by Dave Matthews
“Mr. Wilson. Come here. I need you.” And, thus, Alexander Graham Bell introduced the marvels of the telephone to the world. Not with words of joy and celebration, but with a call of urgent distress and concern.
If my Jr. High history serves me well, Mr. Bell had spilled some acid in his lab and was not even aware that Mr. Wilson heard his call for help through his new invention. To me, in my present life, that urgent call of distress was somewhat ominous – foreboding, if you will.
I’ve had my share of celebratory calls
Announcing the birth of my two girls to family and friends, calls announcing the births of nieces and nephews, and most recently grandchildren.
Somehow, though, the calls of urgent despair and distress are seared into my memory with remarkable clarity.
The first “bad news” I received by phone was concerning the death of my maternal grandfather. A wonderful man, he was an educator and an active farmer for over 50 years. I was a fraternity pledge going through initiation week at the University of Alabama. As instructed, I had notified my parents that I would not be able to take calls during this week of “silence.”
I was startled by the knock on my door, then summoned to the house phone. Having been given permission to “break silence,” I learned from my father of my grandfather’s death. Amazingly healthy, my grandfather was still very active at age 78.
He was removing a tree from the lower pasture with a chainsaw. As the tree began to fall his feet became entangled in vines, he fell, and was crushed to death by the weight of the tree.
Several years later, my sister initiated the next call of distress. My father had already undergone two cardiac by-pass surgeries plus the insertion of “stents” to try to keep his failing heart going. Only a few weeks earlier, during our family’s annual Holiday get together, he had shown us pictures of his latest angiogram revealing the life-threatening extent of his clogged arteries. Six weeks later another cardiac event sent him back to the hospital.
I took that call standing in my Kitchen surrounded and initially handled the call well. But when I placed a call to Delta Airlines to book a flight back home I had an epic melt down. I arrived in Alabama early the next morning to find my family in the Cardiac Waiting Room sitting on “Death Watch.” For my brother, the previous Christmas would be the last time he would see our father alive. Somehow, I can’t help but feel it more than a coincidence that both my father and my grandfather died on my birthday.
No one wants to receive bad news
The phone rang at 3:00 AM on a Monday morning. When I finally awoke to answer, the caller informed me that he was a desk sergeant with the Virginia State Police and that my daughter had been in an accident and was in the UVA Medical Center Emergency Room.
Allison, the youngest, was a Junior at Clover Hill High School and still living at home. My oldest, Mallory, was a sophomore at JMU.
The sergeant could not give us any details on our daughter’s medical status. He could not even tell us that she was either dead or alive.
As it turns out, Allison was sound asleep in her bed.
Mallory had chosen to spend the weekend at Virginia Beach and tried to drive back to Harrisonburg in time for her morning classes. We frantically drove to Charlottesville where we found her ruffled but basically unscathed. She admitted to the investigating officer that she had set her cruise control on 80 and had fallen asleep.
I met the investigating officer during the traffic court proceedings and he informed me that when he saw the vehicle he did not expect to find anybody alive. I had been to the salvage yard to claim her personal belongings and can attest to the veracity of the officer’s statement.
Allison was a good kid but with one particularly annoying habit. She routinely took the portable phone out of our bedroom and into her room to conduct her calls in privacy, always failing to return the phone to our room where the charger was.
One night, I had a dream of a phone ringing. In the dream, the constant ringing and ringing was annoying enough that I finally woke up. I could hear the faint ringing of the phone coming from another part of the house – my daughter’s room.
When I finally answered, it was my daughter crying hysterically and asking why I hadn’t answered the phone earlier? The second-hand car we had bought for our girls to drive – affectionately known as the “Beast”- had finally died along the side of the newly opened RT 288. It was well after midnight.
Thankfully her cell phone worked but at this point there was no sense in pointing out that I hadn’t answered the phone because, once again, she had failed to return it to our room. My wife and I drove out to where she had broken down only to find her chatting on the phone with one of her friends – so much for hysteria. We called a wrecker and paid our last respects to the Beast.
There were other times that I was thankful for Mr. Bell’s invention. Like the time Allison was walking across the Clemson campus and had a “panic attack.” She had her cell phone with her and called me for help. With no paper bag for her to breath into my only option was to spend 15 minutes calmly talking her down from her anxiety attack so that she could get back across campus to her room.
There was also the time that Mallory, who was now a nursing student at VCU, watched from the hospital tower as her car, previously parked in the Farmers’ Market parking lot, floated away during the aftermath of hurricane Gaston. She called to tell me that she was safe but wouldn’t be coming home that evening.
The call no one wants
On June 28, 2016 at 2:40 PM EDT, I received a very pleasant call from my daughter, Allison.
A new mother with a 4-1/2 month old daughter, we had just the week before put them on a plane to California to join her husband on a four year assignment. She was calling just to say hello and to tell me she was on her way with her daughter to the local Antelope Valley YMCA.
I am really not much of a talker on the phone and I had just pulled up on a job that had to be completed in a hurry. Cutting the call short, I asked if I could call her back later that night to “catch up.”
“Sure,” was her casual reply.
It was only later that I learned that after hanging up with me she would call her mother. Then her sister. And finally, her husband.
In hindsight, I now know, she was calling to tell us all “good-bye”.
I was working in the home office that evening after supper when my cell phone rang. Caller ID indicated it was from her husband – unusual, but not alarming. My wife was downstairs cleaning up after supper. Answering the call from my son-in-law – and this time I don’t recall many specific details – but I believe his first words were, “She’s gone.”
“Gone where?” I asked
As well as he could under the circumstances, he explained that Allison had dropped her daughter off at the YMCA, said she was going to the gym, but instead drove 10 miles away to a remote area and took her own life –suicide as a result of Postpartum Depression.
This had taken place several hours earlier and his first call understandably, was to his parents in South Carolina. They needed to come to California quickly. Obviously, there was an investigation and interviews by both local and Air Force investigators. This explained the delay in our notification.
All the while, his parents gathered their family, friends and clergy for comfort and support. Believing that we must certainly have been notified, and wanting to share her condolences, the mother-in-law placed a call to my wife.
I was still on the phone with my son-in-law trying to get as many details as possible when I heard my wife burst through the door downstairs “wailing” like a wounded animal. When my wife answered the call from the mother-in-law in her usual chipper voice it was apparent the she was clueless as to our daughter’s death.
The mother-in-law, unprepared for this, froze and immediately handed the phone over to her sister. Again, my wife greeted the sister in a chipper voice, where upon the sister realized the same, she also froze and handed the phone to the young, and newly installed, clergy.
He had previously stated that he wasn’t sure he could be much help in this matter as he had never had to do this type of thing before. Now thrust into an unenviable position, he proceeded to explain to a complete stranger that her daughter had taken her own life. Some things are simply too improbable to make up.
Even as I write this story I can call her old cell phone number and still hear her actual greeting, “Hi. You’ve reached Allison Goldstein. Please leave me a message.”
My message is this
“I’m sorry that I didn’t take time to say good bye. I still love you and miss you and wish that I could have helped with the emotional pain you endured. You were a wonderful daughter and I am so very proud of the 32 years of joy, beauty, and happiness you brought into this world.”