The ICU  waiting room becomes your family’s own personal den: pilled afghans, wrinkled  pillows, People magazines, bags of  chips your father’s hand loudly creeps into in the middle of the night.  One day a box of Harry Potter Jelly Bellies  surfaces.  “Here,” your brother, Mike, says.  “Try Puke.” You eat Dirt, Snot, Earthworm, Booger.  You pass them around.  Everyone laughs: what a riot.  This  will be something we all remember later, you think.  And you do.

One day your  whole family (except your mother) walks to Dollar General two blocks away from  the hospital.  Supplies now needed for a  long-term stay:  fresh underwear,  deodorant, toothbrush, tampons.  Never  before can you remember your whole adult family shopping together like this.  It’s fun in the way that peeling your own sunburnt skin is fun:  preferably you wouldn’t have to be doing it  at all, but since you do, it feels good.

On Night 14 in  the waiting room, the loudspeaker startles you awake.  “Dr. Blue, Room 1726. Dr. Blue, Room  1726.”  You quickly learn that Dr. Blue  is not a doctor at all but a code blue emergency.  A young nurse comes to tell you it doesn’t  look good.  Your father’s knees buckle,  and he almost falls into the industrial coffee maker that has kept you all  going for weeks.  “It’s time to say your  good-byes,” the nurse says.  You all file  forward in a weeping, clustered line.   Surprisingly, her vitals snap back to life and the big machine slurps  air in and out again.  After that,  everyone takes shifts.  When it’s your  turn, you sing “Down in the Valley” very softly into her ear and brush her hair  back with your fingers.  “They say  hearing is the last thing to go,” a nurse whispers from a dark corner of the  room.  She sits behind a big panel of  lights and buttons like an airplane pilot.   “Don’t mind me,” she says, but, self-conscious, you fall silent.

On Night 22, a  friend treats you all (except your mother) to a room at the high-end hotel  attached to the hospital.  You shuffle  through underground hallways and elevators dragging your shabby pillows and  duffel bags behind you.  It’s a nice  room, dim and sleek, with a happy hour that includes free hors d’oeuvres. You  and your siblings go for it hard while your father stays behind to watch the  Twins. Big spender, you order a whole bottle of wine.  You balance cheese cubes and chicken wings on  tiny paper plates.  How odd it is to be  with your siblings, day in, day out, for weeks. “This is so great!” you say. “I never get to see you guys. And now,  every day like this.”  Drunk, you all  totter back to the hotel room where your father lies curled in the fetal position.  Your sister, Amy, covers him with a blanket, and he stirs like an infant, then,  mouth open, falls back to sleep.

There’s a  McDonald’s attached to the hospital, and each day one of you takes the order and  makes the run.  There’s an orange crème  shake featured for July, and your father gets one every time.  “This shake is so good,” he says  theatrically,  “it could almost bring a  tear to one’s eye.” He sucks the straw loudly with pinkie in the air.  You roll your eyes, but secretly love this  side of him you never-ever-ever get to see.

As the days  accumulate, people bring pizzas, pasta salads, Diet Pepsi, positive  energy.  “Just keep praying,” they  say.  “Don’t give up. God is good.”  At one point the waiting room has become so  full of relatives (except your mother) it’s like Christmas.  A cheery cycle has infused the wait as more  people arrive bearing magazines, orange juice, even brand-new clothes for your  father from Target.  “I’m gonna be  looking pretty good after all of this,” he says. He models them, strutting. Ha, ha, ha.  What a joker he is!

The  loudspeaker breaks up the party: Dr. Blue, Room 1726. “I think this is it,”  says the nurse.  Your Aunt Kandi forms a  prayer circle and yells, “Someone call Pastor!”   But it’s too late.

When it’s time  to leave the hospital, you find you can’t.   Instead, you sit in the waiting room where a fresh pot of coffee is  brewing and another family takes over where yours left off.

Anne Panning is the author of two short story collections: The Price of Eggs and Super  America, which won The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Five of  her essays have been shortlisted in The  Best American Essays. She is currently at work on a memoir, Dragonfly Notes: A Memoir of Motherhood  & Loss. You can read her blog:


Photo by Maria Romasco-Moore

Photo by Maria Romasco-Moore