Seven summers ago, a phone call upended my life. I was playing SingStar at a friend’s house when my sister called me sobbing. She had just turned 21 the day before, and our small family had gathered at our apartment to celebrate her. I’d just come home from summer school, and was planning to spend the next few weeks with her and my mom before my junior year of undergrad. So, all was right with the world. I couldn’t fathom what had changed in the past 24 hours, what could have turned her joy into pain so quickly and decisively.
Between tears, she managed to tell me that our mom wasn’t breathing. She had sleep apnea, so it wasn’t uncommon to hear her snoring one minute, then nothing the next few seconds, then hear her heavy breathing start back up again. But this time, my sister insisted she didn’t hear anything at all. I tried not to panic and told her it’s happened before, everything turned out okay that one time, remember? But she said it was different this time–that our mom felt cold, and her face had swelled, turned blue. I stayed on the phone and asked someone to take me home as fast as possible.
My mom had a morbid fascination with death. I always knew when she got a phone call that came with an update of the latest dearly departed because her eyes would light up and her voice would pitch up an octave or two: Nuh uh! … You lying! … Wow. After hanging up, she would typically have an expression on her face that was a cross between befuddlement and wonder. On the surface, it seemed like excitement, and it frustrated me. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was okay to be happy at the thought of someone else’s demise. But it wasn’t excitement. She was genuinely dumbfounded by the concept of mortality. No matter how many calls she got, she could never wrap her mind around the fact that someone she went to school with, or grew up with, could die.
While she might not have been excited, there was definitely an element of curiosity–and it wasn’t just her. My hometown is small, and there’s not usually much going on. When I lived there, our hotspots were a bowling alley, a movie theater and a Wal-Mart. As a result, the town has learned to entertain itself through the business of its inhabitants. My family just so happened to be very good at discovering everyone else’s business; my grandma even had a police scanner. She said she used it for safety, but everyone knew she was the plug when it came to the latest gossip involving anything crime-related or fatal. So when my mom died, it was the definition of ironic. Our family–the ones with all the dirt, forever looking for the next scoop–became the ones being sought after.
I got home within minutes of my sister’s call, and the whole neighborhood was already standing in front of our apartment. The news spread like wildfire. Phone lines sparked throughout the city, Have you heard about Teena? It became a sick recurring theme: The calls that kept coming, and coming, from busybodies and bill collectors and supervisors asking why my sister hadn’t shown up at work; and the calls that had to go out to family members and friends, letting them know what they had likely already heard through the grapevine was true. Phones are neutral things, but it felt like they turned their backs on me that day.
During my mom’s memorial, my grandpa’s cell phone went off as he sat beside me. I had to fuss at him like he was a child, even though I was just 19, the youngest adult in the family and my mom’s baby. My sister was shattered, my brother in his own head. My grandmother was center stage at her only child’s funeral. I had always been the “independent one,” so it only made sense for me to step up and become the glue that held generations of our family together. I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. As I was dealing with my grandpa, I didn’t notice my father arrive.
Like many others, my father was imprisoned for most of my adolescent life. About half of the handful of exchanges I had with him happened in various penitentiaries. If you’ve never had the pleasure of talking to someone through a prison visitation phone, I’ll try to explain it to you. A thick piece of plexiglass smudged with palm prints sits between you and the person you love, or at least someone you care about enough to pile into a car for, then go through the shitty process of kowtowing to whatever figure of authority is on a power trip that day, then spend hours waiting for your very brief turn to talk, which becomes even more brief if you didn’t come alone.
You fidget and eventually settle on a cold, unforgiving metal stool, and pick up the black receiver. You hear their voice crackle through the line, and it sounds like they’re thousands of miles away, instead of inches. But at least you hear them, and at least they’re right there in front of you. Chances are, you’ve forgotten everything you really wanted to say, so you make things up until you remember, then you speed through the real spiel until your time is up. I talked to my father this way more often than we did when he was out in the free world.
When I was a sophomore, I got a phone call from my mom, telling me my dad was back and he was ready to make up for lost time. I had heard it all before, so I told her I wouldn’t give him the time of day until he promised me he meant it. They arrived at my dorm soon after, and he vowed he was telling the truth as he stuffed a wad of cash into my hand.
The next time he showed up was at my mom’s memorial a few months later. When it was over, he tried to greet me with a hug, but I pushed him back and shook his hand firmly. That was the last time I saw him–and then I got the call about him three years later.