Leavetaking: Memory of the phone call has me breaking out in a sweat at night

Some day, the call will come again, and this time my mother won’t rally

 

This week, the inevitable happened. Since the day I sat in a hospital office with my mother and witnessed her terminal diagnosis, I’ve waited for “the phone call”. You know the one. Our lives are punctuated, it seems, by phone calls. In a world that is run for speed and convenience by text messages and emails, there are some things that still require a call; two tremulous little voices reaching toward one another across the void.

Some calls are wonderful, such as the phone call telling you that you got the job (because everyone enjoys being able to give good news, people like to make that call). The Skype call from relatives abroad announcing a baby, or a marriage, or some other important life event. Perhaps it’s the pessimist in me (and that wouldn’t be an unfair accusation), but it seems there are more bad news phone calls in life than good.

It could be that the bad news calls stick more stubbornly in the memory, but there’s something quite terrifying about the fact that a few words crackling dully out of the phone you’ve dropped on the kitchen floor a hundred times can alter the course of your life in the most devastating way.

Most people have received a call telling them that a friend, loved one or acquaintance has died or been hurt. The closer you are to the person lost or damaged, the more the experience cauterises itself into your memory, and changes you. That call is a testament to the randomness and frailty of human experience.

Accidents

My mother, on the other hand, has always been meticulously well-behaved. She was once stopped for speeding by a garda who asked her languidly where the fire was, to which she replied in her polite Anglicised tones, “But Guard, I have a cake in the oven.” And she did, too. So I didn’t spend my childhood waiting for portentous phone calls about her welfare. These days, I do. When I’m not with her, I worry about her. I’m afraid to set my phone to silent at bedtime in case . . . just in case.

The call came

I answered. She’d deteriorated unexpectedly fast, they said. You should consider coming back within the next day or so, they said. A sudden sharp, stabbing pain wrenched its way violently through my gut, and I exhaled heavily to avoiding vomiting in the pharmacy I’d stepped into to dull the noise of the wind. “All right,” I said.

Now I had to make the phone call. I called my brother, giving him the bad news. Shocked and small, we tried to gird one another’s broken wills. “It’s just too soon. Just much too soon,” he whispered.

She rallied.

I sat by her bed all day as she slept, and watched her become somehow better. Yesterday, she wore normal clothes – not pyjamas – for the first time in weeks. But the memory of the call still has me waking in a sweat at night. Some day, it will happen again, and I know she won’t rally.

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