I was tense. We were all tense. Tense was a prerequisite state for all visitors waiting on the Ground Floor for the hospital lifts. Except those going to the Eighth Floor: Maternity. Not even all of those. To any extent, a quick look around revealed no one here was going to Maternity.
A tray with two coffees, in Styrofoam cups. Mine was the one on the right. Do not spill. Do not spill. They felt hot and smelled delicious but all four lifts were occupied.
The lady to my left, neat and discrete hair, nails, makeup and perfume, was rubbing her two fingers in the nervous manner of a smoker in a non-smoking environment. Anxious looks dashing between the flashing floor numbers and her fine gold wristwatch. Four visitor lifts, not a single one here. She was thinking: Come on, come on.
We all had somewhere, some room on some floor of this hospital we had to be. We all had someone we were worried about, someone we were here to see. We were all thinking: Come on, come on, every gaze avoiding the rest. No time for eye contact, human contact, conversation. No one had empathy to spare.
Finally, a ding. One of the lifts had arrived. The steel doors opened, a young woman walked out. Slowly, too slowly. She half hobbled, half limped, half dragged her feet out onto the Ground Floor. In the meantime, behind her the steel doors had shut and the lift, again, was gone.
Exasperated sighs across the Ground Floor lobby. We had waited so long for this lift. The lady with the fine gold wristwatch grumbled as loudly as her elegant upbringing allowed. I was irritated too; my coffees were getting cold. But there was no point in aggravating the tension. I smiled at the lady instead.
A full second’s pause, then the lady smiled back, to both of our surprise. She too had understood; we were all stuck on the same Ground Floor of a hospital lobby, waiting anxiously for the lifts, for different reasons, with our coffee, flowers, chocolates, worries.
Ding again. Finally. We spilled into the lift. The doors had just begun to close, when from the entrance, another lady called out: Wait! All seventy years of her hobbling over.
General hesitation in the overcrowded lift. Definitely no eye contact. Then by general, resigned, unspoken accord we all reached forward to hold the doors.
Huffing and puffing and quite red in the face, the last visitor scuffled in. The little lady had not quite caught her breath; she smiled gratefully at us instead. In her hand, a white plastic bag held what I presumed to be breakfast. It was ten a.m. I was hungry and cranky. My coffees were, by now, clearly cold.
The doors finally shut and like a Christmas tree, the button board to my right lit up. Second Floor: Intensive Care Units. Third: Surgery. I did not know what was on the Fourth Floor. Fifth Floor was Oncology. Sixth was Infectious Diseases. Seventh: Pediatrics. My heart always tinged when someone pressed the button for the Seventh Floor.
As I had thought, no one was going to the Eighth. The Ninth was Geriatrics and Psychiatry. Someone had already pressed my floor. My coffees and I, and everyone else waited. No one, of course, spoke. Until,
It was breakfast; the mysterious content of the old lady’s plastic white bag. The smell of hot bread and thyme – mankoushe – filled the cabin deliciously, so enticing my manicured lady friend abandoned her aloofness to comment:
That smells wonderful.
The old lady smiled up at her, disheveled, wrinkled and grey, the contrast between them both striking. Two women from worlds so dissimilar they would never cross outside a hospital lift.
Would you like a small piece? It is for my husband, fresh from the baker’s oven across the street. He has not touched the food here since he arrived, but this morning he woke up hungry!
The lady with the impeccable hair and manners politely declined, but said she was pleased the husband’s appetite had returned. I looked at her face; she meant it.
The old lady offered everyone else a piece of the now famous husband’s breakfast. We were all so happy he was hungry again that of course we did not want a bite. One by one the floor numbers lit on and off the little screen, the steel doors opened and closed, as visitors exited and others entered the lift. Ding. We reached my floor.
Excuse me, excuse me. A path was made out of the lift for my coffees and me. I said goodbye, thought good luck and good wishes, as the doors closed behind me.