This Is How You Pick Up a Phone

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It’s 8 o’clock on a cold spring night. Our apartment has been hit by a cyclone — the handiwork of a young, energetic child. Every bit of furniture is draped with paper chains, scissors and Scotch tape, modeling clay, piles of acorns and party favors.

I’m so tired tonight. I’ve been on crutches for seven weeks, recovering from a complex surgery, and I’m trying fruitlessly to clean up.

The phone rings — for the sixth time in less than an hour. We know who it is.

When my mother was 68, a hemorrhagic stroke claimed her brain, but not her life. She awoke from a coma severely damaged; the bleed instantly razed the landscape of her mind. Dementia soon built a Gothic fun house of distortions where coherent architecture once stood. She has been manacled inside this fun house for a decade, with little to do but experience psychic distress.

She is dogged by paranoia — she thinks she has been kicked out of her assisted living facility (not true), she thinks her daughters have not visited in months (it’s been a few days), she thinks that her friend Jimmy never wants to see her again (he calls and visits weekly).

Each time she calls I play a game with myself called “How Good a Person Can I Be?”.

I’ve won five rounds of the game tonight; I am due for a fall.

She has no idea that she has repeated the things she is about to say a million times today and a million times yesterday. She has no idea that I had surgery, nor can she recall her own granddaughter’s name. She is unaware of most of the past and she drifts in the present. She is lonely. I grow suddenly savage in the face of this horror — a life sentence handed down by a brain bleed. I hurl my anger at the easiest target: my mother, the very victim of this chance horror.

“MOM!” I yell. “YOU ARE NOT BEING REMOVED FROM YOUR HOME! AND WE VISITED TWO DAYS AGO!” (Maybe it was four days, but she won’t remember anyway.) “Mom, you have to believe me and if you don’t I cannot talk anymore! Everything is fine!”

Silence. Then:

“I was only calling to say ‘hi.’”

I feel the dagger of passive aggression, which is the only working weapon in her mental arsenal. My mother continues, having already forgotten that I yelled. (Sometimes she does remember; tonight I luck out.)

“But I’m also frantic about something, do you have a minute?”

“No, Mom, I don’t. I can’t again with this!”

“Why are you yelling?”

I’m yelling because you aren’t my mother, you are a poorly rendered stand-in who cannot help me care for my child, or be a grandmother, or even remember to ask me about my day. I’m yelling because I have talked you off this ledge five times tonight, and I’m yelling because you remind me of everything I fear: aging, sickness, fragility, bad luck, loss, impermanence, you-name-it, if it’s scary, you remind me of it!

I flop on the couch, aware of all my daughter is witnessing. She hears me reprimand my mother, lose my patience, announce that someone I love is an imposition. I have not only failed at Being a Good Person, I have failed at Being a Good Example to My Daughter.

I stew on the couch, defeated.

“Can I talk to Grandma Ellie?”

My 5-year-old reaches for the phone.

Wordlessly, I hand it over.

“Hi Grandma!”

I hear my mother exclaim through the receiver.

“Sweetheart! How are you? Did you go to school today?”

What witchcraft is this? All she said was “Hi Grandma” and my mother sounds like a person fully alert to the heartbeat of a normal day.

“Yes Grandma, and today was share day and I brought my Wonder Woman bracelets.”

“Can you put it on speaker?” I whisper to my daughter.

She obliges, and out of the phone comes a waterfall of good cheer. My mother tells her how much she loves her and how lovely her voice sounds.


“I hope I’ll see you soon?” My mother makes her plea for a promise of companionship. I hear her voice differently now. I am not tired or angry; I am soft inside, watching my kindergartner handle her fragile grandmother with such deftness.

“Grandma, we are taking you to the carousel this weekend. I’m going on the frog and you can go on the horse next to me.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful darling!” I’m mesmerized by their exchange.

“Tell me, did you go to school today?” She already asked that.

“Yes Grandma, I went to school and we had share day. I brought my Wonder Woman bracelets.”

“You did? How wonderful!”

“Do you want me to sing you a song? I know three songs from ‘Annie.’”

And then my daughter sings.

The sharp evening breeze sails through the window, and the mess in our apartment settles around me like an old soft quilt. I listen to my daughter crooning to her grandmother, caring for her with exquisite patience. I spend so much time wishing she had a “real” grandmother, wishing she knew my “real” mother. In this moment, I see that she does have a real grandmother, and she does have a real relationship with her. It isn’t the one I had hoped for — the inside of my mother’s brain is as topsy-turvy as our apartment — but my daughter is tidying the surface of her grandmother’s addled mind. To her, this is normal — to care for a loved one is a part of life.

When they hang up, after many kissing noises, I tell my daughter it is bath time. She wildly protests, but I draw the bath anyway. I am still Mommy after all, and she is still 5.

And yet tonight, she taught me how to answer the phone like a grown-up.