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The Visitors' Room: On Life, Death, and Health Care

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I haven't been writing much these past weeks. Oh, I've sent a few emails to friends, done some work on a new play, tried anything that could distract my mind from its deepest concerns. But last Friday I was forced to confront those concerns head on. I found myself a visitor in the visitor's room of a great New York City hospital waiting for the results of my wife's surgery for the removal of a rare tumor that was wreaking havoc with her health.

It was supposed to be a relatively simple laparoscopic surgery; one that was to last for two hours; but discoveries were made by the pathologist during the surgery and what was two hours became six as the surgery became more extensive and aggressive. Those who have waited for news of a loved one in surgery know that six hours feels like sixty hours or six days as your eyes glaze over a magazine article, a newspaper, or a book: unable to concentrate because there is no room in the mind for anything but concern for the one you love. A wise friend told me once that worrying never changed the outcome of any problem but unless you are a Zen Buddhist -- which, alas, I am not -- worrying is part of your coping process. And I worried with all the Olympic worrying skills that I had perfected over seventy odd years of dedicated daily practice.

Time is a shape shifter, and when we wait for news of those we love in a hospital it stretches to the breaking point, at least my breaking point. My wife and I have been married since 1953 (it was another world, when people married young and some of us stayed married) and the terrifying thought of losing her was very present in my mind in that visitor's room. I have lived through the death of my parents, the death of my older sister, and the deaths of so many close friends, and I have lived with the awareness that there is only so much time left to me to enjoy a walk in the park or an afternoon with my small grand-daughters, or a day at the Met Museum with my wife. I've made my peace with my own mortality, but the thought that my wife might predecease me was unendurable. Since she had enjoyed good health for all of our marriage this had never occurred to me. But it did now and I was poorly equipped to deal with it.

Waiting for news from the operating room in the visitor's room was a special sort of hell for me. A volunteer would make forays in the direction of the operating room nursing station for information but came back with no news that helped -- "the surgery was taking longer than planned," as if I didn't already know that. A special nurse's aid appeared once with the same perplexing lack of information. When the surgeon finally appeared he reassured me that he had removed the tumor that had been destroying my wife's health, and taken quite a bit more, and that her chance for a full recovery was very good. I might have wept for joy if I had not been drained of all emotion during the waiting period. Fortunately, I was joined by my two adult sons at the end of day. It was then I knew that we had finally reversed roles; that they were the rocks on which I could look for comfort and safety.

In that waiting room there was a plainly dressed woman, an elderly Hassidic Jew who was deeply concerned about her dying husband, and the religious problem they faced on this Friday evening: how he could be moved from the operating room to another floor on the Sabbath by elevator -- a form of "riding" -- something that is forbidden in their beliefs. I have always had little interest or sympathy for any religious fundamentalist, Christian, Muslim, or Jew, but my stay in that visitor's room helped me to understand that this problem was as real to her as my problems were to me. And when she asked me about my wife, and offered to pray for her, this agnostic did not dismiss the woman's offer but accepted it gratefully. Later, she discovered us in the recovery room and took a good look at my wife who was emerging from the anesthesia. She paused before her and shouted, "She's so beautiful. No wonder you were scared of losing her."

I thought long and hard in that visitor's room about the woman I had married so many years before, then a nineteen-year-old girl blessed with almost perfect beauty, the kind that fashion models and movie stars envied, and more important, a joyous spirit that touched everyone and everything around her. She had, over time, become a model not for her classic beauty but for so many large and small decencies, so much caring. Not just for our children who came late in our marriage, but for anyone who touched our lives and for many she had not known personally but whose misfortunes she tried to alleviate. Willful, strong minded, opinionated, a natural contrarian, fearless, impatient with anything but the truth, she was and is no plaster saint. Intensely private, I dare not even use her name here in praising her for her strength, her wit, her laughter, and her instinctive sense of right and wrong something she passed on to our sons. She's home now, recovering slowly, and so am I, trying to decompress from that long day in the visitor's room. I learned a few lessons that day, not just about anxiety, but the terrible loneliness of those who wait for news be it that of a soldier son, or a survivor in Haiti.

For all my fears I know that we were the fortunate few. With our Medicare and supplemental insurance we were able to obtain the best medical care without ruining ourselves financially. The rarity of my wife's illness required the most sophisticated medical procedures prior to surgery in order to trace her malady to its source so that a surgical solution might be found - and she received it - all under our government's Medicare, not some death squad for the elderly as Ms. Palin and the Mad Tea Party warn. That is why I rejoice in the passage of the Health Care Bill which will extend some of this care to others, and one hopes, over time, to all of our fellow Americans.

While those naysayers keep warning us of the dire consequences of government involvement in health care, predicting that it will turn Arizona or Alabama into Sweden, (Alabama should be so lucky) I can only think of the preferential Congressional health insurance plans enjoyed by the rich Congressmen and Senators and their brethren, many of whom would deny such health care to the middle class in the name of their sacred ideology -- the deficit. One they can stretch beyond the horizon for an endless war but never for the welfare of others. And I would sentence them to sitting in a visitor's waiting room for hours on end and perhaps learn to connect with the pain of others. Their arguments seem to be more about wealth-care than health-care, and they seem so cut off from the world of everyday living and dying that most of us face, as if their power has built an impenetrable wall around their sympathies, leaving them with only rage and disgust, that emotional detritus that breaks through their spirits like shards of shrapnel to settle deep in their souls.

As one studies the faces of the people waiting in that hospital visitor's room: the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, friends, you see pain, fear, but most important love. Love is that most abused and absurd word in any language, but the most necessary one to define what is most human in us. It contains within it trust, generosity, forgiveness and mercy. In a sense we are all of us in the visitor's room of this world we share for such a little while, our lives made so vulnerable yet so strong by loving. And as visitors we should have the grace to leave the world somewhat better than how we found it for those who follow us. The new Obama health care bill, imperfect as it is, is a start towards achieving that goal. Oh yes, I am finally able to read a book -- not just stare at the pages -- and being a jazz buff I'm reading Pops, the new Louis Armstrong biography while playing some of his old Hot Five and Hot Sevens recordings; and as a lover of 19th century American literature I'm reading through some of Emerson's essays in the search for that elusive wisdom and peace that has always been just beyond my grasp.

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