Call of the Riled

When the phone rings, I always fear the worst

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‘Get here as soon as possible.’

Nothing triggers my anxiety quite like the phone — its rings, dings, vibrations and voicemail.

It all started on February 20, 1998, when I nonchalantly checked my dorm room answering machine from the university library. What I found that Friday was a message from a nurse at the hospice facility my mother had just entered. The upshot: Get here as soon as possible.

My mother had been sick on-and-off for 13 years with what started with breast cancer, but had metastasized to her lungs, liver and bones. I had known things were bad, but managed to lull myself into believing that her death wasn’t imminent, that that she had — that I had — a little more time. I’d gone to bed on February 19 convinced that the next day would be like the previous one; instead, I got on a bus. My mother died the next morning.

Ten years later, on a Friday night in 2008, I got a phone call from a cousin, telling me that my grandmother — the grandmother who raised me alongside my mother — had died. She was 96, so it shouldn’t have been unexpected news. But on that day, it was.

I’m an only child, and my father hasn’t been in my life since I was 7. In terms of immediate family, there is no one left to die. And still whenever the phone rings, the panic sets in. “What now?” I wonder. The jingle seems to be warning me not to get too comfortable.

My mother has been dead for 15 years, and my grandmother for five.  The world feels more solidly under me than it ever has been. But a phone call can bring me right back. And it’s clear that my sense of safety has been absolutely punctuated.

To this day, if I don’t recognize the number of the person calling, I won’t answer the phone. I’ll let it go to voicemail, thereby prompting another 90-second anxiety attack as I listen to the message. When I do recognize the number, I will myself to pick it up, hoping not to hear the kind of news that will cut — and keep on cutting.

There are other things that have been brought into my life courtesy of my mother’s long illness, her death, and that of my grandmother: Fear of doctors, for example, and my discomfort answering simple questions like, “What do your parents do?” But I don’t deal with those other things every day, and I’ve learned to cope with them when they do come up. I go to therapy before a doctor’s appointment; and I’ve practiced what to say when someone asks about my parents: “It’s complicated” or “I’d rather not talk about it now.” Sometimes, I even manage to be truthful about my situation.

But the telephone is a different story. And I should probably get over my phone fear. Because phones are useful. Because most of the time, the person on the other end of the line is someone I care about. And sometimes they have good news to share. I hope that one day, I’ll have a different relationship with it the phone — one that allows me to better negotiate the ring, while honoring the root of the fear that it produces.

In the meantime, though, just send me an email.

Chanel Dubofsky is a writer and the founder of The Marriage Project, where she interviews women about their choices surrounding marriage. Chanel is a candidate for an MFA in fiction. 

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