In “Waiting,” a woman sits in a hospital waiting room, knowing exactly what her ultrasound will reveal: that she has lost yet another pregnancy. But as she grieves her lost pregnancies, she’s conspicuously alone. She’s at the doctor’s office by herself, the staff barely acknowledge her humanity, and she never mentions any friends or family to lean on except her husband, Pete—but Pete isn’t with her because she hasn’t actually told him about this pregnancy, let alone her suspicion that it’s lost. Throughout the story, Cate Kennedy shows how all this loneliness magnifies the narrator’s suffering exponentially, making her grief harder to bear.
As the narrator navigates the trauma of her miscarriage, she remains totally alone. Most notably, she’s at the doctor’s office by herself. From her memories, she shows that this hasn’t always been the case; after one miscarriage, for instance, Pete crawled into her hospital bed to keep her company. But now she’s alone because she hasn’t told him what’s going on, which means that he can’t help her grieve. Besides Pete, the narrator never mentions any family or friends who might help her. Her life seems isolated, and even though she references her mother and grandmother, she does so in passing without clarifying whether either one is alive or involved in her life. Because of this, the narrator appears to have no support system besides her husband, who isn’t there. While the narrator doesn’t dwell on her loneliness outright, she does mention it once. Looking at a magazine cover of a celebrity begging for privacy, she thinks “If you sincerely want the world to leave you alone until it forgets all about you, come and live at my place.” This makes it clear just how alone and forgotten she feels as she waits for terrible news.
The narrator’s interactions with the brusque and unkind hospital staff show most clearly how feeling alone intensifies her grief. At previous appointments, the male ultrasound techs never offered empathy or kindness, even as the narrator was learning the devastating news that her pregnancy was no longer viable. While examining her, they would never meet her eyes, they would refuse to tell her clearly what was going on, and they wouldn’t give her time to collect herself afterwards. This lack of human connection between the narrator and the staff made an already crushing experience even more traumatic, giving her the sense that nobody understood or cared about her grief. One particular interaction clarifies this dynamic: at a previous appointment, a tech said that he wasn’t giving her an ultrasound image because there’s “Nothing to see [...] It’s so tiny in these early stages.” This comment might be factually true, but it implies that the narrator’s pregnancy wasn’t significant and assumes that she wouldn’t want or need a memento, since the pregnancy was basically nothing at all. Of course, the grief of losing a pregnancy has little to do with the size of the fetus; it’s the loss of hope for the future and the loss of a being that the narrator perhaps saw as her companion. For this tech to brush off the narrator’s pregnancy as insignificant shows how alone she is with her feelings and makes her grief harder to bear.
Since feeling alone has been so devastating, her decision to keep her pregnancy from Pete is significant—it’s possible to interpret this as an attempt to save her marriage, preserving the only human connection she seems to have. The narrator claims to have kept her pregnancy and miscarriage from Pete so that he wouldn’t suffer more than he already has. This certainly seems like part of the truth—she has deep empathy for his struggles with farming and his grief over her previous miscarriages, so it’s quite plausible that she wouldn’t want to pile on. But there’s good reason to be skeptical that this is the whole story. For one, Pete has been a supportive and loving partner during past miscarriages, and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t want to support her again (especially since his love and care would make her suffering so much easier to endure). Nonetheless, the narrator gives subtle clues that she’s nervous that he might leave her, presumably because she’s been unable to bear a child. For one, she laments at the end of the story that she knows “what [he] need[s]” but “can’t give it to [him] and recalls his “thwarted tenderness when he pets the dog. This makes clear how badly she thinks Pete wants a child, and it subtly reveals her own sense of inadequacy for not being able to give him one. Furthermore, the narrator says that once while she was hospitalized after miscarrying, they announced the end of visiting hours and Pete “hesitat[ed].” The narrator believed he was “gathering his thoughts to say something,” and she closed her eyes in preparation, seemingly bracing to hear something bad. Instead, he took off his shoes and crawled into bed with her. Pete’s choice to overstay visiting hours implies that he’s not a visitor in her life and that he’s in it for the long haul. But the fact that she dreaded what he might say suggests that she might have been bracing for him to end their marriage, leaving her utterly alone.
In this light, the narrator’s choice to keep this pregnancy from Pete seems potentially self-protective; she doesn’t want to call more attention to her inability to give him a child and thereby risk him leaving her completely alone. But this secrecy is also self-destructive, as it leaves her isolated with her horrific grief. The narrator finds herself in a trap, then: the only person who might lessen her suffering is Pete, but if she shares what’s going on, he might (at least in her mind) end their marriage and leave her even more alone than she already feels. This makes clear how much loneliness—and the fear of loneliness—magnify her grief.
Grief and Loneliness ThemeTracker
Grief and Loneliness Quotes in Waiting
The horoscope page lying limp in my hands tells me everything will align for me at a time I least expect it, so I flip over to the page that’s about cakes and slices ideal for school lunches, then back again [...]
This careful professional detachment while they’re gazing at the human map of you, the intimate, failed, faltering misstep, in ghostly black and white. White cloud coursing grainily over a black landmass, some cyclone gathering its bleary force offshore.
She moved the transducer and gazed at the screen and then her hand came out and squeezed my leg and she looked at me and said, I’m so sorry, I can’t see a heartbeat.
Her hand there for comfort. Warmth and pulse flowing between us, skin to skin.
It’s funny, in the pamphlets they hand you they talk about giving yourself permission to grieve and taking time for yourself, but they never talk much about your partner. I’m not pretending I know what it’s like for him, but I look at his face and I can see that he’s worn down as it is, almost to the point of slippage, like a stripped screw.
I’ve watched him out there some mornings, stooping down, looking at the stalks, wondering where the point of non-recovery is, where it comes and what you do once you’ve decided. So this time I spared him. Kept the news of those two blue lines on the test to myself. I look at the calendar and think of him out there on the tractor sowing that wheat, ten weeks ago to the day.
Understand, I’m not a martyr.
My husband is an undemonstrative man and that gesture, as he fitted his warm arms and legs around me in the narrow bed, made me see how much he understood. I woke up in the night and felt his thumb, as he slept, absently rubbing the skin on my own arm. Oh, it wears us thin, marriage. It knocks the edges off us.
[...] oh, Pete, I know what you need and I can’t give it to you; I can see it in the way you scratch the dog’s tilting head just where he loves it, the thwarted tenderness of that gesture so familiar to me that I feel the heavy dish of water in my chest teeter and almost overbalance, and I ache with holding it steady.