In “Waiting,” the story’s characters struggle to express love and care. The hospital staff have been taught a cold and alienating bedside manner, so they show no sympathy for the narrator’s repeated miscarriages. Meanwhile, the narrator’s husband, Pete, doesn’t even know about her pregnancy, so he’s not able to support her in her grief. And while the narrator claims not to have told Pete about the pregnancy as an act of love (in order to spare him from suffering), she also admits that she has no idea how to help him process his sadness about her previous miscarriages. In this light, perhaps she doesn’t feel equipped to tell him about this one and face his grief again. In depicting various characters struggling to support one another through grief, “Waiting” acknowledges how hard it is to be there for someone whose suffering can’t be fixed, but the story also suggests that basic human kindness is the right place to start.
The most obvious instance of characters failing to be kind in the face of grief is the demeanor of the male hospital staff. The ultrasound techs have one of the most sensitive roles imaginable; they must determine whether the narrator’s pregnancy is still viable. But over and over, they fail to do this in a humane way, refusing to meet her eyes, tell her honestly what’s happening, or show her any sympathy at all. The narrator speculates that the hospital teaches them to act this way, which suggests something galling: that despite routinely handling the physical side of miscarriage, this clinic has no equivalent procedure for helping people through their grief. This gestures to a broader issue, that people often don’t know what to do for those who are suffering, so they sometimes choose to do nothing at all.
Even for people who love each other, expressing love and care can be hard. The narrator, for instance, clearly has profound love for her husband. She’s constantly empathizing with him, imagining his suffering over his failed wheat crop and finding in his gestures subtle signs that he’s “worn down.” And while she claims it was out of love that she didn’t tell him that she was pregnant again (she didn’t want to get his hopes up when he’s already going though enough), it’s possible to see this another way; perhaps she was trying to spare herself too, not only from the grief of disappointing him again, but also from the discomfort of watching him suffer and not knowing how to help. “I’m not pretending I know what it’s like for him,” she concedes, and then notes that the grief pamphlets that the hospital gives her never mention how to help her partner. It’s plausible that she felt it was easier to not tell Pete about her pregnancy at all than to face his grief without knowing what to do or say.
While it’s genuinely hard to know what to say to someone who’s grieving, “Waiting” suggests that simple kindness makes a huge difference. The narrator first shows this through her recollection of the only time that a female tech performed her ultrasound. Unlike the aloof and inhumane male techs, this woman recognized that the narrator was going through something devastating and acted accordingly: she said she was sorry and squeezed the narrator’s leg, placing “[h]er hand there for comfort. Warmth and pulse flowing between us, skin to skin.” The female tech didn’t do anything extraordinary; all she did was act with basic humanity to acknowledge the suffering of another person and treat her with kindness. But this made a significant impression on the narrator, who felt cared for and would consider it a “small mercy” to have this woman care for her again. The power of simple kindness is apparent, too, in the narrator’s recollection of Pete climbing into her hospital bed. While the narrator seemed to brace for him to leave at the end of visiting hours, he instead hopped in beside her and stayed the night. Pete never said a word; all it took was him holding her to make her “see how much he understood,” which shows how even a simple hug and the mere act of defying visiting hours made the narrator feel like someone loved her, helping to lessen her grief.
Of course, acts of kindness aren’t a panacea for grief, and the story shows how difficult it is to love someone, particularly within a long marriage that’s full of hardship. To show how love wears people down, Cate Kennedy repeats imagery of rubbing: for instance, the narrator’s grandmother rubbed her wedding ring whenever she felt nervous about her husband doing dangerous work in the mines, which wore the metal down. The eroded ring is a physical embodiment of how loving someone under difficult circumstances wears on a person. But while this kind of love—the kind that wears on people—certainly contributes to suffering, the story suggests that it’s also essential. The narrator articulates this most clearly while recalling Pete lying next to her in her hospital bed, rubbing her arm in his sleep. This gesture is a nervous tic that expresses his grief over her miscarriage, but it’s also a sign of his love—even while he sleeps, he’s still comforting her. In reaction, the narrator remarks that, “Oh, it wears us thin, marriage. It knocks the edges off us.” What she means here is that while loving someone through grief is undeniably strenuous and painful, it’s also worthwhile; love “knocks the edges off” of people, making them softer and making their suffering easier to bear.
Love, Care, and Suffering ThemeTracker
Love, Care, and Suffering Quotes in Waiting
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.
He’s making the decision to open the gate into the pasture with its desiccated, knee-high wheat. Can’t stand its hopeful greenness struggling in that parched ground, knowing what three more days of this heat are going to do.
Let it go. Let the cows eat it.
[...] 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.