Yesterday I watched part of a Charlie Rose interview with Dustin Hoffman. Just a month or so ago he (Hoffman) became a Kennedy Center Honoree. Plus the movie he directed, Quartet, was recently released, so they had a lot to talk about.
When the discussion turned to Hoffman, the actor, he said something that struck a chord with me. That actors are observers. Of course they are. And so are writers. We have to be. Otherwise we would never be able to create characters and story lines our readers could identify with.
Today is a volunteer day for me. On Tuesdays I volunteer at a hospital here, in Toronto. There are three areas where I help out. An elective surgery recovery room, palliative care and a surgical waiting room. All areas where patients and their families are under a lot of stress. Emotions run high and everyone is anxious and scared.
I’ve been doing it for four years now, always in the same areas, and I’ve had a chance to observe a lot of different people; and how they handle their anxiety. They’re all different. Because of how long they can take, I spend the most time, in the surgical waiting room, with those who have friends or family members having surgery.
For the most part, these are complicated, serious operations. They can last anywhere from a couple of hours, to more than eight or ten. Sometimes even longer. It’s here these ‘loved ones’ wait for news. It’s here the doctors call, once the surgery is finally over. To speak with the family and report how it went; and what the prognosis is. It’s here where they find out when the patients arrive in recovery; and when they can see them.
There are days you can cut the tension with a knife. Understandably so.
But what’s interesting, is how varied the coping mechanisms are. Some people come alone. Sometimes because, for whatever reason, there is no one else. But often, it’s because they are too nervous for company. They don’t want to have to make small talk. You can tell, because the minute they come into the room, and sign in, they completely withdraw. Even physically. They sit down, preferably in a corner, and their entire body curves in on itself. They retreat. Like a turtle, into its shell.
They’re always the ones who are the most startled, the most shocked, the most afraid whenever the phone rings. You can see them jump.
Others come in large groups. And they’re very vocal. Lots and lots of conversation going on. They don’t want to be alone with their thoughts. They want to be distracted. Still others complain to me, about the lack of a television set. They explain the silence weighs too heavily on them. It makes them more anxious. They want noise. And a different kind of distraction. Still others cover themselves with their coats and fall asleep, immediately. It’s their way of avoiding staring at the clock.
A lot of people fidget. Tossing and turning, from side to side. Crossing one leg, then the other. Sitting on one hip, then the other. Stretching both legs out in front of them. Intermittently looking in their handbags. Taking jackets off. And putting them right back on again. Checking their watches every few minutes. Checking their cell phones every few minutes. Never finding a comfortable spot, where they can just settle.
While they’re totally unaware of it, they’re showing me just how jittery they are.
Then there are those who just can’t sit still. They’re up and down constantly. In and out of the room every couple of minutes. For coffee. For a snack. For water. For a bio break. For air. For a cigarette. To make a phone call. To stretch their legs. Up and down. Back and forth. In and out. Without let up.
Now in this case, I’m watching people in a hospital. But where else could they be?
At a dentist’s office. Waiting to take a driving test. In an airport departure lounge. Waiting to be interviewed for a job. Waiting to write a college exam. Waiting to hear if an offer to purchase a home has been accepted. Waiting to hear if a loan’s been approved. About to get on a roller coaster. About to be questioned by the police. Getting a flu shot. Getting married. Waiting for results of any kind.
It really doesn’t matter. Because the people I’ve described could be found in any of these scenarios. And probably at least a dozen more.
So before you write your next story, have a look around.