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The Little Bighorn had to happen precisely as it did, with the ensuing loss of life, for America to grow into the place that it is today. Think of it this way: for Americans in 1876, the massacre at the Little Bighorn was the very visceral twin of the attack on 9/11.

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The Wating Room

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The rooms are all exactly the same, but hauntingly different. It’s the cold look of generic apprehension. You walk in, select a seat as strategically as possible, one with a vantage point that allows you to see in as many directions as possible, and begin the ritual of waiting. You wait for information, for other family members, for medical professionals and surgeons to perform their saving craft and finally, you wait for the reassuring pronouncement from a doctor still dressed in sweat-soaked scrubs that everything went fine. You force yourself to believe that news will come. You try to numb yourself against any possibility that the doctor’s words will in any way fall short of “fine.”

Every time a person enters or leaves the hospital waiting room, or even passes near it, you become instantly alert. What’s happening now? Why are they coming and going? Does this movement have something to do with the person you’re there for?

When will this agony be over?

The atmosphere in a hospital waiting room is always static and unnatural. The smell is mildly antiseptic. The time is indeterminate, regardless of the ticking clock on the wall. For you and the people with you, it is forever the present and you are trapped in it.

Old magazines, televisions tuned to only one channel, artificial ferns, long rows of stiff seats, mounted wall plaques thanking some generous hospital benefactor, industrial-strength grey carpeting, harsh bright lights, a receptionist trained to deflect all questions — and that oversize, ticking clock on the wall – these are the never-changing artifacts of the hospital waiting room. And then, there is you, of course, one of the waiting ones.

As you work your way through a year’s worth of year-old Times or Newsweeks or Peoples, only half-concentrating on the printed words and the fading pictures, your mind wanders to frightening scenarios of worst-possible-outcomes. There is no good reason to do this, except for those demons of doubt that play havoc with your imagination.

Hospital waiting rooms are icons of angst where these universal experiences are shared by little groups of worried, weary people, sitting silently and staring, or chatting awkwardly, mouthing inanities and expressions of phony confidence. Everyone is trying to make the person next to them feel better, less fearful, confident in the necessity of what’s happening. But, it does no good.

Medicine in its contemporary form saves far more patients than ever before, but its faceless corporate appearance still takes a high toll on the despairing families and friends praying in any way they can that they will not have to hear the worst. Before an operation of any sort, patients and their loved ones are always thoroughly briefed about what will happen and why. Normally, a percentage of success or failure will be assigned to each and every procedure, as in “90 percent of the time, this operation is successful.” The last thing you want to do is reduce the person you’re there for to some abstract statistic, but that’s the shorthand of the healing arts.

Except in the most extreme cases, this is no mere throw of the dice. Medicine is more than a match for many diseases. But, that factor of uncertainty persists. There is no escaping those imagined terrors of what might happen.

The hospital waiting room, regardless of its particular title, from “family area” to “green room” to “lobby”, is a limbo of fear, dread, hope and resignation. Hardly anyone gets to go through a lifetime escaping the experience. At least the patients are anesthetized, but the people waiting to hear about them face the perpetual awakeness induced by worry.

The room’s stark appearance belies earnest efforts to superimpose an ersatz calm in the face of urgency and panic that can, in certain cases, be a matter of life and death slowly as the surgeon rises to his calling.

For a parent, it is always worse when a child is involved. Children and hospitals have no good thing in common, no child belongs in one and no hospital truly knows how to comfort a sick child.

The instinct to protect and fear for one’s child is natural; the sense of desperate helplessness that takes over when you can’t even see your child is the torture of sitting and waiting.

When cancer is involved in any form, the stakes become much higher, much faster. Cancer remains the plague of the world in which we live. Cancer’s reign as an unquestioned death sentence is past, but its power remains formidable. To mention “cancer” and “child” in the same sentence under any circumstances is an abomination – but one that too many people still have to endure. These are the moments that bring a family together in ways never to be forgotten, but never easy to express.

Finally, after the hours have passed, when the weary-looking surgeon finally arrives, delivering the news with his confident sense of work well done, that first sweet moment of relief will stay with you forever.

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