I can trace the beginning of my dislike of phones to a particular date and place: March 24, 1976, the laundromat in married student housing at Mississippi State University, Starkville, Mississippi. My former wife and I were students without much money; we couldn’t afford a phone. We were in our apartment when there was a knock on the door. Two policemen greeted us; one of them told me that they had received a message for me to call my father’s place of business in Jackson. I asked him if he knew why. He didn’t.
My wife and I walked the short distance to the laundromat, where there was a public telephone. I rang my father’s number, and my late brother-in-law answered. Johnny, like me, was a Southerner, though, unlike me, his communication style was usually short and direct. He said simply: “I’ve got some bad news, buddy. Your father had a heart attack this morning and died.” The shocking information, unexpected, and its manner of delivery caught me emotionally off-guard. I lost my ability to speak and handed the phone to my wife. Ever since then, I’ve disliked phones.
I have more than one reason to dislike phones. Imagine, if you will, during these pandemic times, that you are seated at a table with an acquaintance who you’ve noticed sneezing from time to time into his shirt sleeve. His phone rings. He smiles, passes his phone to you, and says that so-and-so wants to speak with you. You haven’t time to locate your phone/hand sanitizer and reach out gingerly to take the phone, place it next to your ear, and say, “Yes?” But phone sanitation was not even a glimmer in my thoughts while using the telephone at the laundromat.
Another problem I have with phones, cellphones, especially, is my difficulty in hearing. There is an ad where a person is trying to talk on a mobile phone but keeps moving from one place to another and repeating the phrase, “Can you hear me now?” Also, my wife will be quick to remind me, I have a bit of a hearing problem. But the phone at the laundromat was not a cellphone. It was an old, hanging on the wall public payphone. No, neither sanitation nor a hearing problem was the issue. The message I received on the phone was the difficulty. From that day to this one, I’ve dreaded answering phones; even to hear one ringing is unsettling.
When my children were growing up and had reached the age at which they could visit friends or go to events independently, I would ask them to call me when they got to wherever they were going. Usually, they called me. When they called, I would ask them to call me again when they left and were on their way home. But my old fear of phones had not disappeared. My stomach would hurt when the phone rang. I put in place a procedure they followed that would alleviate at least some of my anxiety. I told them that the very first thing they should say when I answered was, “Hi, Daddy, I’m OK.” And that worked for a while.
Then one day, my son called me from a cycling event in which he was participating. He loved performing at bike events – turning flips in the air off a ramp, riding on the back wheel only, sliding down the handrail of a staircase on pegs extending from his bicycle’s wheels. Being the dutiful son he was, he began our conversation with, “Hi, Daddy, I’m OK, now.” “Now?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “I’ve regained consciousness but I’m going to need a new helmet.” Well, needless to say, my whole phone fear system of fortification collapsed. And I was back at ground zero.
Nowadays, my wife answers our phone. She has become accustomed to my, what shall I call it, phone idiosyncrasy. And over the years, she’s gotten rather good at knowing how to frame a situation in a way that will minimize my anxiety. But, there are still a few kinks to be worked out.
Anyone who has read a handful or so of my blogs will know that I have a dog, Kulfi, a long-haired blue merle collie. I love him, unreasonably. That’s not really true. My love for Kulfi is very reasonable. He deserves it. I spend a small fortune feeding him, provide him “cool, clear, water,” every day. I take him on three daily walks, one of them an extended one in the afternoon. I groom him nightly, even brush his teeth. He is indispensable to me. He often rests on his cot in my study when I am writing. And he is never critical.
This morning (June 3, 2021), my wife took him to the vet for a shot. I was upstairs in my study when she and Kulfi got back home. She called to me and said, “Come down here a moment, I need to speak with you.” Before I got down the short flight of stairs in our house, I had asked if Kulfi was OK, was he ill, did he have some rare esoteric disease. I was pretty distressed. She replied, “No, no, there’s nothing wrong with him. I just need to tell you about foxtail.” I immediately had visions of his beautiful tail, hair falling out, leaving him with a bare stub of a thing. She then went on to explain what foxtail is and its difficulty for dogs. His afternoon walk was mainly on the sidewalk.
I don’t doubt that a bit of talk therapy might help my “receiving information” issue, for it’s become clear that it’s not phones at all. All of us will, at times in life, receive difficult news via a variety of media. There is no escaping that reality. And at other times, this too is inevitable; we will need to be the bearer of bad news. In his book, As a Driven Leaf, Milton Steinberg recounts how Beruriah, the wife of the great Rabbi Meir, told her husband of the death of their two sons. It was the end of the Sabbath. Rabbi Meir had been out with his teacher. When he returned home, he asked about the boys. She respectfully delayed speaking of “personal matters” until the Sabbath was over. After the Sabbath ended, she told him the following parable.
May all of us learn how to receive and how to deliver difficult news.
All the best,