By Deborah Simmons Harris
While many literary critics might have determined, and not
necessarily negatively, that Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”
was ‘much ado about nothing’, its historic lack of clear meaning as
it reflects life taught me volumes.
I read the play in French when I was in college, enjoying the
nuances portrayed by the flowery sounding words as they flowed over
the pages, rendering – to me, anyway – wise and practical prose in
the form of a play about two homeless men who pass their idle lives
waiting for a significant visitor who, indeed, never comes.
The sense of ‘going nowhere’ and ‘talking about nothing in
particular’ as the two scruffy, unkempt men joke about life, then,
conversely, ponder its meaning, becomes the theme of the comedic
script, making me think about how comfortable it is to busy
ourselves with life’s mundane, tedious, and even unpleasant tasks,
welcoming the warm blanket of security they fold around us; we know
they will always be there.
When I read “Godot”, I had experienced nothing terribly tragic and
had everything to look forward to – travel, a career, marriage, a
family, health. As French majors, my colleagues and I eruditely
discussed the philosopher Pascal and how his discourse about needing
to busy ourselves with life to avoid the very difficult questions it
continually throws our way juxtaposed itself with Beckett’s airy
play. Young and naïve, I found it all so amusing.
One frightful weekend in my life caused me to relish Godot’s world
and its meaning.
Our twelve-year old son Joshua, because of complications of
prematurity, has complex medical needs, requiring tubes, respiratory
equipment, home care nurses and heavy green oxygen tanks to keep him
at home, away from the isolation of the pediatric intensive care
unit at our local children’s hospital. The infamous Minnesota winter
one frisky Friday night last year had slung the temperature to near
20 degrees below zero. The air was like shard glass, scratching its
way down the fragile lungs of anyone who dared to venture outside.
Joshua was hungrily sucking in five liters of oxygen to assuage his
own lungs, sick from virus. Frank blood mixed with copious, thick
secretions spewed from his tracheostomy tube as he coughed,
producing a painful hacking sound. Some of the disgusting gluey
stuff stuck unapologetically to the white bedroom wall. I hovered
over him, suctioning his labile airway, wiping his hot brow with a
cool cloth, exhausted from hauling the heavy oxygen tanks up from
Another cough called my attention away from Josh, to the unlit room
just down the hallway; this cough was fainter and lacked enthusiasm.
Our seventeen-year-old son Nicholas was so weak from a series of
respiratory viruses that had exacerbated his asthma and taxed his
immune system, he had little strength to ward off the nasty
tentacles of flu virus that had gripped our household.
I stopped briefly at the rickety wooden bookshelf in the hallway,
only momentarily thinking that I might never retrieve the calm life
that would allow me to read the books it held. Squirting a dollop of
the cold, clear antibacterial hand gel I stashed there with the
books on my trembling hands, I scrambled to Nick’s room.
Normally athletic and enjoying the fast pace offered by each
winter’s hockey season, I could not imagine this boy speeding along
the ice, checking his aggressive foes and throwing his arms and
hockey stick up in victory as his team scored. Instead, Nick lay
motionless, flat on his back with no pillow supporting his head, his
usually active muscles now floppy and still. I touched his forehead
and fear zipped through my own febrile body; it, too, achy, warm and
plagued with a gnawing, percolating nausea. Nick was too hot.
I placed a well-used thermometer, ready at his beside, under Nick’s
limp tongue, watching as the digits climbed to near 105 degrees.
Please, not meningitis, I prayed quickly as Josh’s oximeter warned
of his own low oxygen saturation rates, beckoning me back to the
Josh’s heart rate climbed in competition with Nick’s temperature as
he struggled to breathe through the bloody, greenish secretions
fighting to occlude his trach tube. I dripped sterile saline
solution into the bloody, occluded stoma in an effort to loosen the
sticky ooze, then suctioned again, giving Josh a couple of gulps of
air before I sterilized my hands again to draw a tepid bath for
Not meningitis, I prayed again, this time actually begging God in
the fraction of a moment I had to internally verbalize my fear
before gently prodding Nick from his bed and into the bathroom. Nick
had meningitis as a baby; we had already escaped its menacing grip
I had to get Nick’s temperature down. I had to get Josh’s heart rate
down. I had to get Josh’s oxygen saturation levels up. I had to get
my spirits up.
It was too much for my weary body and soul. My husband Victor was
somewhere near Falluja, Iraq. As a field officer CWO4 and platoon
commander summoned to active duty from the ranks of the USMC
Reserve, he traveled hundreds of miles each week by bird, as he
called the rickety helicopters he traveled in; those he first come
to know as a grunt in Viet Nam. Much of the time, though, he
traveled by convoy, subject every second to the beguiling wares of
roadside bombs. My heart ached almost as much as my flu-ridden
muscles to hear from him, to know that he was safe, hating the
uncertainty that is the constant companion of the Marine Corps
spouse. I needed him here now as two of our three boys waged their
own battles with a virulent enemy.
Should I call 911? It was too cold to transport the boys to the
emergency department myself and I was too sick. I couldn’t even get
them ready to go. The significant nursing shortage in the Midwest
meant there was no home care nurse that winter to help me. Family
members were afraid to come into the house, shunning the grasp of
such a debilitating illness on their own households.
Trudging through gauze pads, once sterile cotton applicators,
sopping blue chux pads, rendered so by the thick formula that had
leaked from the gastrostomy feeding tube, and soiled diapers
discarded hurriedly on the floor throughout the night – the fallout
from Josh’s relentless cares – I staggered to the phone to ring the
specialist on-call. It was about three o’clock in the morning. I
hadn’t stopped moving in hours, not long enough to really feel my
groping sense of panic, nor the dropping temperatures in the house.
Squinting at the faint LED digits of the thermostat, the numbers
confirmed more fears. The furnace had gone out.
Guiltily thinking this was all part of a wicked curse, at best, my
more reverent side chastised such cynicism. Nevertheless, I just
wanted to experience the comfortable place self-pity took me, about
the only thing left to count on now. For crying out loud, I was
screaming inside, we can’t even get to the hospital.
I couldn’t leave the house with Jon, our middle son, still asleep,
not yet ravaged by the horrible symptoms that defined the rest of
us. I was not certain if there was something wrong with the gas
main. I couldn’t find the pilot light. Still awaiting a call-back
from the sleepy and perhaps aggravated physician I had just paged,
this time the crisis call was to the gas company.
Despite my own fever, I began to shiver from the cold creeping into
the house. I gathered Nick from the tub, desperate in my relief to
find his temperature down to about 104 degrees. Josh was beginning
to breathe a little better, thanks to the hefty dose of prednisone I
had been taught to give him in such an emergency. The doctor called
back to affirm a plan of a few more doses and waiting until morning
to travel to the hospital, especially given the situation with the
furnace. The gas man came, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow with a
scowl on his well-lined face, probably from the irritation of having
to actually answer to an emergency while he was on-call.
Nick began to respond to ibuprofen, the fierce temperature backing
stubbornly away to about 103 degrees. The gas man fixed a wayward
part on the icy furnace and, guilty, I supposed because of his
initial behavior, offered me the advantage of the Gold Service Plan
that allowed him to repair the mischievous thing, charging only for
the hardware. Having heard my conversation with the doctor about
blood, fever, oxygen and Falluja, he had dismissed his earlier
ornery demeanor and sheepishly asked me to thank my husband for his
service to the country.
We had heat, lower temperatures and heart rates, and higher oxygen
levels. A bit more encouraged, I thought we might live.
Having crawled so vulnerably through one of the most challenging
nights of my life, I changed my sweaty, soiled gown and sank down on
the side of the unmade bed to watch the scrolling news bar at the
bottom of the 24-hour news channel. I relied on it to stream much
ado about nothing across the screen when I hadn’t heard from Victor
in a while. If there was nothing too bad there, I convinced myself
that he must be safe.
…helicopter crashes…Iraq…cause not released by the military…31
Marines on-board…confirmed dead…
My G-d, whatever happened to the simple life; the one of boring
housework, girlfriend gossip, complaining about the neighbors,
grocery shopping, what’s-for-dinner, worrying over bills, and the
blah-blah-blah of committee meetings? The life in which I was simply
waiting for Godot?
Thirty-one was about the size of Victor’s platoon. Hope drained from
my spirit as my heart seemed to thump to my stomach. I ran to the
computer, not knowing what else to do. I needed resolution. I
couldn’t take the fear anymore. It was grabbing me from too many
“Where are you?” the typed words screeched in the email box. “Are
you OK? Just reply with anything. I need to know if you’re safe!”
Despite the nine-hour time difference and the miles that separated
our worlds, he was there. On base and at the computer. Alive. Words
never felt so good.
“What’s the matter, Babe?”
Ridiculously relieved, I anxiously related the scrolling news story.
Isolated from most of the troops, he had heard nothing of it. I
rambled about the night, the sick kids, the furnace.
“I’m glad you are OK.” The email emitted concern. He attached a
picture then, showing his Marines in the area I told him the crash
had occurred, the sky orange and ominous, thick with swirling sand.
They breathed in sand there like we breathed in ice here. The
picture was taken a few days before fellow Marines had met an
“We were just headed there again in one of the birds,” his words,
luscious to me now, continued, “but had to turn back because of the
sand storm.” The sense of relief was so strong, it was like a
massage to my aching body.
Love you, miss you, we both concurred, as I
headed back to the beckoning of Josh’s alarms and Nick’s now
stronger moans, awakened with a new appreciation for the essential
elements in Beckett’s treatise on life: the hope and endurance
portrayed by the squabbling banter of two homeless men who found a
way to carry on, no matter what might come – and better off for not