Waiting

by

Cate Kennedy

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Waiting Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The horoscopes in a magazine tell the narrator that “everything will align for [her] at a time [she] least expect[s] it,” so she flips to an article about school lunches, then to an enlarged photo of a celebrity’s thigh. The photo is so blown up that it’s hard to tell if the thigh has cellulite or a shadow.
The horoscope’s cryptic message proposes, right from the beginning, that it’s impossible for people to control what, how, and when things happen to them—instead, they’re powerless and simply have to wait for everything to “align.” The language of “alignment” suggests a moment of order emerging from chaos (as in, a jumbled mess sorting itself into a line), and the desire to find order in chaos is something that plagues the narrator throughout the story. The narrator will soon reveal that she is in a hospital waiting room, trying to confirm that she miscarried yet again, so it’s understandable why she might skip past the school lunches article. It may be too painful to be confronted with the article when she doesn’t have a child to pack lunches for. Finally, the enlarged photo of the thigh shows the cruel way in which people examine women’s bodies, which will reappear in the story when the narrator tells of her terrible experiences getting ultrasounds.
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On the table next to the narrator is another magazine, slightly more recent, with the same celebrity on the cover—this time, she’s asking for privacy. If the celebrity wants privacy, the narrator thinks, she ought to stop posing in swimsuits and cashing the checks. If she really wants to be left alone or forgotten, the narrator suggests that the celebrity “come and live at my place.”
The celebrity is the narrator’s opposite—while the narrator implies that she’s working-class, the celebrity is wealthy; while the narrator goes unnoticed, the celebrity is smothered with attention. This passage implies that the narrator doesn’t have much sympathy for the celebrity, since she benefits from all the publicity, good and bad. By contrast, the narrator implies that she herself has so much privacy that she’s actually suffering—she’s alone and unnoticed with no one to comfort her, even as she waits to receive devastating news. The narrator’s tongue-in-cheek invitation to “live at my place” is, in part, a nod to her class background—where the narrator lives (presumably, rural Australia), it’s easy to slip into obscurity. It’s also a subtle acknowledgement of her loneliness, although she doesn’t say so outright.
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The narrator is only reading the magazines to kill time, knowing that she has a long wait ahead. The magazines are more than a year old—unsurprising for a public hospital waiting room. What does surprise her is that lots of people have filled out the crosswords and word searches. With a lot “preying on their minds,” these people have stared at jumbles of words, searching for anything to make sense. The magazines feel grimy after being touched so much by nervous, sweaty hands.
It’s significant that the narrator is receiving care at a public hospital. This clarifies that she’s working-class, as she doesn’t have the extra cash to pay for a private hospital. The public hospital, though, doesn’t provide the highest level of care—it can’t even offer nervous patients up-to-date magazines while they wait. And waiting for an ultrasound, the narrator suggests, is a universally nerve-wracking experience; the possibility of getting bad news “prey[s]” on these women’s minds, imagery that makes them seem like animals whom nature is out to destroy. Their desire to do the word searches in a moment of powerlessness suggests that they’re looking for something to seem orderly and reasonable. Seeing legible words emerge from a chaotic jumble of letters gives them a sense of control and mirrors their hope for their appointment: that their own uncertainty will give way to a certainty that their pregnancy is fine..
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Once they call the narrator’s name, she’ll find out if she has the hospital’s only woman staffer or one of its four men. If she has the woman, she’ll feel grateful for this “small mercy.” Whenever she gets the men, they squirt the gel on, apologize that it’s cold, and stare intently at the screen while they move the transducer around. They never turn the screen around to the narrator, because they’ve read the ultrasound form and they know what she’s here to find out. No matter how hard she stares at them, they almost never meet her eye.
This passage clarifies for the first time exactly what is going on: the implication is that the narrator already suspects that her pregnancy is not viable, and she’s having an ultrasound to confirm that the baby has died. Compounding how devastating this is, it seems to have happened to her at least several times before. The narrator’s description of the male techs casts them as cold and distant. They refuse to acknowledge her humanity or make her feel less alone—even by doing simple things like making eye contact with her in a moment of nervousness and grief. She frames their terrible bedside manner as a result of their gender (after all, getting the woman would be a “small mercy,” implying that the woman might help lessen the narrator’s grief). But as men, these techs seem not to understand her experience at all or care about her pain, which makes her feel even more alone.
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Whenever the narrator “break[s]” and asks if it’s still alive, the male techs say only what they’ve been taught to say: that the doctor will discuss the results. This detachment is ironic, since they’re currently looking inside her body. They’re always so cold and professional as they study the screen, watching the “black landmass” that is her body while a “cyclone gather[s] its bleary force offshore.”
It’s telling that the narrator considers it “break[ing]” to ask if the fetus is still alive—this suggests her belief that she cannot express her nervousness or pain. But to feel afraid of asking such an essential question shows how alienating this hospital experience is, making an already traumatic situation even worse. While the techs’ cold, clinical manner may be very well be a requirement of the job, it shows a systemic disregard for the experiences and pain of female patients. In this passage, the narrator uses imagery that compares her body to land and her imminent miscarriage to a cyclone about to hit the shore. This shows that she thinks of herself as a victim of nature’s destructive power, and that she’s powerless to stop these miscarriages from coming and wreaking havoc on her life.
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The narrator had the woman only once, and that time she didn’t even have to ask—the woman squeezed the narrator’s leg and said she was sorry, but she couldn’t find a heartbeat. Afterwards, the woman let the narrator lie there for a bit to collect herself. This could be why the narrator hasn’t seen the woman at the hospital lately; maybe the men resented that she wasn’t very efficient in getting through the long lines of patients.
It’s a tragedy that the narrator has only experienced compassionate medical care once, and it’s telling how the female tech’s basic gestures of decency and kindness made such a difference. Not feeling completely alone in her grief made this tragedy easier for the narrator to bear. But in wondering if the woman got pushed out of her job because of inefficiency (e.g. taking the time to be compassionate), the story leaves open the possibility that the public hospital system is simply not set up to treat patients as human beings. This harms working-class women like the narrator, who can’t afford to go to a private hospital.
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The last three ultrasounds were with men, though, so the narrator is used to it. Every time, she waits to “have her fears confirmed,” either outright or when the techs brush her off. Then, she goes back to the waiting room, gets her printed report, and pays for the procedure. After she receives her Medicare refund, the ultrasound costs $75.
In this passage, the narrator shows that devastating ultrasound results have become regular occurrences for her. It seems that she’s trying to be nonchalant, walking readers through the logistics of what happens each time she gets terrible news about her pregnancy, but never once saying how it makes her feel. This is, of course, a conspicuous omission, and her refusal or inability to talk about her grief implies its enormity. The narrator will later stress how pragmatic she is, and here her pragmatism seems to be simply an attempt to push grief from her mind so it doesn’t overwhelm her.
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The narrator no longer takes home the ultrasound films—at one point, a tech even told her that there was “Nothing to see [...] It’s so tiny in these early stages.” But once, the receptionist gave the narrator a DVD in addition to the receipt. The receptionist clearly didn’t read the report—she must’ve thought that the narrator would go home to watch a healthy baby bouncing inside of her.
The techs’ professionalism keeps them from treating the narrator kindly and acknowledging her pain. Suggesting that there’s “nothing to see” because the fetus is so tiny in the first trimester of pregnancy may be an attempt at comfort, but if it is, it falls flat. Instead of comforting her, it makes it seem as though she doesn’t have any right to grieve the miscarriage. Then, to make things even worse, the front office staff ends up behaving cruelly because they don’t take the time to read the reports. This, again, may reflect that this is a public hospital that’s trying to get through a high volume of patients and doesn’t have time for individualized care. But the fact that nobody is taking the time to connect with her as a person in this awful moment clearly contributes to her suffering.
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Today, the narrator already knows what’s coming. Last Tuesday morning, when she hit 10 weeks, she stood in the kitchen while Pete fed the cattle, rubbing at a spot on the counter and trying to account for her sense of dread. Then, she realized she wasn’t nauseous anymore. Her heart felt “like a shallow dish of water” that she was struggling to keep steady, and she had the “feeling of something ebbing away.” The spot she was rubbing moved and she realized it was a dot of light reflected off of a bottle. Everything was silent. She knows they won’t find a heartbeat today.
The narrator’s husband being a farmer suggests that the family is working-class, which may explain why the narrator is going to a public hospital. And the absence of nausea tells her that she’s lost her pregnancy, since morning sickness is a sign of healthy pregnancy. It’s noteworthy that she’s alone when she realizes this—this increases the sense of the narrator’s emotional isolation, showing how she grieves alone. When she uses the phrase “ebbing away,” she again compares miscarriage to a natural phenomenon. Before it was a cyclone, and now it's the tide, which shows that she's starting to give up hope that she’ll ever carry to term—the tides, after all, are steady, cyclical, and inevitable, and that’s how she sees her miscarriages. Further, when she’s rubbing what at first seemed like a real spot on the counter and then realizes it was only a spot of light draws another parallel to the narrator’s pregnancy. Like this spot, the narrator thought her pregnancy was real—but in this moment, she realizes that her pregnancy, like this spot, is immaterial and just a trick of the light. Describing her heart like a dish of water points to how hard the narrator is trying to hold things together in light of these constant tragedies. She associates water with the destructive power of nature (tides, cyclones), and the feeling that she has a precarious bowl of water in her chest shows how sees herself as barely containing chaos and destruction, but that everything could fall apart in an instant if she slips up. This might help make sense of how stoic she feels she must be about her grief—she needs to be emotionally steady, lest the water spill.
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These days, the narrator’s doctor just fills out a request form for the ultrasound without needing an appointment. And today, the narrator told Pete that she was going shopping; he has enough to worry about right now. The pamphlets the doctors send home with her talk a lot about giving herself time to grieve, but they never mention how a miscarriage affects a person’s partner. She can tell that Pete is “worn down” already. He put in a crop of wheat recently, hoping the weather would break, but it hasn’t.
The fact that the narrator’s doctor no longer requires appointments to approve an ultrasound drives home how inevitable and routine these repeated miscarriages have begun to feel. And the fact that she has only pamphlets to help her grieve shows how impersonal her medical care has been. The narrator implies that she hasn’t told Pete what’s going on because she doesn’t want to worry him when he’s already fretting over his failing crop. But she also seems subtly to link her choice not to tell him to the fact that her doctors (and their pamphlets) don’t give her any information on how Pete might be affected or how to help him grieve. Her medical providers don’t acknowledge that he’s also trying to have a baby and that he might need help processing these losses—something that seems confirmed in the narrator’s sense that Pete is “worn down.” It’s sad that nobody can help the narrator address this with Pete, so she avoids it altogether and isolates herself in her grief.
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Lately, the narrator can see that Pete is thinking about giving up on his wheat crop and letting the cows eat it, just like their neighbors have done. Some mornings she watches him out in the field, inspecting the stalks and trying to figure out when to call it quits. This is why she “spared” him when she found out she was pregnant again. He sowed the wheat ten weeks ago today.
As the narrator describes Pete’s wheat crop, she establishes the wheat as a symbol for her pregnancy. Pete sowed the wheat at about the same time the narrator would have conceived (10 weeks ago), making the connection clear. Moreover, both Pete and the narrator are getting ready to accept defeat that either the crop or the pregnancy will bear fruit. Importantly, the narrator casts “sparing” Pete as an act of love, showing how deeply she cares for him. She wants to protect him from more difficulty, and in this case, that means going through this pregnancy and miscarriage alone.
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The narrator clarifies that she’s not a martyr. When she and Pete married, her mother passed down her grandmother’s wedding ring. The back of the ring is worn thin because her grandmother nervously rubbed it while she waited for her husband to finish his shifts in the mines. These days, the narrator does the same thing.
Insisting that she’s not a martyr suggests that the narrator doesn’t think she’s really sacrificing that much by not telling Pete—but it’s not clear readers should believe her. The narrator is clearly upset and grieving, which is evident in her almost hollow tone and her sense of fear and hopelessness. Presumably, she would suffer less if Pete could help her grieve, so she has sacrificed herself in a martyrlike way to protect him. Rubbing the wedding ring just like her grandmother did also suggests that the narrator feels powerless. Like her grandmother—who couldn’t guarantee that her husband would return from work unscathed—the narrator can’t guarantee that she’ll carry a pregnancy to term or that Pete’s crops will succeed. All she can do is wait.
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Last March, the narrator made it to 14 weeks. Pete had just started to look more relaxed when one day, while doing laundry, she felt “that tide ebbing again.” She was powerless to stop it.
Most miscarriages happen before 12 weeks of pregnancy, which is likely why Pete thought he could relax—it seemed as though the narrator was out of the woods this time and might actually carry the baby to term. Referring to miscarrying as an “ebbing tide” that the narrator couldn’t stop is another way for the narrator to show that she feels powerless in the face of unexplainable natural events. Even when things seem like they’re going her way, nature can still step in and ruin it.
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In the hospital afterwards, when they announced the end of visiting hours, Pete hesitated. The narrator closed her eyes, expecting him to say something. Instead, Pete undressed and climbed in bed next to her. Pete is normally “undemonstrative,” and this gesture showed the narrator that he understood her grief.
When the hospital announces the end of visiting hours, the narrator seems to assume that Pete will leave, which positions him as a visitor in her life, or someone who might not be permanent. The narrator deepens the sense that he might leave her when she closes her eyes, seemingly bracing for him to say something difficult. The subtle implication (between the visiting hours and the eye-closing) is that the narrator may have worried that he was about to end their marriage, presumably because she hasn’t been able to bear the child he wants. However, Pete climbing into bed with her is one of the most comforting, tender moments of the entire story. It suggests that the narrator’s insecurity about her marriage might be incorrect—Pete doesn’t leave when visiting hours are over, signaling that he’s in it for the long haul. And his ability to see her grief and his willingness to help her through it paints him as a loyal and loving partner. This makes it a little confusing that she didn’t tell him that she was pregnant this time—it seems that he would have wanted to be there for her. However, if she’s worried he might leave her, then perhaps her motives for keeping the pregnancy a secret aren’t quite what she says: she might be worried that another miscarriage would tip him over the edge and destroy their marriage.
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That night, the narrator woke up to Pete rubbing her arm as he slept. Marriage, the narrator reflects, “wears us thin” and “knocks the edges off us.” But still, she’s not a martyr. Instead, she’s just someone who does what needs to be done. She learned this from Pete.
Throughout the story, the narrator associates nervously rubbing something (such as her wedding ring or the countertop) with her sense of powerlessness over impending disaster. But here, that same kind of rubbing is also an act of care: Pete rubbing her arm in his sleep is both a nervous gesture born from fear and grief, and also a way to comfort the narrator. This duality between care and pain is also evident in the narrator’s framing of marriage as something that both “wears us thin” (presumably through difficulty) and “knocks the edges off of us” (“taking the edge off” means lessening a person’s nerves or suffering). Marriage, then, seems to simultaneously strain people and comfort them. The narrator’s subsequent statement that she isn’t a martyr implies that she’s not sacrificing her own well-being to help her husband, but that’s actually exactly what she seems to be doing. Instead of accepting that marriage is always simultaneously hard and rewarding, she wants to accept more than her share of hardship so her husband can have more than his share of comfort.
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The narrator flips to an article listing the 10 steps to a “new me” and then to a photo of a skinny actress. An arrow points to the woman’s flat stomach and asks, “baby bump?” Once her appointment is over, she’ll get her Medicare refund, deposit it, and then go shop for something that she can pretend cost $75.
Rapidly flipping through the magazine again points to how anxious the narrator is. She’s not really reading the magazine—she’s just trying to distract herself from how bad she feels. But it’s not a great distraction, since every page of the magazine seems to contain something that’s traumatic to her—before it was school lunches and a horoscope giving false assurance that everything would work out, and now it’s pregnancy speculation and the notion that one can easily become a new person. (In a few paragraphs, the narrator will revisit how insulting this feels during her walk to the exam room.)
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The narrator knows that her doctor will offer her a procedure to clear her uterus or give her the option to “let things take their natural course.” She’ll choose the natural course, since it’ll be harder to explain away a hospital procedure. However, she’s still baffled by “Nature’s way.” She’s experienced it many times now. It carves “erosion gullies through us” and makes her “eat its dust.” She’s still waiting for something to appear out “this garbled mess” and suddenly make sense.
Letting the pregnancy take its “natural course” means allowing the narrator to miscarry on her own time, rather than clearing her uterus at the hospital. This again associates miscarriages with nature, showing how the narrator feels that nature is out to destroy her. The narrator’s description of nature as carving “erosion gullies” through her and making her “eat its dust” is one of the clearest indicators of how out-of-control and threatening she finds her whole life—it seems like she’s talking about more than just her miscarriage now, since she’s using the pronoun “us” and speaking in general terms. In this moment, like in the moment at the beginning with the word searches, she’s hoping that out of all of this chaos, something will finally start to make sense. This is, in part, the “waiting” to which the title refers—she’s both waiting for her appointment and waiting for something to finally go her way. But her feeling that she has to simply wait shows her powerlessness; she doesn’t feel like she can affect her fate, only accept it and hope for something better.
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The real “natural course” is the fact that now, a polite male radiographer is calling the narrator’s name. She walks toward the examination room, counting her steps and thinking about the 10 steps to a “new me” or to a flatter stomach.
By calling the appearance of the radiographer the “natural course,” the narrator frames the hospital as being just as cyclical and harmful as nature itself. She knows what the ultrasound tech is going to find, and she knows exactly how dehumanizing and upsetting her appointment is going to be. As she walks to the exam room, she reveals just how bitter she feels about the women’s magazines in the waiting room. Each literal step she takes towards her ultrasound is, like the articles say, a step towards a “new me”—but not the “new me” that she wants, in which she has a healthy pregnancy. Furthermore, the magazines’ focus on a flatter stomach feels perverse to her, since all she wants is a big stomach in which she’s carrying a healthy baby to term. In this way, the magazines—like the hospital overall—do not understand her and therefore magnify her experience of grief. 
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The narrator knows that, back home, Pete is deciding to open the gate for the cows to eat the wheat. He can’t stand to see the “hopeful greenness” struggle against the heat. The narrator agrees that he should “let it go.” In her mind, he is putting off the decision for a moment while he scans the horizon for a final time.
As the narrator walks into her ultrasound, she imagines her husband’s suffering as he decides to give up on his wheat. Once again, this symbolically links the wheat and her pregnancy—both are failing at the same moment, and referring to the wheat as “hopeful greenness” that is unable to survive the heat frames the wheat, like the narrator’s pregnancy, as new life being destroyed by nature. This passage also shows the narrator’s deep empathy for Pete. This is a moment of tremendous suffering for her, and instead of dwelling on her own grief, she’s feeling sorry for her husband—this emphasizes the asymmetry in their grief. After all, Pete knows nothing of her grief, while she imagines his in detail, suffering on both of their behalves. Agreeing that Pete should “let it go” is an admission of their powerlessness and a surrender to nature. Nonetheless, she imagines him still scanning the horizon like the nervous women scan the word searches, hunting for order in chaos (a sign that the weather might break) even though that clearly won’t happen.
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The narrator knows what Pete needs—and she knows she can’t give it to him. She can see it in the “thwarted tenderness” of him scratching the dog’s head. The “heavy dish of water” in her chest feels like it’s starting to tip, and it hurts to hold it steady. She thinks of Pete wiping his forehead with his hat and then putting it back on and straightening his back, ready to do what has to be done next.
The narrator does not say outright what it is that Pete needs, perhaps because it’s too painful for her to explicitly state—but she’s clearly implying that he wants a baby and it seems like she won’t be able to have one. When she describes the “thwarted tenderness” of him petting the dog, she’s implying that this love is meant for a baby and the dog is just a placeholder. Seeing this hurts her so much that she can barely hold it together. Again, she uses the imagery of a precarious “dish of water” inside her chest to describe the feeling that everything is about to fall apart, and she’s trying so hard to keep this from happening that it’s hurting her. But when she thinks of Pete straightening his back and moving on to the next task after losing his wheat, she seems to be taking strength. Even though he doesn’t know what she’s going through, he’s trying to hold it together, too, which perhaps makes her feel less alone.
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