Every day the phone rang. Sometimes a day or two might slip by without it ringing, but for the most part it rang every day. Sometimes it rang several times a day. I couldn’t or wouldn’t always answer because I was in a meeting or counseling someone or cooking dinner or any of a myriad of other reasons. Sometimes I just wasn’t in the mood to answer. I’d be watching an episode of Elementary with Kathy and the phone would ring. Kathy would ask, “Who is it?”
“Just Mom,” I’d reply. And I’d let it go to voicemail. Later, when the show was over, I’d call her back.
It is the stuff of telephones. They are primarily instruments of communication and we live in an age when you can communicate a lot of different ways. You could have texted Mom, but it wouldn’t have worked. She had an old beige punch button desk phone plugged into a land line so if you wanted to communicate with her, you had to talk on the phone or drive to Phoenix and see her face to face. There weren’t any other options.
Mom loved to talk. Mostly when she called we’d chat about mundane things. “They had pot roast for dinner tonight. I like the pot roast here at Olive Grove. What are you cooking for dinner?”
“The nurse practitioner stopped in today. She said I needed a flu shot. Do we have to pay for that?”
“They had a guy who sings like Elvis down in the lobby today. I enjoyed the songs. It reminded me of when you used to mimic him. You always liked his music, didn’t you?”
“I just wanted to hear your voice. How is Derek doing? My old neighbors stopped by. It was fun to see them. They brought me some lunch from McDonalds, so that was a nice treat. I don’t want to take your time. I know you’re busy. How are things going at the church?”
Sometimes I’d respond to her call by telling her I only had a few minutes to talk before a meeting or else I’d promise to call her back later. She got sort of used to my schedule. She wouldn’t call during Monday morning elder meetings or at lunch on Saturday when she knew Kathy and I would be out for our ‘date day’ meal. She knew Wednesday was generally not a good day to call and that Tuesday was my day off. If she called when she knew I’d be busy, it was usually something very important.
The phone calls were a part of the routine of life. They could be fun or aggravating or badly timed or enjoyable or very much appreciated. Kathy would tease me that she would always know when it was Mom on the phone, “You listen and are quiet for long periods of time with just an occasional ‘hmm’ or ‘yeah’.” Concerns over doctor visits or a bed bug infestation or a television not working or an official piece of mail could result in a barrage of phone calls in a single day, but for the most part, one daily phone call was simply a part of the fabric of life.
And then they almost stopped. They had gotten more and more garbled, senseless, and repetitive, filled with sputters and silences and starts and stops and lots of confusion. Dementia does that to phone calls. Still, occasionally Mom managed to punch the numbers in proper sequence and I’d hear her voice again.
Then it all stopped. We moved Mom to Memory Care and they had no phone jacks in the room. In her mind there was no longer any way for her to call me. The care givers were happy to bring her to a phone and even do the dialing for her, but she was much too polite to ask. She thought they are much to busy doing important things for them to have time to bring her a phone. So she never called. I’d call her, of course. It took a lot to get through to her. You had to call the main phone number and get transferred to Memory Care and then you had to wait for a caregiver to go and get her and get her into a wheelchair and bring her to the phone. We’d talk for a few minutes. It was not so much talking as it was hearing her voice. A rambling voice that never finished a sentence or completed a question and sometimes thought I was my brother or wasn’t sure who I was at all. The call would last a minute or two and then she would want to give them back the phone since they might need it for something important.
Now the phone won’t ever ring again. It’s hard when the phone doesn’t ring. I suppose I’m grieving. It’s a strange kind of loss. I’m mourning the loss of routine. The loss of a little part of each day that was normal. I’m missing Mom’s smiling face popping up on my iPhone and hearing her say, “It’s me…” I think back on all those times I rolled my eyes and let it go to voicemail because I was way too busy with other things and the timing was very bad. There’s a deep longing in me to have those moments back, but truth be told those other things and other people were important, too, at that moment she called. It’s a fool’s regret to wish all those moments undone. Still, I miss the routine.
I believe that grief is the selfishness God allows us. Grief is a longing that life be as it was. My regret at Mom’s funeral was not that God should take her to himself, I had prayed for that for her, but only that she should have to leave me. It is a selfishness to want the phone to ring, I think. To be able to brag to Mom about the 100 point bingo I just threw down in a Scrabble game against my sister and hear her laugh. To tell her about some new folks that showed up at the Village or funny things kids would say when asked questions about the Apostles Creed. To talk about the monsoon rain that was falling outside. To chat about her new table mate. To hear her chatter on about Taco Tuesday.
This morning I had a bit of news I wanted to share with her. And then I remembered the phone doesn’t ring anymore…