THE WAITING ROOM • by Sarah Grill

Am I such a bad person?

I can feel my mother’s secret like a weight on my chest, pulsing beneath my rumpled jacket. The watery hospital cafeteria coffee turns to acid on my tongue, and I shudder down the remnants of the cup, red-rimmed eyes trained on the wall clock.

It’s time, she’d said.

Around me, exhausted family members sit stonily with hands tucked into fists, poised to fight battles that aren’t theirs to win. No one moves. Even the air in this room is waiting, hanging heavy and low. I keep my legs from twitching, but can’t stop my fingers from tapping a nervous Morse code onto my knees, vibrating silent pleas to the rest of my body: keep quiet, keep still.

It’s almost over.

In the chair to my left, a young man about my age coughs loudly, the sound bursting from his lips too suddenly to be suppressed to the appropriate waiting room hush. Everyone jumps, jolted out of their anxious reverie, blinking in the harsh fluorescent reality.

He ducks his head, shock and shame blooming red on his cheeks, and despite the circumstances I smirk. My lips, molded for the past three years into the straight grim line of concern, creak into this new expression and my limbs breathe a sigh of relief as I relax them slightly. Don’t look so tense, baby, she’d said, struggling to turn up the corners of her mouth. Your face’ll freeze like that.

“What’re you in for?” I ask him, desperately basking in this distraction, this levity, this respite from the endlessness.

His flushed, doughy face splits into a grin. His jubilation floods the room like a searchlight, making an old man across from us avert his eyes. “I’m having a baby! Well, my wife is. She did. I have a baby! I can barely believe it.”

“Congratulations!” I smile broadly, cheeks stretching uncomfortably. One woman with tired eyes on a couch nearby leans in, unable to resist the pull of a human miracle. Children are the universal antidote to grief. “Boy or girl?”

“Most perfect little boy you ever saw. Ten fingers, ten toes, his mama’s eyes.” Enthusiastically, he pulls out a digital camera and we both smile into the pixelated red face of his son.

He stares at the screen, entranced. “I’d do anything for that kid, isn’t that crazy?” he marvels. “Barely even know him yet and I’d move mountains for him. Do anything to keep him healthy, or happy, or safe. Is that crazy?”

“No,” I say, after a moment. “That’s family.”

He smiles faintly, transfixed, and I look back at the clock, the numbers swimming before my eyes as thoughts pound an insistent rhythm onto the front of my skull. What would you not do for the sake of your family? What mountain would you not move, what burden would you not shoulder, to relieve the people who surrounded you with comfort, with love, with protections of their own? I have never been the perfect son, but I could be the right one.

The minutes tick by; the old man clears his throat. In a room three floors above, doctors calmly turn off my mother’s ventilator, tucking the power of attorney form marked by my nervous signature into her thick manila file. The pen she’d pressed into my shaking hands is tucked inside my jacket, heavier than a gun.

Sarah Grill is an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is pursuing degrees in Communication and English, with an emphasis in creative writing.

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