Recently the youngest sprout from our family tree celebrated his eighth birthday. As the day grew closer, excitement mounted palpably. “I just can’t wait” was the insistent cry—bouncing around at bedtime, usually a placid time of day, bursting with eagerness the next morning, endlessly counting down the hours. The objects of this waiting were, we thought, appropriate for a nearly eight-year-old—an outing to a Chicago museum with a friend, a little extra pizza, a birthday cake made to order, and gifts to round out the day. But oh, how long it took to wait!

At precisely the same time, two family friends were also consumed by waiting, but with a very different end. For one, a father’s Alzheimer’s had nearly done its work. For the other, it was Lou Gehrig’s disease in its final stages for a cherished, long-time companion. Both friends could foresee a measure of relief and even a kind of gratitude at the end of their wait. But as consciousness waned, revived, wavered, and waned again, the feelings of the loved ones could not have been more different from the eight-year-old’s.

To observe the common emotional intensity to these very different kinds of waiting recalled a string of memories. Often in airports I have waited, with ever-mounting anticipation, for the arrival of my wife, some other dear friend, or a nearly grown-up child. But once, in an overseas airport, thanks to my own blunder, I waited agonizingly at the wrong rendezvous point to meet someone for a flight to the United States. There was nothing new about waiting in an airport, but the human meaning of that wait was dramatically different.

Waiting for replies to letters sent through the post is also associated with several different reactions. The rush to check what ...

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