This American Life aired a podcast this week entitled One Last Thing Before I Go. I won’t ruin it for you; it is a devastatingly sad yet poignant telling of two raw stories, stories of families separated by choice or by disaster–or by both. In each of the stories, the presence of the telephone plays prominently.
I hate the telephone. If you know me, you that about me. It is not a recent aversion, but I do think it is somewhat linked to the ever-present ability in this era for anyone to speak to this confirmed introvert. I like to text and to email and to see people in person and even to Skype. But the phone is not my thing.
It hasn’t always been that way. I loved my grandmother’s rotary phone and I still remember the phone numbers of both my grandmother and my aunt Isabel. It was the only way to communicate quickly, back in the day, you know, during the Nixon Administration. I remember wrapping the curled phone cord around my free index finger, cutting off the blood supply, until my puffy reddened finger tip begged for liquid oxygen. I would wrap it, set it free, and repeat throughout the conversation with my Ma or my aunt Isabel (the latter of whom loved the phone, mind you, so that was a lot of pretend tourniquet). My Ma and my mother were, and my oldest daughter are, with me on this–the phone should be a quick deposit of who what when why where, and maybe light on the why, because that takes awhile.
In high school, we had a kitchen wall phone that had a tired old golden cord, so stretched with use and finger twirling that you could walk to the next room with it. I remember the cords best.
One of the stories from This American Life detailed a fascinating use of an old phone booth where people went to talk to those who had gone before them. It seemed so strange. Some had never spoken of the pain of this loss, but in the silliness and oddity of speaking into an old receiver with no human on the other end, they felt free simply to speak. To say how the loved one was missed. To ask questions. To say sorry.
I wonder now what I would ask my mother, my stepfather, my biological father, all now gone. Would I be nervous? Excited? Would I get angry? Would I ask why (this conversation would be so remarkable I would break my rule of the “no why” on a telephone conversation)? Would I wonder what they knew and when they knew it and how that made them feel? I imagine I would be happy to speak to them. It is hard to imagine a phone conversation with my mom where I didn’t take a smart tone of voice or where my stepfather did not try to pass the phone to my mom (he was not much for the phone either). Of course, my biological father, I don’t know how that would go.
I don’t need a phone, though. I don’t need an avocado green 1980 princess, or an old black rotary making that mesmerizing two-toned hum with each digit dialed, or a wall unit with a tired, old, stretched-out cord. I could make a thumb-and-pinkie pretend phone, or I could just talk.
I imagine over the next year or 10 or 20, I’ll be twisting the proverbial phone cord, pretending to cut off my index finger’s blood supply while I ask who what when why where. Asking questions to which no audible voice will respond. I might start with a call to my aunt Isabel. She will do most of the talking, so I can get the hang of it.
As silly as it sounds, it’s not silly at all. I won’t get hard answers to details, but I will get the experience of continuing to grapple with and grow through and, yes, grieve over, time and events long past.
Grief will not be long-lived, I don’t think. There are reasons why events unfold when they do, and when they don’t. That truth doesn’t preclude my questions or make my lack of answers less of a point of frustration for me. But there is a messy beauty to the sequence of events, always.
Tomorrow I will call my dad Jim. He will comment on the election (I don’t want him to do that, by the way, but he will, and I might just miss it if he doesn’t). He will ask about my family. He will ask what else I have learned from my genealogy search. I will tell him that I know what is going on my with my brothers–that I recently spoke with his son Jeffrey and texted with his son Michael. I will tell my dad that I Skyped with my sister Linda, and I talked to my sister Mary Pat on the phone, and I met my sisters Josephine and Margaret in person, and I’ve talked on Facebook with my oldest brother who is undergoing DNA testing.
I will tell him that I’ve been twisting the phone cord. And it is well.