My mother has been gone more than fifteen years. She died at 73 on the family room sofa, where she wanted to be. Surrounded by her books, the home she loved, my father, and me.
I’d turned 50 two months earlier but when my father detailed her diagnosis on the phone – Stage 4 lung cancer – the child in me welled up.
I was living on Martha’s Vineyard that summer, so we spoke across the miles. Me, on my cell phone in the car, my parents on their landline. I pictured my mother sitting in her swivel rocker next to the window, John Irving’s newest novel perched on her knee. I was driving when my father called. The news he blurted out was so shocking I had to pull over. He passed the phone to her.
“I’m okay with it,” my mother said, sounding calm, a little breathless. The raspy cough she’d been fighting that summer hadn’t been bronchitis or allergies after all. And although she’d quit, decades of cigarettes had done their damage.
“I’m not ready to lose you,” I said, trying to keep the wail out of my voice. I hadn’t realized the eight-year-old still lived inside me.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much choice with this one,” she said. “It’s okay though. I’m really all right with everything.”
I believed her. My mother was a pragmatist. She never struggled against things she couldn’t control. She hated doctors and medications. She wanted to spend her final days at home. Yes, she agreed without hesitation, it was fine if I could be there to help.
But before I started packing, I wrote her a letter. My immediate family, though connected across continents, wasn’t one to express emotion. While I knew my mother understood my love for her, I felt compelled to pour it out on paper. A few days later when I called her to check in she sounded like she was fighting tears.
“What’s up?” I asked, trying for breezy.
“Well, I just got this strange letter in the mail,” she said, trying for humor. “It was full of love and it’s kind of breaking my heart.” She paused and drew a long, juddering breath. “In a good way. It’s beautiful.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes listening to one another’s soft crying.
“I needed you to know you’ve meant everything to me,” I said.
“And you, me,” she whispered.
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A freelance writer, I hastily finished my projects on the Vineyard and packed up my tiny red Volkswagen. Divorced and unattached, I was free to see my mother to the end. But I worried about my father’s capacity to help. He’d never tended to anyone but himself. They’d been married for 54 years and she had catered to him, kept the house running, and the checkbook balanced. He’d retired but I’d seen little evidence of sensitivity to her needs. Sure, he loaded the dishwasher after dinner, but she reloaded it sensibly once he padded to his worn recliner in the family room. We would be an uneasy team, inexperienced caregivers who’d struggled to get along with each other for many years, bound by love for my mother.
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(301) 424-8962. It was my hotline to comfort, advice, love, and occasional admonishments. My family moved into our four-bedroom brick colonial in the Washington, DC, suburbs in 1969. The landline remained live for nearly forty years as my two brothers and I grew up and moved out. I stayed tethered to my mother by that phone cord, the first call I’d make to share joy, disappointment, anxiety, accomplishments, or just to shoot the breeze.
I could sense my mother settling into her chair after she’d hear my voice, knowing we’d chat about our lives, our love for books, my brothers, the news, anything that came to mind. She was my defender-in-chief, righting all wrongs through her comforting words and keeping me grounded as I flitted through jobs, homes, men, and geography.
Who would I call once she was gone, I wondered? She’d filled two roles – mother and best friend. I pictured an abyss. I felt it in my chest even as I administered morphine and half-carried her disintegrating four-foot-eleven frame to the bathroom. Dialing her was as instinctive as ducking out of a rainstorm or cradling an infant in my arms.
I stayed for eight weeks. I learned that I could care for a dying parent with patience and compassion – a lesson I’d reapply for the next ten years as my father slowly deteriorated from dementia. But in those years that followed my mother’s death I reached for the phone countless times in moments of crisis. I’d catch myself and put it back in my bag. I’d changed my contact to read “Bob,” my father’s name, instead of “Mom.” We’d speak frequently but never about much beyond the weather or what supplies he needed. When I moved him out of the house following a severe stroke, I terminated the landline.
A few years later he forgot how to call me.
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I recently read a story about Itaru Sasaki of Otsuchi, Japan. He lost his cousin to cancer over a decade ago and struggled with unremitting grief. One day, he moved an old-fashioned glass-paned phone booth to his garden on a windy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Inside, he installed a rotary phone. It’s not connected to anything but it became a place he felt safe talking to his cousin, telling him how keenly he missed him as he cradled the handset.
On March 11, 2011, Japan was deluged by a massive tsunami. Its waves of up to 130 feet killed nearly 20,000 and left another 2,600 missing. Sasaki’s town lost ten percent of its population in just thirty minutes. In the weeks that followed, survivors learned of his “wind telephone” and came to speak to their own loved ones who perished. Soon, Sasaki was welcoming mourners from all over Japan and beyond, guiding them through his property to the place where they, too, could connect with those they’d lost, talking privately into the disabled phone with the mysterious power to provide solace. More than 35,000 mourners from around the world have visited since.
“Telephones of the Wind” or wind telephones have sprung up in Washington state, New York, Rhode Island, and in other countries as well.
I’m not sure why these no-tech devices speak to me. I imagine traveling to Priest Point Park in Olympia and lifting the handset from its mount on a cedar tree.
“Mom?” I’d say. “It’s me. I still miss you.”