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My Country, ’Tis of Thee I Sing – Part 2

24 January 2012

For Part 1 of my reflections on time spent in an ER waiting room just outside of Detroit, click here.

As the clock on the wall ticked on and on into the late evening, I was grateful for the easy conversation with my waiting-room friend, an African-American woman with stomach pains who sat wrapped up in a blanket, wondering if they would ever call her name. She knew they called babies first, then small children, then the very, very old, then anyone bleeding or screaming. It would be a long night.

“You got a long way back ta Norway?”

“Yah. And our flight’s not till 10 p.m. tomorrow,” I complained. “It’s going to be a long night and a long day. And we don’t even have clean underwear!”

“Y’all got four backpacks and a suitcase and you don’t got yourselves no clean unduh-wear?”

She had a point.

“I mean – shoot – them paramedics had ta wheeeeel all tha’ stuff in here. What was you thinkin’?”

She was right, the paramedics unloaded our carry-on bags from the ambulance and wheeled them into the waiting room on a stretcher. I could see why this made an impression.

She started to giggle. “Wha’chew got in them bags anyway?”

“Stuff for the kids!” I cried, trying to defend myself.

“How much stuff them two need?!”

I had to laugh. It was shameful, really.

In between this light-hearted banter I began to notice the crew in the corner of the room. A middle-aged woman, with a face that looked much older, paced the floor and grabbed at the back of her short hair in agitation. She wore a pink sweatshirt with a rabbit on it and loose grey flannel pants dotted with pink hearts that would have passed everywhere else for pyjama bottoms. Every few minutes her deep-voiced smokers’ crackle barked out something to a chubby, blond, three-year-old girl, just to prove she really was keeping an eye on her.

“Adrianna, git yer butt over here.”

“Adrianna, don’chew touch them cray-ons!” (And then to anyone who was listening: “She ain’t allowed crayons. She’ll jus’ eat ’em.”)

Adrianna was not allowed to have the coloring book and crayons that my daughter got.

Instead, Adrianna got Cheetos from a foil bag and wandered around the room looking lost, occasionally smearing her orange fingers across the belly of her shirt. Adrianna looked like she ate a lot of Cheetos.

“C’mon. Show ’em how you dance,” coaxed her grandma, who, to my surprise, was quick to squat and sway her own hips.

“Shake that bootie!” Adrianna looked down at her empty Cheetos bag.

“You don’wanna shake yer bootie? All right, then.”

It became clear that Adrianna’s mother was the teenage woman leaning over her crutches and watching the hockey game in the corner. Some of the orders were barked in her direction (“Kayla! She’s tryin’ ta pull off her pants again! I told you, you gotta tell her!”), but Kayla never turned her head to acknowledge them.

When Adrianna moved over to watch my daughter color, and then to touch her hair, and then to try to grab the book from her, Gramma didn’t pay no mind. It was also fine when I asked her how old she was, called her “sweetie” and untangled her pudgy, orange fingers from my daughter’s hair.

Nor was Gramma looking when Adrianna stuck her tongue out at the black woman next to me. (After all, the Detroit Redwings game was on TV.)

But when my friend softly reprimanded her – “Now that was not nice,” – ol’ Gramma spun around with a face like a mad dog.

“Adrianna! You git over here!” she shrieked. “You keep away from that woman.”

She was one of those people who only pretended to have private conversations, and the entire room witnessed her hoarse harangue: “Kayla, you gotta watch out fer her! Some folks ain’t learned ta min’ their own bizniss. I’m serious, Kayla. You gotta teach her ta watch out fer some folks.”

Some folks. I sat in numb shock, my mind racing. We have not moved on from this. This foul smell of hate? fear? revulsion? Or, even more disturbing: habit. It sits here with us in this room as if it were Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Just 50 years. Not so long ago. Not long enough? And the cycle repeats, right here, right now.

“I am so sorry,” I said to my friend in a powerless attempt to right wrongs. “I see I was mistaken. Not everyone here is kind.”

The woman kept her gaze straight ahead at the wall and said flatly: “I’m fixin’ ta say somethin’ back, but I won’t, seein’ as how your lovely daughtuh is sittin’ right here.”

Announcements from the hockey game continued to fill the room with a low buzz, the entrance doors kept opening and closing, patients were called in, and the rest of us continued to wait in a room where the very air had been divided in two.

I rummaged in my backpack for some of the snacks I had intended to take on the plane and found a bag of Godiva truffles. I offered my friend some.

“Now that’s the fancy chocolate!” She nodded her head in approval and took two. “I prob’ly shoul’nt eat these, but I don’ s’pose it mattuhs what I eat. Nothin’ gonna help this stomach . . . and nothin’ gonna hurt it worse neithuh.”

I had intended the chocolates to break the mood – put a smile on our faces, but my gift felt like a cheap attempt at atonement.

“I got them in my stocking at Christmas,” I told her.

“You got chocolates in your stocking?” I didn’t know what the surprise in her voice meant, and left it at that.

Much later that evening, after my friend had finally heard her named called by the nurse, Gramma shuffled over to me and said – by way of an apology? No, by way of an excuse –  “I jus’ don’t like when people git inta other people’s bizniss.”

“Adrianna stuck her tongue out at that woman and so she told her that wasn’t a nice thing to do,” I said, refusing to make eye contact with her.

“She did? Kayla – you hear that? Adrianna stuck her tongue out at that woman. Huh. I didn’t see that.”

“No, I don’t suppose you did.” I meant it as an insult, but she shuffled back to her side of the waiting room unfazed.

I thought about Adrianna for a long time.

At some point in that evening, in a momentary pause in the hockey game, her young mother noticed her standing there at her side, clinging to her pants.

“You wanna wear yer daddy’s tags now?”

With great care, almost ceremoniously, she lifted the long chain over her head and placed it around her daughter’s neck. Adrianna tugged and twisted the two silver dog tags that had helped somebody identify her daddy, and then put one of them absentmindedly in her mouth.

I didn’t actually know any of their stories. I really didn’t.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 January 2012 13:30

    Really lovely, Jena.

    • 25 January 2012 20:41

      Thanks, Emily!

      • 26 January 2012 12:47

        Ugg. . . just read your comment on my blog. This fall I was hit with a 4500Kr speeding ticket! YES! I was going 16kmh over. Just 2km less, and the fine would have been cut in half.

        Thanks for your comment and support! I think this will all just take some time. . .

  2. 24 January 2012 15:40

    One most definitely sees a different side of life in the ER waiting room. I appreciate my own life even more after reading that. I hope you do, too.

    • 25 January 2012 20:43

      I do. I absolutely do. But at the same time I think: how could this be? The numbers of wounded (both economically and emotionally) in the U.S. astound me.

  3. Katie permalink
    24 January 2012 16:40

    Lovely as always, Jena. I somehow missed your previous two posts and just read them now, I’m so sorry you had such a rough trip home!

  4. mary permalink
    25 January 2012 10:30

    Really a beautiful story. When is your book being published? If you haven`t considered it, you should.

    • 25 January 2012 20:30

      Thank you, Mary – that’s very kind of you! I am trying to find a publisher. We’ll see!

  5. 25 January 2012 18:51

    As always, I enjoy your eye-opening stories. It’s wonderful to see life through different persepctives.

    • 25 January 2012 20:43

      Thanks, Tina. I appreciate your comments and different perspectives, too!


  1. My Country, ’Tis of Thee I Sing « up-rooted

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