. The rear-wheel alignment won’t suddenly and catastrophically unalign itself. I won’t (immediately, anyway) die in a fiery explosion.

After paying the bill, I step onto the running board and slide onto the leather seat. I push the lever to readjust it since the repairman moved it. I check both ways for oncoming traffic before safely pulling into the street. I maneuver into the proper lane. No burning rubber, no squealing out into hazardous traffic. I set the cruise control for the posted speed limit (well, OK—a couple of miles per hour over). Without the security of a waiting room, you’re next on tragedy’s list.


We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell

I sit on a love seat at Lakeshore Dermatology Laser & Medical Spa. I’m here to have a basal cell spot scraped off my nose. Surreptitiously, I study faces, hands, whichever body parts are visible. What tumorous growth lurks behind the bandage on that woman’s neck? What once sprouted on that man’s cheek where a scar now trails just to the right of his nose?

Two doors lead away from this waiting room. The door to the left is the dermatology unit; enter there, and you risk a diagnosis of basal or squamous cell, melanoma, or who knows what other kind of cancer taking root inside a seemingly innocent looking birthmark.

The door to the right leads to the spa, where you’re offered MegaPeels, BioMedic chemical peels, nail care, massages, imaging, acne peels, photorejuvenation, laser therapy, microdermabrasions, cryotherapy, liposculpture.

I watch as each of my fellow denizens of purgatory are called to their fate: left or right.

In the middle of the waiting room is a display rack of hats to protect skin from harmful UV rays. Most are big and floppy, seemingly designed to protect your whole body. I try one on. It’s unfashionable. Do you have to be frumpy to be healthy? But another one catches my eye: a straw cowgirl-style hat, the sides curled, decorated with a string of turquoise-colored beads. I try it on, look at myself in the rack’s little mirror.

I will leave here with just a small gouge in my nose and a hat for the remaining trail ahead, having dodged yet another bullet. But I know there’s one out there, snug in some metaphorical cylinder of some metaphorical gun, waiting patiently. It’s going to have to find me, though. I will wait for a lot of things, but not for that. No. I plan to keep moving forward, even when I’m sitting still.

About the Author

Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, is a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards (essays category).

View Essays