We've probably all had the excruciating experience of that phone call. Not the one late at night when someone you care about is unhinged with anger or sadness or desperation and reaches out for a calming voice. That other phone call. The one you have to make the next day to check in on the angry, sad, desperate person from the night before to make sure they're still holding on.
The beginning of Blue October's song "Hate Me" starts with an answering machine recording of that kind of phone call. And to my ears, the phone message sounds authentic. The voice of the mother making the call has that tremulous quality lurking behind achingly forced cheerfulness. The fear is audible. The, "Oh God, please let him pick up the phone and be okay" appeal is pulsing just beneath the surface.
I've made that call. I have fathomed the depths of that breathless, heartbeatless eternity of seconds waiting for an interruption to the soulless ring tone. And I have been engulfed in the avalanche of relief when the voice comes on and I can dispatch the organ crushing tension for a few hours. Until it starts all over.
A year and a half ago, my friend Zara made that phone call to her son. But her son never picked up. He couldn't hold on any longer. Instead, she received a different kind of phone call. The call from her son's father, "Zara . . . he's gone."
And the days and the weeks and the months that followed were what could only be described as a kind of earthly hell for her. A hell constructed of walls of questions repeating themselves again and again, barricading her no matter which direction she turned. A hell infested with a haunted, putrid legion of If Only's. A hell filled with the mannequin faces of every single person she had ever known duplicating well-meant, circumspect words of sympathy that could serve only to remind her of what she could no longer hope for. A hell that didn't allow her to sleep for fear that the images she was terrified of admitting into her conscious moments would overrun her subconsciousness with an unrelenting disregard for mercy. A hell that, if she entertained even the tiniest flicker of belief in afterlife, would have been enough to make her want to die just so she could tell her son one last time that she loves him. And comfort him again like she did when he was a little boy.
After a year and a half, Zara is walking among the living again. She works the way the living work. She lives the way the living live. She talks the way the living talk. Almost. There are moments--when she speaks her son's name or some memory of him weaves its way into her conversation--that her voice takes on a bare hint of the tinny echo of that place she clawed her way out of one savage day at a time. That unbearably painful, ruthless place reserved for mothers of those who couldn't hold on any longer.