Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Call

This looks like a nice shot, right? It was late October 2007 and my daughters and I spent the Indian Summer afternoon lazing around in Central Park. But I can never look at this photo without recalling its subtext: a few hours later, I was in Gristedes shopping for dinner when I got a call from my parents' house caller ID -- but it was the next-door neighbor, saying my Dad was too upset to come to the phone that there had been "an accident....."

In other words, while we were doing this, my mom, their grandmother, had died,
unexpectedly, while swimming in her beloved indoor pool. We later learned it was an aortic aneurysm, no water was in her lungs, she went instantly, but of course my Dad had found her floating and jumped in thinking he could save her.

At the time, I was employed writing webisodes with a playwright whose mother had been touch-and-go in a Detroit hospital for weeks, and she kept expecting at any moment to get the call that her mom died. So when I called her to say MY mom had died, she thought I was kidding.

Seventeen months later, when my dad died, I had just seen him and sent him off to a Super Bowl party not 10 hours before. He was in better health and spirits than he'd been in for months. Yet when my cell phone rang at 4 a.m. and the caller ID was my dad's Rabbi, well, at that point I was a seasoned veteran. I already knew what he was going to tell me.

Forget about cell phones allegedly giving you cancer. For people my age, they are often the bearers of news nobody wants.  (Email, too).

I was reminded of this last night when I was out to dinner celebrating some younger friends who are newly engaged, my cell phone kept going off, and I silenced it. One call was from my older daughter, now a counselor in training at summer camp, trying to reach me on a smuggled cell phone; one was from a Con Ed robot asking me to turn off all my appliances because of the heat wave; and one was from my college roommate, simply saying he was "in DC" and I should "call him back."

I didn't want to. I knew what he was calling about. His father, a prominent civil rights attorney, died Monday, leaving my friend, like me, parentless, and suddenly the patriarch. He is the same friend who, after my dad died, gave me a mix CD called "Bring it On" that helped me drive back and forth on my many eldest-son duties the next few months. I did call back, because now it's my turn to comfort him. Amazingly, we were able to share a laugh, because his dad's declared time of death -- 11:11 -- was a number he and I had obsessed over in college, for reasons too obscure and silly to get into here. It seemed like his Dad was playing some kind of cosmic joke as he departed.

As I type this, I am expecting another call from another friend, who is waiting by his mother's hospital bed in Canada. When you get in these situations, all you can do is be there. Answer the call.


Jacob Slichter said...

Yes, answer the call and be there. When she was growing up, my mother lost her sister (who was ten when she died) and her brother (who was seventeen). Whenever a schoolmate of mine lost some family member, she'd urge me to reach out and say something rather than avoiding the awkwardness by standing back. I always remember that. It's not about saying the right thing. It's much more about being there.

Robert said...

When I was 11 my paternal grandmother had Cancer. My parents wanted all of us to go to the hospital to say goodbye which was a freaky thing to do to an 11 year-old kid but we all did it. For the next few weeks we all waited for it to happen. On the day everyone felt it would happen the entire family came over to the house to wait for the call. I was obsessed with how we would find out. Would the doctor call? What would he say? When would it come? Who would tell me? How would I feel that the only non-crazy grandparent was dead? At some point everyone under the age of 17 huddled in the basement while the adults were upstairs eating which everyone who is Jewish knows that's what you do while you wait for a call like that. Late in the evening the phone rang. At the exact same time I picked up the phone in the basement my mother picked up the extension upstairs. It was my father who said simply, "she's gone." I will never forget that call.

David Handelman said...

Jake -- were those her only siblings? It's amazing she had the courage to have children after experiencing those wrenchings.

Robert -- it's weird what people expect of (or don't think about) in terms of kids and their reactions.

Jacob Slichter said...

Not her only sibs, but wrenching all the same.