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The first waiting room in the eye clinic at Wellington Hospital is where a nurse takes you to read the shrinking letters on an eye chart.  Then you go to a second waiting room.  From there they take you into a dark room to take a photo of the inside of each eye.  After that you are taken to a third waiting room.  It has a sign printed on an A4 sheet taped to the wall that says “sub waiting room”, but by my count this should be the sub, sub waiting room.  It’s not really a waiting room; just some space cheated from a short corridor leading to a set of doors that used to access a stairwell.

I spend a lot of time in the sub waiting room.  There are four chairs down each side, and a small square table covered in magazines.  The cover of the top magazine is splashed in photos of local and international “celebrities”: how she kept her man and has a great body at 48; how she found love again; how jealously is pushing them apart; who’s over, and who ain’t.

The couple opposite me are African.  They both have short hair, and glasses, and are dressed conservatively in slacks and shirts.  He is wearing a gold wedding band but she is not, and they both have slip on shoes.  They are talking to each other very quietly in the language they share.  I wonder where they are from, and how they came to be here.  The slip on shoes remind me of a girl who used to come to our house whose family is from Africa.  Whenever she came in she would take her shoes off.  Strangely she would always take them off and leave them in the doorway so I would have to move them to shut the door.  It felt sort of inappropriate to touch her shoes, but then I did need to shut the door.

Most of the world takes their shoes off when they go into a house.  I got used to doing it in Japan, and then got used to not doing it when we came back to New Zealand.

An older Pakeha woman came into the waiting room after we have been there for about fifteen minutes to return her magazine to the pile.  She smiled at the African woman and said, “I couldn’t  finish the crossword”.  The African woman smiled back before the Pakeha woman left again.  There was a lull in the conversation between the couple; the friendly interjection about the crossword seemed to have finished a topic between them, and they wait for a new one to introduce itself.  After a while the woman started again and the man gratefully picked up his part.

One of the men in the waiting room was called away, and a family replaced him: a man and a woman and their daughter.  Their daughter had a slight stoop, and held her head at what looked an uncomfortable angle.  As they came in to sit down we all adjusted ourselves like birds fluffing their feathers as a new bird joins them on the power line.  None of us needed to adjust really, but it was a kind of acknowledgement of a new member.  A welcoming.

The woman and her daughter began to argue over the TV Guide they had picked up from somewhere.  The daughter was very difficult to understand, but not for her mother.  I ignorantly wondered if she had cerebral palsy.  I taught a girl with cerebral palsy.  Actually, she came with us on a school trip to Vietnam.  She had a very fine mind that ranged freely over a huge range of topics.  I remembered her in Hoi An when there was a plan to do a short bicycle tour.  She couldn’t cycle and she was upset that we might be put out by this.  We weren’t, but it amazed me: her concern about our feelings.

I have glaucoma in my right eye.  The woman who tested my eyes at SpecSavers picked it up and referred me on.  I remember her because her last name was Jain and I asked her if she was an actual Jain.  She was.  Now I have to go to the eye clinic every three or four months and process through the machinery of the hospital.  Waiting room after waiting room, test after test, each time a new note on the pink forms in my folder.  This time the specialist tells me that the eye drops have helped the pressure come down in my right eye. She showed me the digital photos of my eyes and pointed to a variety of lines on a chart. The summary is that both eyes are doing fine.

But you never get back what you’ve lost.  You need to keep putting the drops in if you don’t want to lose more.  I saw my grandmother become more and more isolated as her hearing deteriorated; unable to engage in the to and fro of conversation, and left to drift into an eddy as news and gossip and the plot lines of Coronation Street flowed on without her.  I’d rather my sight didn’t diminish further and I lose not only what is before me, but what it connects to, and the places vision takes my memory.

A modern hospital is a high water mark in global civilisation.  Sometimes I forget that as I linger in a sub-waiting room for half and hour, and then an hour, but it is a prodigious achievement based entirely on the principle that people who are sick should be helped with the best possible care.  In a country like New Zealand I can even go without money or insurance and sit with my brother and sister citizens for my turn at the gift of science.

And that is right, and good and – dare I say it as an atheist – actually in the spirit of Christmas.