Odd as this may sound, I love the storytelling that happens in the waiting rooms of hospital emergency rooms. We tell a certain kind of story when we are trying to keep the dragons at bay. The story becomes the calming device—the grown-up’s pacifier or blanket.
Sometimes the stories are recitations of routine. We recount, often in mind-numbing detail, the most ordinary kinds of activities, the things we pray we will be returning to soon. We walk through the new recipe for zucchini pancakes we tried last night; we go over the highlights of a baby shower; we describe exactly where we parked and how much it cost on a recent trip down to Fenway. It is the conversation of distraction, connecting us with the mundane. Made in the face of all that is dire, that connection has a surprising power to soothe.
The other stories we tell in hospital waiting rooms are stories of long ago. We transport ourselves back in time and put ourselves at farthest possible remove from the present emergency. This week, in the ER of our local hospital, one of my parishioners told me the story of how he learned to ski. George is in his late 80’s and we have talked about skiing before. It is not easy for lifelong skiers to give up their sport, an experience kin to having to give up your driver’s license. Although I had heard the story of George’s final mountain runs, I had never heard how his life on skis began.
We make assumptions. I presumed that he learned to ski in NH or VT or possibly back in the the Swedish speaking part of Finland from which his family hales. Someplace scenic and pastoral.
I wasn’t even close. I think George may be the only skier I know who learned how to ski in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. As a boy, George lived in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. “It was no big deal,” he said as he described how he used to strap on curtain rods, then barrel staves, and finally a pair of wooden skis hand-carved by his father, and go flying down the hills of his Bronx neighborhood.
I’m glad I got to hear this story. And even happier that the emergency that took us to the hospital turned out to be relatively minor. I wish it could have been that way for those in the ER in Colorado. Our prayers are with the people of Aurora.