A community of strangers keeping vigil together

The tubes are unsettling; so many of them slithering across his body and into his body, tubes carrying oxygen and medicine and life, tubes inserted into his hand and neck, mouth and nose, tubes reducing this opinionated man to stillness as he sleeps amid a cold, mechanical music.

Beep. Whoosh. Ping.

Wake up, you want to shout.

One Saturday evening, my friend is at the Indoor Stadium watching Agnieska Radwanska write haiku with a tennis racket, and by night, he is in intensive care with a blocked artery and a life determined by percentages. Later, we might joke that Radwanska is that heart-stoppingly good; later, once he awakes, and later, he will awake.

Won't he?

Death is only a faint idea amid the arrogance of daily living, till abruptly, we are introduced to life's capriciousness. Mortality is somehow always a surprise, and the place we often ponder it is here, in the waiting area outside the intensive care unit, a place where many of you have come and most will eventually visit, and where fear and optimism silently wrestle.

On four rows of couches divided into 26 seats, amid the detritus of magazines, slippers, cups, suitcases and folded mattresses, families and friends sit, while others stand and wander, a community of strangers caught in this unity of anxiety. All of us are tightrope walkers, suspended between good news and grief. There is nothing else here.

The TV is rarely off but almost no one watches. Books are brought but are hard to read, as everyone waits for news. One day, a man talks loudly into his phone. Everyone now knows his family's case. Another day, down the hallway, a young woman stands lonely against the wall and weeps terribly into a phone.

People converse, but never at high volume, trying to find normality in an abnormal place. For brief moments, you can forget that life hangs by a thread and a tube. Then, one day, someone cries and the conversation quietens, as if everyone remembers why they are there. Then the chatter returns, and sometimes laughter, as it must. This is the world of the living after all.

A very workable democracy is evident here in the waiting area, for religion, race, bank balance, model of car is irrelevant. Everyone is equal here, everyone feels the terror of uncertainty, everyone is reduced to the same sweep of questions. Urine? Blood pressure? Haemoglobin? Liver count? It is life reduced to the shorthand of numbers.

Visitors arrive and are given snatches of information by one another, but no one ever knows the full tale. What happened? How could this happen? People tiptoe into intensive care like scouts looking for signs. A doctor is on his rounds and my friend's mother's heartbeat accelerates as she spies him. She cannot hear what he is saying, as if she is blocking out the possibility of the greatest obscenity she can imagine - mothers are never supposed to bury sons.

Gently, this doctor dispenses information, surely aware that we want something from him; we want him to utter the word "better", but he cannot journey too far from facts.

This third floor is not grim but a functional place, absent of personality and yet full of muted compassion. Friends come, some every day, some twice a day. Presence is a duty and a valuable gift to families because loneliness in grief is crippling. Of course, part of being human also means we dispense wisdom like one of those tired coffee machines.

Be calm. My uncle's friend's son had this and he was fine. These days, a stent is not such a big deal. Please rest.

It cannot be that this waiting room is a beautiful place, and yet it is remarkable, for it is where people often seem to find their better selves. No one bickers too loudly, people offer a seat, fetch coffees, call someone a taxi. As if in this place, we acknowledge our vincibility and embrace a little of our humanity. When we leave the hospital, we return to our lesser selves.

But for now, friends gather, and their offerings to the family come in the form of food and prayer. Indians bring dabbas (boxes), plates, cutlery. They carry fruit, vegetables, rice. They provide nuts, tea and biscuits. They could start a small shop, but really this is high-calorie concern.

Anxiety and appetite are not comfortable bedfellows, and if this won't work, then there is always God, who is whipped out of a bag in the form of prayer books, beads, miniature figures. People offer to print out prayers; they suggest a prayer, they promise to pray. As an atheist, I believe more in medicine, but am in awe of faith and its ability to comfort. The workings of the human heart are strange.

Waiting is helplessness, but waiting is all that happens. Time drips away like a slow bleed. Friends arrange to come in shifts, nurses become familiar, the coffee lady knows your face. People are never sure how long to visit and guilt settles into the empty spaces.

Strangers acknowledge one another and some exchange stories. Inside the intensive care unit one day, my friend's wife weeps and a woman approaches her and reaches out and, for a while, there they stand, Bangladeshi Muslim and Indian Hindu, each holding onto the other, each offering a story, each wearing the other's distress, two strangers who will never meet again, caught in this passing moment in a silent ward under a white light.

In the waiting room, we reflect, we ruminate, we make quiet promises to live a cleaner, smoke-free, alcohol-light, cholesterol-wary, sugar-banished future. When my friend heals, we will forget all this. And eventually, my friend does emerge from sedation, the tubes start to be extracted, his memory gradually clears, his hand-eye coordination returns. Relief for his family is like cold water splashed onto a tired face.

A little distance down the hall from this intensive care unit is a delivery suite. It is possibly the happiest place in this building, for it is the room of beginnings, not endings. My friend, too, has been given a new start and I hope he feels lucky, because not everyone is.

Hospitals are our refuge, and yet they are also places we want to flee without looking back. And so, when my friend improves and migrates to another ward, we abandon our community outside intensive care without a nod, a word or a farewell. We simply and gratefully move on and yet our seats there will soon be filled. Because out there, every day, under the TV, can always be found a small village of temporary citizens who keep vigil together.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'A community of strangers keeping vigil together'. Print Edition | Subscribe