the phone call

Sunday morning, 8:30 and as I write, my son, Rian is in New York City attending the funeral service for his friend’s father who “has reluctantly let go of life” (NY Times Nov. 7th, 2010.)  Rian received the phone call from his friend Spencer two days ago and was on the plane the next day.  There are just certain friends you do that for.  Spencer was one of them.  Since their meeting in orientation week in college twenty years ago, Rian and Spencer have maintained a deep friendship. They have traveled together, shared many joyous events and worked hard to bridge the 3000 mile gap between them. He was there for Rian 19 years ago when Rian received the ‘phone call.’   But, before Rian received that call, this is what happened to me.  It was Sunday September 29, 1991.“Lois, I just called to let you know that I am here at the airport waiting for the girls to arrive and will get them home as soon as…”She jumped in before I could finish, “Oh, Judy… Haven’t you heard?  There’s been a plane crash and Stu, Kate and Keith are dead.  Elana is going to surgery.” There is something autonomic that occurs in a person’s body when they hear news like that. I had just been told that my husband of 24 years and my 16 year-old daughter were dead. I felt no emotion.  My head guided me through the next logical steps with no attention paid to my heart or my soul.I hung up the phone in the airplane hanger office and went to the nearby young man washing down a plane.“There’s been an accident and Stu and Keith and my daughter are dead.”As the hose he was using dropped to the ground, he approached me and seemed to be formulating a plan or wanting to do something for me.  “What can I do? Let me help you, I’ll drive you home, you shouldn’t drive” He ticked off.Still, no emotion surfaced other than numbness. Is that an emotion? But, like a drunk who feels completely in control, I insisted I would drive.“I’m fine.  No, that’s not necessary.  I need to do it, I’m fine really” I answered, unbelievably.I drove the twenty miles from the Hillsboro Airport where I had been waiting for Stu and the girls, and stopped at Lois’ house before going to my own. We had moved to this NW Portland neighborhood near Skyline Blvd five years before and it was one of Kate’s greatest joys that she could walk to her best friend Elana’s house.When I entered, Lois was on the phone in her kitchen. I could see her anxiety as she listened and questioned.  She put her hand over the phone mouthpiece to tell me she was talking to the neurosurgeon.I whispered ”Kate and Stu are gone. We need to concentrate on Elana now.” I stayed there a few minutes after she got off the phone and tried to interpret some of the medical jargon she had just heard. The doctor informed her that Elana had a subdural hematoma, broken femur, collapsed lung and they needed her permission for surgery.I drove the two blocks home and arrived to find that several friends were already inside waiting to support me.  Among them were my next-door neighbor and her teenage daughter, Kali, who was one of Kate’s friends.I sat at the table in our kitchen nook, which looked out a bay window to the left into our expansive front yard and the driveway.  The wall to right was covered with framed 5x7 and 8x10 photos of family fun. By now, I had no saliva in my mouth.  My tongue seemed to be sticking to the roof of my mouth.  I stared at the photos and focused on one of Kate.  I tried to wrap my head around this new fact.  She was no longer alive.  I looked at the photo of her sitting atop Neahkanie Mountain with the gorgeous shoreline spread out behind her and 1500 feet below. It was one of Oregon’s most spectacular views and our favorite family hike. She was wearing a blue school sweatshirt with a zip up collar and staring into the camera with a look of satisfaction. Maybe some of the same autonomic reaction that keeps emotions at bay kicked in, but I remember thinking as I looked at that photo, ’she is at peace now.’  This beautiful, talented, smart 16 year old had such high standards for herself that she had become a tortured soul at times.  She played varsity soccer and ran cross country in the same season and expected nothing less than A’s and an overflowing social life.Someone got me a glass of water as I sat there in a trance and we began to try to figure out how to call my son Rian who was at college far away in Boston.From the kitchen nook, I could see Lois driving up our driveway in her blue Saab and assumed she was coming over to update me on Elana. I opened the front storm door myself as my neighbor and her daughter Kali stood behind me and looked over my shoulder. Lois didn’t want to come in, but asked, “Does Kate have a scar on her abdomen?”“Well, yes, she had her gall bladder taken out when she was five.”Then Lois gave the most shocking news…  ”Then that is Kate in surgery right now, Elana is the one who died.”Behind me, I was aware of Kali’s teenage explosion of emotion. As anyone would whose friend had been raised form the dead, she gave an excited yelp of happiness.For me, the cold, dry numbness was too deep to make any emotional connection to this news other than to have sympathy for Lois. I tried to convey that my daughter was her daughter now. I don’t remember how I phrased it, but it was what I had thought an hour earlier when our roles were reversed.Lois left to go back to her house and to her friend support and her process to come.Now, it was time for me to figure out how to reach my son with the devastating news that his beloved father was no more and that his sister was in critical condition.  He was across the country and in the middle of a normal college Sunday evening. I hoped he would be with friends when he got the phone call.