“I am waiting,” writes poet Ferlinghetti, and years ago, I, an awkward, impatient college student, read those words and realized something: everyone is waiting. Waiting for payday, waiting for the diagnosis, waiting for the message or the phone call; waiting to hear about the job; waiting to settle into the job; waiting for real life to commence.
They’re waiting for baby to arrive, for the results of the election, for the next joyful day. They’re waiting for the next bruising thing.
Waiting, my 19-year-old self realized, though dimly, through distorting smoky lenses, is the human condition.
And, oh. How I hated waiting.
As a child, it seemed that every good thing involved a protracted wait, a rigorous preparation time,—and I was not, I quickly learned, a graceful wait-er. Before we put the Christmas tree up [on the day before Christmas Eve, and why did we have to wait so long? Everyone else’s tree had been up for a week or more. I had a friend whose family put their tree up on THANKSGIVING WEEKEND] the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. This involved scouring all surfaces and, sometimes, even painting them. It involved crawling on the floor with a bucket that contained water sudged up with a glomp of Murphy’s Oil Soap, a viscous substance which needed much flailing of hand in the bucket to become one with the water.
“God forbid,” I would mutter, “we should march into Christmas with unwashed woodwork.”
That sentiment earned me a rap on the head, but it did not get me out of cleaning. Christmas was coming; Advent was its season of waiting. Of preparation. We washed woodwork. And I could feel the coming of joy, of that moment on Christmas morning when it was finally time! When everyone piled in and tore off the wrappings and wonderful, unthought-of things were mine, mine without asking, mine without sharing, mine, because someone had considered what I might like. Thank you, Jesus, for your birthday treasure, thought the child.
I did not sleep the night before Christmas; I thrashed and whined and lay, eyes wide open, feeling all the angst and wonder of major joy imminent.
It didn’t help that my father worked for the power company and that he always had to work on Christmas. If he was scheduled for later arrival– 8 a.m., perhaps, we’d all get up at 6 and pile in. But if he had to go in early–say, from 6 until 2–we would have to wait. Those hours, after a sleepless night, and with the presents stacked enticingly below the tree, were murderous.
“Take a NAP,” my mother would snarl, when I whined about how long it was taking.
A NAP? Was she kidding?
The hours ticked away, moment by sluggish moment.
Good things are worth waiting for, my mother opined.
Waiting, I thought (but did not say), is highly over-rated.
It was hard enough waiting for good things. Waiting for bad, awful things was even worse. When I committed some childhood crime and was told we would talk about it later, I thrashed and moaned. Oh, let’s just get it over with! I thought; let’s be on the other side of the spanking and the yelling.
But timing wasn’t MY choice; if they said wait, then wait I must.
We had an egg-shaped dentist, bald of head, round of belly, garbed in white, who had powdery clean hands and lashless eyes behind rimless glasses. He did not believe in Novocaine–Novocaine was for SISSIES! he said,–and he would crook my head firmly in the pit of his elbow and drill for gold.
No matter how I brushed, it seemed there was always gold for which to drill. In those memory-tinted days, we did not go to the dentist every six months; we went every toothache instead. So there was never a, “No cavities this time!” visit; every visit involved the whirring, smelly, smoky dental drill. And there was always a wait of at least a week before we could go.
So I waited with an aching tooth, and I waited with the knowledge of pain to come, and the waiting seeped in and flavored–tainted–every single day.
I tried to tell myself that I was letting one anticipated moment ruin hundreds of others.
I tried to tell myself that the time before and after the dreaded moment was GOOD time, happy time, time to draw pictures and play kickball and read wonderful books. But that one looming moment soaked into everything I enjoyed, spoiling the fun.
I would leave the dental office with the memory of that ache ground into my teeth, knowing a next time was coming.
When I grow up, I thought, contemplating waiting, things are gonna change.
And so I waited to grow up.
And I discovered, having at least nominally completed that growing, that I finally had some control.
So our Christmas tree went up the second or third week of December, and quite often, the woodwork had not been scrubbed on hands and knees. We enjoyed the glow and the greenery and the warmth through the depth of that darkest month. The wait for Christmas morn, and the tearing into presents, became an enjoyable anticipation. If I still couldn’t sleep the night before, as a grown-up, there was plenty to keep me busy–presents to assemble and wrap, coffee cakes to shape and bake and frost, thank you notes from Santa to write for plates of home-made cookies.
And then living with an autistic child taught me something about waiting, too–taught me that if waiting for the good thing is exquisite and challenging for US, it can be true agony for THEM. And so we had to change the shape of much-anticipated holidays, doling out delights along the paths, lessening the pressure-cooker of stressful anticipation.
It wasn’t just being a grown-up. The people who are dear to me changed the way I wait.
But. I controlled what I could.
I found a better dentist, of course; I went for regular checkups. The need for the drill lessened dramatically…and when it did come ’round, I forcefully advocated for Novocaine.
I found that planning made the waiting times flow; that tasks to be done and milestones along the way created a pace and a paving to the anticipated event.
Time taught me that there are some waits I cannot control, as we navigated such things as closings for houses and celebrated the nine month preparation for a baby.
And I learned that, sometimes, waiting involves vigil. I learned that at the bedsides of my parents; they taught me deep-planted lessons about the grace of dying well.
Lent is a waiting season, a vigil itself–waiting for the tragedy to happen, trusting in the miracle to follow. And this Lent, the theme of waiting is especially present.
This year, I can count on one hand the months left in my academic life: I am waiting to retire.
This year, I walk by my little dog, melded into the couch cushions, snoring deeply, and I think about her milky eyes and at least twelve years, and I ratchet down my annoyance at her pleadings and ratchet up my love of her silky head.
This year, my bold friend Kim, who was told seven years ago to get her affairs in order–told then that her hour was at hand,–is well and truly entered into that last days tunnel.
And I’m realizing that waiting times are sometimes grace times–times of doing the necessary work, ordering the papers; times of being mindful and joyful of what we know we’re losing; times of celebrating connection before the necessity of letting go: preparing the house for the event I know is coming.
I have learned this: that life, no matter what, brings pain. I can insulate myself to minimize that, to keep the pain at its very minimum–but the isolation itself is painful consequence. So…with every dog we’ve ever had, when the parting time comes, we have wept and we have muttered, “Never again. Never again. I cannot say goodbye like this one more time.”
And the car stops, it seems, of its own volition, at the Humane Society, and the wet-eyed pup pokes its nose through the chain links, and we know: we will adopt this dog, and we will love each age and stage.
And we will say goodbye.
And if I throw myself out into the torrent–if I take chances and forge connections and braid myself into others’ lives, and weave those others into mine–then loss becomes an inevitable part of joy. But on the way–what wonders. What growth and sharing and learning accrue, the gifts of deep friendships and family relationships and community commitments,–accomplishments forged together; fun, unimagined beforehand; perfect, complete, and nurturing times–what things I would have missed.
I am waiting, writes Ferlinghetti, and oh, he’s right: I am waiting.
I am waiting for the flowers to bud, for the paperwork for the pension to arrive, for the four-legged step to falter, for the days of a wonderful friend to ebb and wane. I am waiting for that end to come, and I am waiting to learn how that end is also a beginning.
I am waiting because I must; I am waiting without grace; but I am waiting. And I am discovering the value that lurks within.