Vignettes from the waiting room

From Our Leaders

November 16, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 23
Anna-Lisa Salo |
(Unsplash photo by Greg Rosenke)

“How do you like my gown? Don’t I wear it well?”

“You look amazing!”

Smoothing the creases of her gown, she flutters her eyelids, strikes a pose, and smiles with the confidence and sass of a runway model.

“I’m not going in there with you.”

“I know. When you hear me scream you can come and get me.”

The waiting room erupts with laughter. A release, an exhale. Satisfied, she pivots and follows the nurse into the abyss.

An awkward silence descends in the waiting room.

As I wait for my friend, I notice a couple sitting side by side across from me. Which one is the cancer patient, I wonder.

Then I see it. That healthy head of long, dark hair has shifted ever so slightly, betraying the woman’s condition. Her hands are held tightly together between her knees as if in prayer. They exchange a few quiet words. I find myself longing to speak words of assurance and courage, but they get caught in my throat. Here, words are little comfort.

An awkward silence descends in the waiting room.

A woman enters bearing a large, canvas tote bag filled with diversions. Knitting needles pierce a ball of yarn waiting to be shaped and named. Noticing me feigning unusual interest in a print on the wall, she sparks a conversation.

“I like that picture.”

Unable to perceive anything remotely interesting in the print, I reply, “It’s an original print. I’ve looked but I don’t see a signature.”

“They’re painting the halls in my condo,” she continues. “They’re taking forever. I thought they’d use a lighter colour to brighten up the hallways, but they painted everything this horrible grey. It’s awful.”

“Yeah. That’s the trend now,” I respond. “A friend of mine hates that colour. The name he uses for it is drywall.”

We laugh.

“I thought about rebelling and painting my door bright red.”

“Are you allowed?”

“I don’t know, but I’d like to.”

“What colour are the other doors?”


“Too bad. You should so paint your door red!”

Again, that awkward silence comes over the waiting room.

I am not a radiation therapist or oncologist. I know nothing about the complexities of radiation therapy or the nature of photons, protons or electrons. But I do know the smell of fear.

Try as we may to cover it up with humour or small talk, the force of fear becomes too much, like the sea pressing in on a dike. Weary with the constant effort of holding fast, the dike eventually gives way and the sea rushes in.

Repeatedly, we read the words “Fear not” in the Bible. Seems we humans have a propensity to fear. Enemies abound, looking for blood, leaving us exposed, helpless, and vulnerable. We do everything in our power to numb or avoid these feelings, building walls that hold back the flood.

Jesus knew fear. It stalked him in the garden. It descended on him like darkness. His anguished prayer, “remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42), is heart-wrenching.

Rather than stoically managing fear alone, how can we face our fears together?

As I sat in that waiting room, I wondered: rather than congratulating people on how brave, strong or courageous they are, perhaps we can be a safe space where together we can fall to our knees, cry out to God and allow our carefully constructed walIs to crumble.

Perhaps we begin this journey of holding space for each other, like Jesus, by acknowledging fear rather than denying it. Perhaps it begins by reaching across the chasm of awkward silence that separates us and speaking these simple words:

“I’m scared.”

“I know. I’m scared too.” 


Anna-Lisa Salo is the pastor of Bergthal Mennonite Church in Didsbury, Alberta.

(Unsplash photo by Greg Rosenke)

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