Things to Do in the Surgery Waiting Room

Sarena Ulibarri

Sarena Ulibarri

Cry Uncontrollably

Let go of everything you’ve been holding in as this day approached, all the emotion you didn’t want your husband to see you feeling. Glare at the people who laugh or smile, the ones who play cards or tell stories while they wait for their loved ones to go under the knife. Feel superior in your sorrow, knowing that your hardship is harder than theirs. If someone else starts crying, cry harder. Make it a contest. Cry until you think you can’t anymore and then push it further. Push it to the absurd. Cry so much that it activates the sympathetic nervous system of everyone within earshot. Cry until the whole hospital is crying with you.


Read Harlequin Romances to remind yourself there is pleasure in the world. Read translated French literary theory, but don’t expect to remember any of it. Read murder mysteries where the killer turns out to be a duck. Don’t read science fiction. It will only remind you how your husband started to look like a cyborg with all those wires and tubes they attached to him in the pre-op room. A story about a robot revolution might seem like a good distraction, but right now you need to trust technology. You want all your machines to be obedient, the machines that are breathing and pumping and draining that body you swore to love in sickness and health. One tiny malfunction, one electrical surge, and you’re buying cemetery flowers or spending the rest of your life as an unpaid nurse. Go back to your Harlequins, where lovers sometimes come back from the dead.

Call the Dog

Have one of the Petsmart employees take him out of Doggie Day Camp and bring him into the Bone Booth so you can talk to him. Listen to him pant and sniff at the phone receiver. Ask him if he’s been picking on the Puggles again, and tell him he’s not a big dog like he thinks he is. Tell him you know he’s worried about Daddy, but everything’s going to be alright. Hang up when you realize the Petsmart employee is still listening to you. Think about calling your sister, and decide against it. She’ll only want to know that everything’s alright, and you can say it to the dog, but you can’t say it to her. Not when you don’t know if it’s true.


Start with a few concentric circles in the blank space of the “I Want to be a Doctor” kid’s brochure that’s mixed in with the glossy magazines. Draw a few more circles, then let the sketch spiral out of control. Decide that what you’re drawing is your husband’s tumor, and add horns and a tail to it. Wad it up and throw it in the trash, on top of your box and a half of used tissues. Start again. This time, draw butterflies. After the nurse comes in and wants to use your butterfly canvas to illustrate the exact location and relative size of your husband’s tumor, throw that away too, and go back to your Harlequin.

Practice Handstands

Go into the hallway, out of sight of the other waiting families, and around the corner, where you can’t see all the blue hairnets and scrubs if someone walks out of the operating rooms. Pick a spot of wall,
spread your fingers on the cold tile floor and kick up. Fall, and try it again. Pretend for a few minutes that you actually understand everything your yoga teachers say. Telescope your ribs. Turn on your inner spiral. Engage your root lock. And once you’re upside down, breathe, breathe, breathe until your face is red and your arms are shaking. In this building of broken bodies, try not to feel guilty that yours is working just fine.


Listen to the nurses when they give updates to the other people in the waiting room. At first, always hope for good news. Wish for everyone to have a routine surgery, for everyone’s loved one to be stable. Then as the day wears on, hope that you overhear bad news because, statistically, they can’t all go well. The number of waiting families is dwindling. Soon, you’ll be the only one left. Hope to overhear bad news so that you don’t have to hear it yourself. Then when someone does leave crying, a nurse’s hand resting on their slumping spine, you’ll feel a little spurt of victory and a lot of guilt, as if your selfish wish was the very thing that made the surgeon’s hand slip. Then you’ll look at your own hands, with their dry skin and chipped nails, with the band of gold and the single solid diamond, and you’ll remember that you’re powerless and all you can do is sit here just a little longer, and wait.


Sarena Ulibarri is an MFA student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she is also on the fiction editorial staff of Timber Journal. Her fiction has recently appeared in decomP magazinE, Flashquake, and Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction.


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