I glanced past Peter to the child sitting on his grandmother’s lap. The barefoot boy looked about eighteen months old. The two buttons of his juice-stained polo shirt were undone, his hair was tousled and his chubby cheeks were flushed.
“Mama,” he whined again.
Everyone knew why the toddler was there at the clinic and his mother was not. “You’re burning up,” the grandmother had declared during her dramatic entrance into the waiting room. She had then conversed with clinic’s receptionist as if she were an actress projecting the lines of a tragedy to the back of the theater. “His mother is a teacher. She has to get coverage before she can come here. He has a fever, and his ears are red,” she announced.
“It will be at least an hour’s wait to see the doctor,” the receptionist responded.
Peter leaned over to me. “She said it would be an hour.”
I nodded and patted my impatient husband’s leg reassuringly as the woman took a seat to wait.
The performance over, everyone returned to their previous sources of entertainment: watching an afternoon talk show, playing with smart phones, scrawling on patient history forms, staring at empty prescription bottles, analyzing the carpet.
“Mama, mama,” the boy cried louder this time, rejecting his grandmother’s attempts to soothe and stage-whispered assurances that his mom would be there soon.
“Why doesn’t she take him to the emergency room?” complained an equally voluble curmudgeon to his wife. “If he’s that sick, he should be seen right away. And then the rest of us won’t have to suffer.” He punctuated his disapproval by stuffing cotton in his ears.
“Mama. Maaama!” The crescendoing wails began affecting everyone in the waiting room.
Peter shifted beside me. The couple to my right exchanged glances and gave small shakes of their heads. The next patient called sprinted to reach the serenity of an exam room.
“Mama. Mama! Maaa-maaa!” he shrieked.
I blinked back tears.
The boy’s face was now a fiery red, either from fever or crying. His distress triggered my maternal instinct, making me long to comfort him.
Unfortunately, the wails pounding my eardrums jarred loose another feeling: jealously.
Before I could stop myself, I thought, “My son has never called me mama.”
Hearing this boy, a child younger than my own, speak with such ease, hurt.
I became even more desperate not to cry.
To the relief of everyone in the waiting room, the mother arrived. After a few final sniffles, the child stopped crying. The waiting room was left in relative silence.
I was left brooding.
Guilt at my selfishness threatened to loosen my tears once more. I stared hard at the corner where the tan wallpaper met the beige ceiling until I regained my composure. In the quiet, I recalled the countless ways that Philip shows me he loves me, his actions more honest than any words could be.
But for one moment, I forgot all that. All I could think was that my son doesn’t call me mama.
He never has.