I was in the process of moving to a new state and changing jobs when my left breast began hurting and swelling. I wasn’t worried. Breast cancer was not painful, I had always read. I was relieved when, after a mammogram — my very first — the doctor said it was a benign cyst and not to worry about it. Avoid coffee, he said. Come back in a year.
Eight months later, I saw my gynecologist. “I have fibrous breasts,” I explained. She sent me for another mammogram that day. I wanted to reschedule because I was concerned about getting to a concert later that night. She insisted. I asked them to hurry. It might be benign, the radiologist told me, but it might be cancer. He has to say that to all his patients, I thought as I hurried to meet my friends for the concert. I wasn’t worried.
Two days later, hot bright sunshine streamed through the kitchen skylight. A CD by the band I’d been to see in concert played on my stereo. I was wearing blue-jeans and a white blouse that I’d bought ten years earlier in college. My hair was still long and blond and pulled back into a ponytail. My left arm was still slender and could reach the highest kitchen shelf — which is what I was doing, putting groceries away on that hot summer day, when the phone rang.
About two years ago, my mother disappeared. Though I had seen it coming, it was still a shock. Just three months before, Mom had married Ed, whose first order of business as husband was to have their phone disconnected. Any time we spent with Mom was kept brief, and Ed was always present. Little by little, he isolated her from us. Mom was so under Ed’s spell that she believed her survival depended on him, when, in reality, he depended on her to support his drug addiction.
My brother Daniel took Mom’s disappearance especially hard. He fell into a depression and ultimately attempted suicide.
Two months after Mom disappeared, I got a call from her. I didn’t know whether to be grateful or angry. I told her about Daniel, and she gave me the number of where she was staying with Ed. (At least there was a phone this time.) Ed had dragged her down to Delaware in hopes of beating a jail sentence for driving under the influence. I promised to call her in a couple of days when I had more information about Daniel’s progress.
The next morning, as I woke from a dream about Mom, I felt an odd tugging sensation. I ran to the phone and dialed the number she had given me the day before. Ed answered, sounding a little too pleasant. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. He was rambling on about how great Delaware was and how he and Mom couldn’t wait to visit me in New York City. Finally he said, “I bet you’d like to say hello to your mom.”
“Is she there?”
“Yep, she’s right here next to me. Hold on. . . .”
“Good morning, sweetheart!” I heard her say.
“Mom, is everything OK?”
“Well, it’s really raining hard today. That’s why Ed can’t go to work with Bob on the roofing project.”
“He’s been beating you, hasn’t he?” I said.
“Yep, that’s right. You can’t work on the roof when it’s raining.”
“Are you locked in? Can you get out?”
“Like I said, it’s really been raining hard.” Then her voice became a whisper. “He’s in the bathroom now. I’m scared. He came home at three in the morning, high on crack, and started beating me. He threatened to cut me to pieces. I just don’t know what to do. He won’t pass out or go to sleep.”
I could hear Ed’s voice returning in the background. Sounding calm and collected again, Mom brought up Daniel: “I know how worried you are about your brother, and my friend Rose is a great person to talk to about this sort of thing. I see her at church every Sunday. Let me get you her number.”
Ed hollered that he had left Rose’s card on the kitchen counter. Mom read Rose’s work and home phone numbers to me. My hand shook as I wrote them down, careful not to make a mistake. Tears streamed down my face. “I love you,” I said, knowing I might never see her again.
“I love you, sweetheart,” she replied.
I hung up and called Rose, who knew where to send the police.
New York, New York
I work at a local correctional institution as a nurse practitioner. First thing every morning, we see ten to twenty inmates who are undergoing alcohol withdrawal. It usually takes many years of heavy drinking before someone has serious symptoms, but occasionally a younger person will exhibit them.
A few days before Passover, I was taking care of a man in his late twenties named Dave, who was having such severe withdrawal symptoms that he couldn’t be brought to the clinic area for treatment. As I spoke with Dave about how I could help, I sensed he was trying to muster up the nerve to say something. Finally he asked whether I was Jewish. When I confirmed that I was, he blurted out his concern about having access to matzo for Passover during his incarceration.
I was not allowed to bring in matzo for him, so, with Dave’s permission, I called the rabbinic chaplain. Rabbi M. was harried because of the upcoming holiday, and he made it very clear that he was not willing to drop off matzo at the jail unless he knew for certain that this young man was Jewish. (It seems inmates of other faiths frequently request kosher food, thinking it might be of higher quality — although I doubt many people would lie to get matzo.)
I handed the phone to Dave, who, through his tremors, recited the names of his mother, father, and grandparents, the date of his bar mitzvah, and so on. Still not satisfied that Dave qualified for Passover food, the rabbi wanted to telephone the boy’s father. Dave’s eyes caught mine as he pleaded with the rabbi, “No! It’ll kill him if he finds out I’m here. He’s got a bad heart.” He handed the phone to me, saying tearfully that all he wanted was a piece of matzo; why was that so hard?
By now I was regretting having initiated this process. But the determined rabbi wanted to try once more.
Dave took a deep breath and, at the rabbi’s request, began reciting the Hebrew blessings he’d learned for his bar mitzvah. Struggling to summon them from memory, he bobbed back and forth in his jail garb, davening uncomfortably, until the rabbi believed him.
My father has taken the turn into dementia, going beyond forgetfulness and a distant manner into a world where his home of forty years is somebody else’s house. He no longer drives (though he still believes he can). Someone picks him up and takes him to the family business, which my sister now runs. But she has little time for him while he’s there, and he has no work to do, so he gets bored and wants to come home.
There’s nothing for him to do around the house, either. He sits in his tobacco-stained recliner and flips through the TV channels. Bored, he gets up and goes to his bedroom, which he believes is not his. He is visiting, he thinks, and he has always hated visiting, so he begins to pack. He has an ancient suitcase into which he throws old suits, mismatched socks, torn belts. He takes it all out to his truck, but the engine fails to crank. (My brother-in-law has removed the distributor cap.) So he goes to the phone and tries to call someone to come and get him. Sometimes he stands at the front gate and waits for his ride. Other times he forgets that he is waiting and walks away. Somebody always finds him and brings him back to the house that is no longer his home.
Recently, he told my sister that he was going to call home and get somebody to pick him up. Tired, she told him to go ahead. He dialed the familiar number: his own, the number of the phone that he held against his ear. He listened, then put the phone down and looked up at my sister.
“It’s busy,” he said. “I guess I’m stuck here.”
Paul T. Carney
I’m at a business function when I receive a message to call my parents immediately. My parents live two thousand miles away, and I talk to them only once a month. “This had better be good,” I mumble as I go to the restaurant pay phone and dial the number. Busy.
I just talked to my parents a week ago. The call was mechanical, mostly about me and my new job. When I asked, “How are you?” Mom replied cheerfully, “Oh, much better, honey,” and I remembered guiltily that she’d had a touch of pneumonia a few months earlier. She is an old-fashioned mother, never complaining, her needs easily overlooked.
Ten minutes later, I repeat the collect-call procedure. (I am still young enough to assume that I can call collect when phoning my parents.) The long-distance carrier uses an automated operator. I have to state my name, which will be relayed to whoever answers the phone.
Finally the phone rings. “Hello?” my father answers, sounding more agitated than I have ever heard him, almost out of control.
The recording begins: “Good afternoon! Will you accept collect charges from . . .” Here my recorded voice chimes in with a noncommittal “Terez.”
“Yes, Operator,” my father says. “I’ll —”
But the recording is still playing: “If you want to accept the charges, press one now.”
My father is so distraught that he doesn’t realize he’s talking to an automated message. “Operator, I accept the charges!”
The recording continues: “If you choose to decline the charges, press two.”
“Operator,” my father shouts, “I accept!”
But the recording only repeats.
I shout, “Dad, you have to press one!” But of course he can’t hear me.
“Operator, I accept!” are the last words I hear him say before we are disconnected.
My whole body is shaking, and I feel as if I am going to throw up. In my twenty-five years, my father has never so much as lost his composure. To hear his voice so wild with emotion has me frightened. With trembling fingers, I pull out my business calling card. I get my Dad on the second ring.
It’s an odd feeling to hear really bad news over the phone in public. A numbness comes over you that keeps the information from sinking in. After a promise to be on the next plane back home, I hang up the phone and look at the black-and-silver box that has just transmitted the message. I can’t yet process the rage that I feel toward this box, and toward the automated operator who cut off my father when he was trying to tell me that my mother has died.
Boulder Creek, California
I broke up with my partner of five years over a pay phone at Eighty-First and Amsterdam. He was in California, and I was in New York City, ostensibly to interview for a job but really to be with my new lover. It was a hot summer night with sporadic rain showers. We didn’t have weather like this in California, and it just made me love the city more desperately. In a way, it was New York I wanted, even more than the new guy.
“I found a letter you wrote to him” was the first thing my partner said.
“To who?” I stammered. (I knew he suspected something was up, but I didn’t think he knew so much.)
“Guess,” he spat back with all the venom he could muster.
The tears were already flowing. I leaned my forehead against the cool steel box around the phone and gripped the receiver with both hands.
While I rocked back and forth and wept loudly, a homeless man came up and asked me for some money. Two people having dinner at a sidewalk bistro shooed him away.
“Can’t you see she’s upset?” said the woman. “Don’t bother her right now.”
The homeless man backed off, but continued to loiter nearby. Later, another man came and stood behind me as if waiting to use the phone. Growing impatient, he threw up his hands and barked, “You gonna talk all night, lady?”
The homeless man came over and said, “Man, can’t you see she’s upset? Go find another phone.”
I fell in love for the first time when I was eighteen and a college sophomore. I was scooping ice cream for the summer, and Mickey, a woman ten years my senior, worked in the back bakery. She was butch and flirty, and in between the lazy, humid hours of sticky ice cream and grumpy customers, she paid me a kind of attention that I’d never received from a boy.
Mickey wasn’t the first woman I’d been attracted to. Weeks earlier, in a drunken moment, my best friend and I had kissed. At the time, I’d convinced myself that it would never happen with any other woman. Mickey made me wonder.
I spent the second half of my summer in a constant swoon, waking to Mickey’s voice at my window or passing the afternoons with her by a sunny river. Mickey had another girlfriend, but they had an open relationship, she said. My eyes were so clouded with pink hearts that I believed everything she told me.
When I went back to school, I spent hours on the phone with Mickey, pretending not to notice the street noises in the background and the jingle of quarters in her hand. I was dating a boy, but I lived for Mickey’s sweet messages on my answering machine, sometimes five or more in a row. She sent me long letters, gifts, a photo-booth strip of her holding up signs that read “I” “Miss” “You” in the different frames. She was coming to visit me for my nineteenth birthday, just weeks away.
But soon her calls slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether. I left her messages. I jumped whenever the phone rang. I tried to glide into my room and glance casually at the machine, as if I didn’t care whether she’d called. I couldn’t concentrate.
Two days before my birthday, I answered the phone and heard Mickey’s voice. Twisting the phone cord around my fingers, I asked what was going on. She hedged and gave slippery answers. I demanded a direct response, though I was having a hard time breathing for fear that it might really be over. She denied that she was becoming distant, denied my accusations that her girlfriend really knew nothing about me. She promised that she would indeed be there in two days to celebrate with me.
And then she said, “Oh, man, I’m out of quarters. I’ll call you right back.”
I sat in my tiny room and smoked for hours, the phone on my lap, my face salty with tears.
Brooklyn, New York
The token oddball in my fourth-grade class was Natalie Brown. She had adoptive parents and long blond hair and darting eyes that made her look a little scared most of the time. I was fascinated by her strange behavior. She would often wiggle her fingers furiously in front of her face, then shove her hands between her legs (on top of her dress), where her fingers would squirm wildly, like trapped insects.
During my brief membership in the Brownies, my mother befriended Natalie’s mother, and I was forced to play with Natalie while our parents drank and socialized. The Browns had a player piano and rolls and rolls of music, but otherwise I didn’t like their house. One day, we found Natalie’s father’s collection of Playboys hidden under the dusty den sofa. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if Natalie’s mother knew they were there. Mrs. Brown had frequent headaches and locked herself in her bedroom to watch soap operas. We could hear her sobbing and talking to someone during commercial breaks. Once, I got a glimpse into the Browns’ bedroom and saw rows of orange prescription bottles on the bedside table.
When I was in fifth grade, my parents went to Florida on business for two weeks, and it was decided that I would stay with the Browns. The first night, Natalie and I stole candy from the drugstore and hid it under her bed. Somehow her father found out and came into Natalie’s room to confront us. Natalie backed into a corner while her father said nothing; he just stood with his legs spread wide and slowly, deliberately unbuckled his belt. Natalie’s hands shot up in front of her face and wiggled wildly while her eyes darted in muted panic. Her father swung his belt in slow circles before bringing it down across Natalie’s hunched shoulders with a loud whap! He did this three times, then put his belt back on and calmly left the room.
Over the next two weeks, these encounters occurred whenever Natalie committed any minor infraction. No longer fascinated by Natalie’s strangeness, I couldn’t wait to get home to my family’s own garden-variety dysfunction.
Soon after that, my family moved away and lost touch with the Browns.
Thirty-five years — and almost as many addresses — later, my phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “This is Natalie Brown.” She’d found me through the Internet and was planning a trip to California. “I want to see you,” she said. I was so stunned that I agreed to pick her up at the airport.
Natalie spotted me first. She had the same darting eyes, but her long blond hair was now a reddish frizz. She seemed nervous and asked if we could go to the restroom — as if she needed my permission. Once there, instead of entering a stall, Natalie scampered underneath the sinks and made a call on her cellphone. Women washing their hands glanced down at her with amused curiosity.
“Dad?” I heard her say. “Dad, it’s Natalie. I’m just calling to say I’m OK, Dad. I’m with Shannon now, and I’m OK. . . . OK, Dad. Bye.”
I lay on my stomach, the left side of my face pressed against the carpet, and stared at the crack of light under the door of my room. I was watching for feet passing by in the hallway of the rundown hotel. Though it was early afternoon, it was dark inside my room, making it easier for me to see out — and harder for other people to see in. I was on parole from prison and had been awake for days, so high on speed that bubbles were popping above my head and I would periodically jerk my legs back so they didn’t get bitten by the murky shapes I saw lurking about the room.
When the phone rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I went over and turned down the volume on the ringer. There was no way I was going to answer it. It was my parole officer. It had to be. In fact, the whole hotel was infested with cops. They had been staking me out for days, just waiting to make their move. They’d probably poked little holes in the walls to stick mini spy cameras into my room. Sometimes I could see snakes or robotic arms moving under the carpet. I used a knife to stab one of them, but when I pulled up the carpet, it was gone.
I double-checked the locks on the door and went to the window to make sure the screwdrivers were still jammed into the holes I’d drilled in the sash. They weren’t going to get in without my knowing about it. Then I turned on a gooseneck reading lamp, covered it with a bandanna, crouched down between the dresser and the bed, and quickly fixed up a shot of speed from a baggie in my sock. When I was done shooting up, I wrapped the baggie of drugs up tight and taped it. With a knife, I cut the syringe in half so that it was small, but still usable. I stuffed the drugs and syringe into a condom, tied it off, put that bundle into another condom, and tied it shut.
I was now even more manic than before. The shadows in the room were moving with renewed vigor, almost rolling in the corners. Though I knew most of them were hallucinations, there was always a chance that some of them were real.
The phone rang again. I almost had a heart attack. I switched off the lamp and got on the middle of the bed, so that nothing could grab my ankles. Then I unbuckled my pants, reached around, and stuffed the bundle of dope up my ass. If I was going to jail, I was taking my dope with me.
I stayed on the bed almost an hour, my mind bouncing and skipping. The phone rang again. They weren’t stupid. They knew I was in there and they were calling to negotiate my surrender so they wouldn’t have to bash in the door and shoot me with a Taser. I had to answer it. It was time.
I took the receiver from the cradle and put it to my ear. “Yeah?”
“Hi, sweetie,” my mom’s voice said from a thousand light years away. “I’ve been calling, but you must have been out.”
I was living in Paris and hadn’t spoken with my youngest brother, H., for several months. He was attending UC Berkeley, and, with the nine-hour time difference, it was hard to find an opportunity to call. I finally dialed his number at midnight his time, my legs folded up underneath me, settling in for a good talk. One of H.’s roommates answered the phone. “Oh, didn’t you hear, man?” he said. “H. is in the hospital. He tried to kill himself.”
I knew H. was occasionally depressed, but suicidal? Impossible. I was so distraught that I hung up without even getting the name of the hospital. I called back and spoke to the same roommate, who said, “I dunno, man. All I know is he got taken away in an ambulance.”
I dialed information — a formidable task from overseas — and got the numbers of the three largest hospitals in the area. The second one I called was where H. was being treated. It was close to 1 A.M. Berkeley time when I reached the nurse working the graveyard shift on H.’s ward. Frantic, I explained that I was calling from overseas to find out whether my brother was all right and if I could talk to him.
“Hold up just a sec, sugar,” the nurse replied. The voice on the line was, to my Bay Area–trained ear, male, Southern, black, and gay. It was also one of the most sympathetic voices I will ever hear. “Calm down if you can,” the nurse told me. “First things first: yes, your bro is just fine. Now, where’d you say you’re callin’ from?”
“And what time is it over there right now?”
I looked at my watch: “Ten in the morning.”
“Uh-huh. Well, sweetheart, it’s one in the morning over here, and your brother is sleeping right now. More than anything else, he needs his rest. Why don’t you call back in six short hours? Then you can have a word with your bro.”
I started sobbing, begging to speak to H. I just needed to hear his voice, I said, to know that he was OK.
“Baby, can I ask you a question? Now, my mama raised me never to ask a lady her age, but these here are extenuating circumstances, so I think she’d forgive me, God rest her soul. Can I ask how old you are?”
“Thirty-two,” I answered.
“Uh-huh, that’s what I figured. Now, girlfriend, you are probably too damn old to remember what it’s like to be eighteen, but if you can think back all them years ago, maybe you remember how miserable it feels to not know if you’re coming or going, trying to be all independent but really scared shitless to be out in the big, bad world. You remember any of that? That’s all that’s going on with your bro. Child, believe me. I’ve seen a lot around here, and you can take my word for it: little bro’s gonna be A-OK.”
My brother did turn out OK. And that nurse stayed on the phone with me for a little over an hour (as my phone bill later revealed), holding the proverbial hand of a hysterical stranger five thousand miles away. I didn’t get his name, but I will never forget that soothing voice.
San Mateo, California
My wife did not drink until she was in her early forties. When her drinking began to cause problems, I made excuses and fixed things, allowing her to continue until our lives became unmanageable. I had married a fiery, strong-willed woman, and I was only too willing to please, make peace, and cooperate. While she drank, I turned to pot, smoking myself into a passive stupor so I wouldn’t have to deal with her anger — or my own suppressed feelings.
The only way I knew to stand up to this drunken bully was to distance myself from her. I told her I wanted a separation, but it just made her more furious. I called the sheriff’s office to try to put an end to her violence and threatening phone calls. I was afraid someone was going to get hurt, I told the deputy. He referred me to the magistrate, who referred me to the domestic-violence coordinator, who took me before a judge to ask for a restraining order.
“Do you really think she’s trying to kill you?” the judge asked.
“No,” I said. “She’s just drunk and pissed off.”
“If I give you the restraining order,” the judge said, “I want you to promise me one thing: if she does come to your house again looking for trouble, I want you to call 911 and stay on the phone until the police get there.”
I promised, thinking that just the fact that I’d taken out a restraining order would be enough to show her that I meant business.
That evening, after the papers had been served, I went to bed with my good ear on the pillow. A loud crash woke me.
“Come out here, you fucking coward!” she yelled. “Goddamn son of a bitch, I’ll burn that house down with you in it!”
I went to the phone and dialed 911. Amid the sounds of breaking glass, I gave the dispatcher my address. I was tempted to hang up, go out in the yard, and physically restrain my wife myself, but the dispatcher said, “No, stay on the line with me until we get there.”
There was shattered glass all over the floor. I thought about my promise to the judge. I thought of my father telling me, when I was a boy, never to hit a woman for any reason.
“Are you still there, Mr. Curtis?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
I heard the car engine crank, and then a crash as she ran into my truck.
My wife had many reasons to be angry. She was an aging beauty, an alcoholic whose mother was dying of cancer, a wounded little girl whose father had left when she was three. And now I’d told her that I wanted to separate for good.
“OK, Mr. Curtis, we are coming up your driveway. You can hang up now.”
They found her sitting in her car down by my wood shop and brought her into the house, where they quickly put us in separate rooms.
“Do you have any weapons in the house, Mr. Curtis?” the deputy asked.
“No,” I said, “but I want her arrested right now, damn it.”
“Calm down. This isn’t easy for anyone,” the deputy said.
“OK, I got you,” I said.
“No, I’ve got you, Mr. Curtis,” he said. “Now sit down and keep quiet.”
They did eventually arrest her. As they were leaving, I called her mother, Louise, who knew all too well that it would come to this. “Danny,” Louise said, “Liz is sick and needs to be committed.”
I told her I wouldn’t sign the papers unless we did it together.
“I’ll sign if you will,” she said.
Louise came to the house early the next morning in preparation for our trip to the sheriff’s office to have Liz committed. In the early-morning light, I surveyed the damage from the night before, feeling like both a victim and an accomplice.
Early on a Saturday morning, as I was packing my car for a weekend “personal growth” workshop, the phone rang. It was Mom calling on Dad’s behalf. She said he wanted to talk to me. I was in a hurry and told her I’d have to call him back that evening. I didn’t want to be late.
On the twenty-mile drive to the workshop, I started to worry about the missed phone call from my father. Two days prior, he’d had angioplasty to clear clogged arteries. He’d come through the surgery fine, but I hadn’t talked to him since. I wondered why he was calling me now.
My father and I had always had a rocky relationship. I wasn’t sure he’d ever loved me, except out of parental duty. His role was to be the financial provider, and when he wasn’t working, he was a punitive and judging parent. Much of the anger I carried was a reaction to his lack of nurturing. But now I fantasized that he’d had an epiphany during his surgery and was calling to share it with me. Maybe being close to death had made him realize his wrongdoings. Maybe he finally wanted to apologize and tell me that he loved and accepted me. I sped up. For all I knew, he wouldn’t live out the day. I had to call him immediately.
I was nervous as I dialed my parents’ number at the center. When Dad came on, his voice sounded serious and stern, as always. He said he felt good, though a little tired from the surgery. Then he told me the reason for his call: He knew I was interested in a company in Spokane, and he had seen in the paper that they were hiring. He was calling to tell me to send them my résumé right away.
My heart fell in my chest, and a numbness settled over me as I finished the conversation. Later that day, however, I realized that my dad had been expressing his love in the only way he knew how. All my life I’d hoped for more, but this was the best he could do. It would have to be enough.
Our daughter Beth, who is thirty-two, has spent the night on many floors, has slept outside on benches and in cars. She has had to steal food, to beg and plead for help. This is the life that she has chosen — and she agrees that she has made poor choices.
For all that Beth has endured, she has never spoken an unkind word to anyone in our family. She has told me that family is the most important thing in life. I have all but cut her off many times, fed up with her behavior, but still she calls. She doesn’t ask for help anymore — she knows better — but she seems content just to speak to me.
I try to think lovingly of Beth, but anytime the phone rings, I hope it is not her. A phone call from Beth always means bad news: either tales of unrelenting misery or serious trouble of one kind or another. My heart warms a little, though, when I answer and hear her tender, hopeless-sounding voice: a simple “Hi, Mom,” followed by silence as she realizes she has no news to share that isn’t bad. But she loves me and knows that I love her and that if, by some miracle, I could make everything better for her, I would. So when she calls, I tell her, “Just stay on the line. Don’t hang up.”
There is nothing for me to say, either. I love being connected to her, but really, what can I say? She will tell me, if I ask, where she is currently living, and with whom. She always gives me the address and phone number. I leave the number out on the counter, knowing that it will go in the trash in a month, a week, even a day, when I discover she’s living somewhere else. Sometimes I will ask Beth, “What’s new?” or, “What have you been up to?” or, “How are you feeling?” as if this were a conversation like any other. But these are not good questions to ask, for her answers are always the same: “I’m still doing drugs every day; I’m still not working; I don’t feel good.”
The point of her phone calls is that she wants to be in touch with her mother, and I am thankful for this and tell her so. I feel bad about dreading her calls, afraid that she will ask for something I can no longer give her. Don’t mothers always say, “Call me if you need anything”?
Merrimack, New Hampshire
When I was eight years old, I watched a lot of television. It was 1949. The war was over, and my mother was sick. Possibly to please her — or, more likely, to entertain my brother and me — our father had bought a TV. Our family was the first in the neighborhood to have one.
Every afternoon my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the living-room rug a foot or two in front of the big wooden box with the tiny screen, waiting for the test pattern to be replaced by the first program of the day: Howdy Doody, which did not start until late afternoon. We were allowed to have a few friends over to watch if we promised to be quiet and not disturb our mother. Here we would sit every day, transfixed until called to supper. Once through eating, we’d rush back to the TV as soon as our dishes were in the sink.
When our mother grew too ill to remain at home, our grandmother came and stayed with us. Although she didn’t seem to like TV, she didn’t object to our obsessive watching and at times would watch with us.
One evening, while the three of us were in front of the TV, the telephone rang, and our grandmother left the room to answer it. After a minute, she returned quietly and sat by herself on the couch behind us. Finally she said, “Boys, you need to turn that thing off and come sit with me. I have something to tell you.”
My brother and I did not look up or move from our place on the rug. Somehow we sensed that this phone call would change our lives forever; we wanted to remain in our TV world for a little while longer. And our grandmother, absorbed in her own grief, did not have the will or the heart to make us stop watching.
San Jose, California
In 1954, while a technical sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, I was summoned to the telephone at Andrews Air Force Base. On the line was my favorite aunt, calling from my parents’ home with “devastating news.” My stepfather, an elementary-school teacher for twenty-five years, had been ushered from a state teachers’ assembly by uniformed officers and charged with child molestation. (He would later be convicted and imprisoned for his crime.)
My mother was prostrate, and my younger sister and teenage half-brother were overcome with grief and shame. Only I was not taken by surprise. I had known about it all too well since I was twelve years old.
The last eleven of our twelve years of marriage had been a struggle. What kept us together were our three children and my perennial belief that change was just around the corner: after some project was completed, or after we had gotten over the latest crisis, or after that next camping trip. If we could hold on just a little longer, we would find the time we needed to turn things around.
During one such waiting period, after yet another altercation, I phoned a close friend who’d known us since our wedding. “Yes, I’m hurting,” I said, “but I think we’ll get this figured out. Carl says that after he finishes this project in a couple of weeks, we’ll have time to sit down and talk things out. I’m just going to have to put it on the shelf till then. We’ll get to it.”
There was a long pause. Then my friend said, “Do you know the first time I heard you say that?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It was just before Angie was born.”
Now it was my turn to pause. Angie, our firstborn, was ten years old.
Within a year, my husband and I were divorced. I have never regretted it.
I had been dreading this call for two years, feeling sure it would come not when I was at home, surrounded by family, but when I was at work, just feeling surrounded. I pictured myself bawling in my office until a good-hearted co-worker peeked in to ask what was wrong.
When the call did come — while I was at work, inevitably — it was nothing like what I’d imagined. Instead of a relative’s shaky voice telling me my dad was gone, it was my dad himself.
“Hi, hon,” he said. “I’m not gonna make it. I can feel myself going.”
“Are you feeling OK?” I asked. “Are you comfortable?”
“You can hang on a little longer, can’t you? I’ll be there in a couple of weeks.”
“Do you want me to come down there now?”
“Nah. There’s not enough room for all you people here. Besides, you know me. If you were all here I’d probably stick around.”
“Don’t do that. Now, come on now.”
“You have Vera there,” I said. “She takes good care of you.”
“Yeah, I have Vera. And your brother’s here, too.”
“That’s good. I miss holding your hand. I love your big hands.”
“Aw. I never did write that book for you.”
“That’s OK. I’m going to write it, anyway.”
“You call Ellen and tell her to call me. We can’t find her number.”
“OK. OK. I can do that.”
“And take good care of that kid.”
“OK. I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, hon.”
You’d be surprised how little there is to say when the first man you ever loved, the first hero you ever had, calls to tell you he’s dying. It turns out that what you do, if you’re anything like me, is write down every word he says on the pad of paper by the phone.