Wonderboy had an appointment with a new ear-nose-throat doctor this morning. When you wear hearing aids, you tend to build up wax at an alarming rate, which of course occludes the ear canal and further diminishes your hearing, so you have to go in for frequent cleanings with alarmingly pointed instruments. This was our first visit to this particular doctor, and after the cleaning she decided to send WB for bloodwork. She wants some allergy testing done—that’s a tiny piece of a very long story, fodder for another post (or book) altogether—and asked the office manager to call upstairs to the lab and make sure our insurance would cover the bloodwork.
The answer was yes. I was pleased; this meant we wouldn’t have to drive to the children’s hospital and grapple with their difficult parking and long lines. The office manager handed me the form, and Wonderboy and I headed upstairs to the lab.
The lab’s waiting room was moderately crowded. Several people came in after us, while Wonderboy and I were waiting to check in. But the woman at the desk took one look at our form and told me not to sign in. “Are you the one they just called me about? Look at this. They didn’t fill out his information,” she said, indicating the blank lines at the top of the lab slip. “Name, address, date of birth.”
“Can I fill that in?” I asked. She shook her head grimly.
“Nope. They have to do that downstairs. You’ll have to go back.” She started to hand me the form, then changed her mind. “Hang on. I want to make a copy of this. I have a file for this kind of thing. The way they tell it, they never make mistakes.” Her stern countenance had softened; she looked positively cheerful.
Wonderboy and I retraced our steps. The ENT’s desk clerk was puzzled to see us return. I explained.
She rolled her eyes and scrutinized the paperwork. “Whoops, we didn’t even put his name on. Sorry about that. What was the patient’s name?”
I spelled it for her as she filled in the squares at the top of the form. Name and date of birth. She handed the paper back to me.
“That’s it?” I was flabbergasted. “Why couldn’t I just have filled that in myself?”
“Oh, no, we’re supposed to do it down here.”
“But I could have just stepped into the hall and written his name, if I’d known that was all they needed.”
“Well, we’re supposed to do it. They get annoyed if we forget.”
“I know,” I said. “They made a copy for their mistake file.”
The desk clerk burst out laughing. “They’re keeping a file? Oh, Lord.”
Yes. Well. Wonderboy and I went back upstairs to the lab. Of course we’d lost our place in line. The woman at the desk was warm and cheerful, nodding approvingly over our paperwork.
“That’s better.” She watched me dig through my bag for our insurance card. For a long, bad moment, I couldn’t find it. I did find some buttons I meant to send to some young friends after Comic-Con last summer, tucked away and long since forgotten. I’m glad no one is keeping a file of my mistakes.
“Uh-oh,” said the woman. “I sure hope you brought it with you. We can’t take him without it.”
The card surfaced at last, sandwiched between the frozen yogurt punch card and the bookstore punch card.
My boy and I settled down in the waiting room for a medium-sized wait. The woman at the desk must have decided we were a sympathetic audience, because she began regaling us with tales of difficult patients: the sort who don’t understand why they can’t be treated without an insurance card (“I can’t just walk up to an ATM and expect service without my card, can I?”); the sort who bang on the door at 4:32 when the sign clearly says the lab closes at 4:30. (“I don’t know, maybe they can hear me moving around in here?”)
My friend Julianna Baggott talks about frustrating day jobs being rich fodder for writers: “these people around you are characters. you aren’t going to have access to them forever. this is short term — in the long view — it’s part of your story. it will inform your work. these people are material.” I have a collection of waiting-room and exam-room stories; I’ve spent so much of my adult life sitting in one or the other. I don’t think of them as material, exactly, from a distance outside the story; for me the stories unfold all around and I’m inside them, too close for perspective, sometimes. But I do know that these waiting-room encounters inform my work; the strangers with whom I have these curious exchanges teach me more about people. Everyone is so full of stories and quirks. I enjoy the heck out of the quirks even when they frustrate me—and I know that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s why I am usually giggling during these ridiculous red-tape runarounds. It’s all so funny, even when it’s infuriating. This woman keeps a file on her colleagues in other departments, evidence of their screwups, even when the screwup is a name missing on a form for a patient she had been discussing on the phone with the colleague in question just five minutes earlier.
In one of today’s four (yes, four!) waiting rooms, we met an 86-year-old man who told me he served in World War II, became an anesthesiologist, retired as a Colonel, and now builds computer systems. He moved across the room to sit next to Wonderboy and showed us his tablet computer, played us a recording of a six-year-old girl singing an Abba song. He has taught his great-grandson, an 8-year-old, how to fix computers. The Colonel was stationed in Germany when his own kids were little—his oldest daughter is 62 now—and he was amazed by how rapidly his kids picked up that language, just as his great-grandbabies have effortlessly learned their way around computers and gadgets. He loved talking to Wonderboy, comparing hearing aid notes—the Colonel’s wife wears aids.
In another waiting room, another man spoke with pride of his own grandchildren, how quick and bright they are, how different their world is from his. School was terrible for him; “I was on the slow side, you see. The teachers always had one or two favorites, the smart ones, and if you couldn’t keep up, you were out of luck.”
Later in the day, I had a doctor appointment of my own. My big toe and I are not on speaking terms at the moment. The podiatrist’s nurse was a man a few years younger than I; he was astounded to hear I have six kids. Somehow this opened the floodgates and he began telling me a pretty harrowing story of a family member he and his wife have raised since the child was quite young. The podiatrist enjoys taking his family to the mountains, but not skiing; or at least that’s what he says when he’s trying to deflect attention from the giant needle he is repeatedly jabbing into your sore toe. (It doesn’t work.) The x-ray technician has often thought about getting a pedicure but can’t bring herself to spend money so frivolously. The phlebotomist (in a second lab; my turn this time) does about forty sticks a day. He blushes shyly when you exclaim over his skill. The woman reading a fashion magazine in the ENT’s waiting room does not approve of the very short skirt worn by a departing patient. Not even her grandchildren dress “like that.” The receptionist at my doctor’s outer office is not entirely thrilled about the new machines they’re going to be bringing in soon: hand scanners that confirm your identity by the pattern of your veins. (That makes two of us, sister.)
I don’t feel outside their stories, observing. Our stories intersect, and sometimes I get so caught up in them I forget about mine. Which, on a day like today, is just as well: I could spin a harrowing tale of my own involving needles and a scalpel and a bloody slice of toenail lying on a silver tray, but ugh, who wants to read that? I’d rather contemplate that mysterious mistake file (not so mysterious anymore, I suppose, now that I’ve spilled the secret to one of the people in the file). Is it a folder full of photocopies of blank lab forms to be brandished in triumph someday?
The Month That Ate My Brain
Early March notes, garden and otherwise