|byEric C. Peterson|
|Waiting by the Phone
A phone call from my sister is almost always a welcome surprise. Usually I'm the one who calls her. Considering that she lives a busy life with a husband, four kids, and a basset hound, I don't hold it against her. Still, it's nice when she calls.
We were raised together in a military family, and before she went off to college we had moved from the U.S. to Spain, back to the U.S., to Japan and back to America. It was a fun way to grow up, but isolating, too. In a very real sense, she's the only person of my own generation who has truly known me my whole life.
So, I was happy to hear her voice on the other end of the line early last week. She called to ask what I planned to do for my parents' 40th anniversary, and wondered if the two of us should chip in on a nice bouquet to be delivered to the school where they both work. She's the organized one; the school's address and phone number were within arm's reach of her telephone. But I'm the technical one, knowing how to order a large bouquet of roses via the internet in five minutes or less. So, between us, we got the job done.
It felt good, not only hearing from my sister, but working together to do something nice for our parentsa very Norman Rockwell moment. I couldn't help thinking how very "traditional family values" of me. But I kept my sarcasm to myself, wished my sister a good night, and offered my love to the rest of her (traditional) family.
Two days later, on the very day of my parents' anniversary, I received another call from my sister. I was expecting her to tell me that the roses had arrived and describe my parents surprise and how pleased they were. This time, however, she called to say that my father had passed out during a coughing fit the night before. He wasn't hurt, or in pain, but my mother had wisely insisted she drive him to the hospital, where he was still under observation. Later that day, or perhaps the day after, he'd need to undergo a valve replacementmeaning open heart surgery.
My sister's voice was surprisingly calm. "It's a very routine procedure," she said, "and his doctors are great. His heart is in really good shape, and the recovery will be the worst part; you know how Dad is about keeping still."
"How's Mom," I asked.
"Oh, she's fine," she replied. "She started crying when I talked to her this morning, and of course I started crying because she was crying. But she can't cry in front of Dad."
That's such a ridiculous statement, but of course, I knew exactly what she meant. Dad has enough to worry about right now; he certainly shouldn't have to worry about being a burden to his wife by being ill.
"Catholics are so screwed up," I couldn't help saying to my still-observant sister. Being the good Catholic she is, she forgave me instantly.
"Mom would have called," she said, "but she didn't want to upset you at work." I guess the idea that I might cry in front of my boss was just as horrible as my mother crying in front of my father.
"But I remembered that you work from home on Fridays, so I took it upon myself to call," my sister said. I thanked her, told her I'd wait to hear more and hung up the phone. Then I dialed my mother, who answered with a clear, strong, not-in-the-least-bit-hesitant, "Hello."
"It's me," I said. "Nicole called and told me what's going on. How's Dad?"
"He's fine," she said. And there was a brief pause, which I felt the need to immediately fill.
"How are you?"
"I'm fine, too," she said, but stopped momentarily as her voice cracked a little. "I'm fine until I talk to you kids."
She cried intermittently throughout the rest of the call, telling me they'd been expecting this news for a while. They'd known that surgery would be inevitable some day.
At that moment I remembered the few conversations we'd had about Dad's heart, but I'd never really internalized, never expected any bad news.
My mother promised to keep us updated, and I promised to be within reach. I hung up the phone. Then burst into tears.
Four hours later, my mother called me back to let me know that Dad's fainting spell didn't have anything to do with his heartand everything to do with his cough. Happy Anniversary, he was being released from the hospital without having undergone the knife, no change to his heart and a mere prescription for antibiotics. Surgery will still be needed at some point, but probably not for a few years and hopefully with a little more pre-planning. I thanked her for calling. I hung up the phone. I burst into tears, again.
I can't say why my emotions surfaced so suddenly. Obviously, the day's news was alarming, even frightening. Nothing like this had ever happened to my immediate family before, so there was also an element of shock.
But in the four short hours' time between phone calls, I'd reflected on the thirty-four years that had brought me to this particular moment: a childhood spent wondering if I'd ever be the kind of son my father had expected; the eventual conclusion that no, that was never going to happen; and the quiet dignity with which my dad accepted every aspect of my being that he might have wished to change.
There was no doubt in my mind that my fathermy ex-military, stoic, Republican, traditional fatherloved me. What was surprising, and at that moment debilitating, was the degree to which I loved him in return.
And that's always a welcome surprise.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 1February 11, 2005