One Call, One Click, 198 Miles Away

We live in a world where secondhand tragedy blinks and flashes and flickers. It’s found in newsfeeds, on small screens, in 140 characters or less. And we scroll — dragging our pointer fingers slowly over the carnage and anguish — and then glance up, nonplussed, and ask for the remote to change the channel from ISIS coverage on MSNBC. But then someday, inevitably, it’s someone you know, whom you love, whose broken bones or broken heart are sitting in your palm. Connected by wires masquerading as heartstrings.

My mom knew something was wrong when she called my grandmother for two days straight and there was no answer; or rather, the answer came when the caller-ID lit up with “St. Mary’s Hospital.” That’s when she knew. It was Wednesday night around 7:00. She was alone — my dad was traveling, my brother performing in a college one-act called “Trifles,” my youngest siblings at a youth group event I was chaperoning — and apparently dissolved into a messy panic.

The type of panic that worries my dog until she starts whining, wanting to be held and to lick the salty tears from your cheeks. The type that you’re both glad and scared to be alone for — glad because real-life crying isn’t pretty, scared because you feel like you’ve been smacked in the face by a wave. Static for just a moment, then all too aware that you can’t balance or breathe.

I called my mom that evening when I was on my way home with Michael and Emma. It went straight to voicemail. I called back again, and this time it rang twice before clicking over to the voicemail. I felt a twinge in my stomach (Maybe I was paranoid because every event at my church ends with a talk of heaven and hell, and thereby death in general). I tried the home phone. No answer. I tried her cell once more — your call has been forwarded to an automated voice message system… She was no more than seven minutes away, but I suddenly wanted an answer right then. Just as I turned into our subdivision my phone buzzed in the cup holder. I let up on the gas pedal and fumbled to punch the button to answer.

My mom has nurtured a kind of strength that I’m convinced only mothers can possess (the kind where if one of her children was trapped under a car she would be able to lift a Ford Expedition off our backs) but in order to do this, she has to detach in moments of panic. Upon my picking up, she calmly told me that her parents had been in an accident the night before, a pretty brutal one, and then calmly relayed their combined injuries with no more weight in her voice than if she was rattling off items from a grocery list.

Eight broken ribs.

Fractured pelvis.

Potential fluid on the brain.

Shattered eye socket (may not regain sight).

Cracked cheekbone.

Cuts, bruises, lesions etc.

She used real language — common nouns and adjectives combined to become more frightful than complex medical jargon. Real language to describe real people becomes visceral. It connected my brain with my body with my mind’s eye; it made me want to gently touch each body part she mentioned, simply to check the status of my person. After a moment of silence — muffled, static phone silence — she let out a ragged sigh:

But they’re stable.

In order to explain one of the most profound implications of his Theory of General Relativity, that the perception of time is subjective, Einstein said, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour.” Time fluctuates. It dilates. It swells and wanes. That was evident in the moments it took me to get home. In the day it took for my dad to fly back home. In the hours we collectively spent contemplating, ‘When can mom get there? And then what?’

But more than anything, time felt elongated between technologically mediated communication.

Mom and Dad began packing to leave as soon as he arrived home, while my uncle drove on to arrive first. All throughout the evening before my parents left, phone calls were made — from nurses with updates that provided no real information, from friends with prayers and platitudes, to relatives that hadn’t heard the news. In all of these, the story — details and all — came out in a fitful spurt, but the space between conversations dragged.

Upon his arrival at the hospital, about three hours from our home, my uncle’s texts started coming in, describing everything in excruciating detail — from my grandfather’s first solid meal (a slab of meatloaf, green peas, grainy boxed mashed potatoes and red Jell-O cubes) to the way in which he “calibrated” my grandmother’s raised toilet seat to the correct level for her height. Some of these texts included photos. Some did not. The messages brought a kind of superficial closeness, a feeling of being ‘in the know,’ but I knew my mom wouldn’t be satisfied — and rightly so — until she was touching her parents’ hands instead of hard, plastic buttons and glowing screen.

Eventually, her time came. 10:00 the next morning she penned her name onto the visitor’s sign in sheet in the sterile hospital lobby, and then the photos were made real. The blood she wiped from her mom’s scalp looked different from the pixelated blood we see on TV and laptop screens, different even from the photos her brother sent her. But the experience was real, and warm, and time had started moving again for her.

She called me that night — I was making Michael and Emma chocolate chip cookies to keep them occupied — to update me. My grandfather would be discharged in a few days then come back to the hospital for surgery. My grandmother would need rehab. My mother would stay indefinitely.

She finished the conversation by saying:

There’s an extra bed in my mom’s hospital room. The nurse said I can sleep in here with her for the night.

Over the next few days I would get calls and messages, much like the ones she had received. My grandfather was able to walk from his wing to my grandmother’s wing, where she had gotten out of her neck brace. They were eating well; mom had made them cookies too.

I know because she sent me a photo.

Looking at it, I felt a soft (maybe a little sad) tug at my heart. Because while their healing was taking place, and while it was only a phone call away — it felt just beyond my reach.

Ashlie Stevens is a freelance journalist and a creative nonfiction writer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is also a future cat lady whose work is fueled by English breakfast tea and folk music. More of her work can be found at

Image by splityarn

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