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Mary Anne Mercer Headshot

Parents, Welcome Those Late-Night Phone Calls!

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Late one night last week (not all that late, but well after I was sleeping soundly) the phone rang -- louder, more insistent than usual, I thought in my groggy haze.

"Mom, did I wake you?"

"Umm...honey, you know I'm always asleep by eleven. So, yes, I was sound asleep," I answered, trying to keep the annoyance in my voice at a low level.

"Well, I thought it would be OK to wake you up because I wanted to tell you that I'm OK but we just got in a car accident. Me and Carlos and Miles and Sarah. We rear-ended a car but I'm fine, we all had our seat belts on," replied Leah, my 21-year-old daughter who has just begun driving. She sounded surprisingly cheerful, reassuring.

I was instantly awake, demanding answers. Who was driving? Was anyone hurt? Was it your car? Whose fault was it? Did you get information about insurance, the other driver? Where did it happen -- do you understand why it happened? A big fear was that she had been the driver, and it would spook her about driving on her own again. She told me in very matter-of-fact tones about the accident, that she learned about how easily an accident like that can happen, and how important seat belts were. And she was not the driver, nor was it her car.

She hung up with a "Sorry to wake you up, Mom, but I thought this was worth calling you about." I agreed.

All my adult life I have dreaded late-night phone calls. It took only one, many years ago -- news of the suicide of my sister -- to produce an instantaneous panic reaction when I am startled awake by that shrill, nerve-jangling assault of a night-time telephone. What kind of tragic news is about to overwhelm my sense of stability and security? Problems with my aged mother? One of my siblings? Or something totally unexpected like the sudden death of my high-school aged nephew a couple of years ago?

Since Leah entered her teenage years, it's always a fear that my precious daughter is in some kind of danger. Never mind that she is a strong and stable person, with good judgment and strong values -- things happen. I brace myself for the cry, "Mom, I'm really in trouble, you have to come right away," or "Ma'am, we have your daughter at the station," or "This is Harborview Emergency Department calling." Although none of these calls have ever materialized -- the fear is embedded in my psyche.

After we hung up and before I dropped back to sleep I mused about the conversation: yet another reprieve from tragedy. No one was hurt. Lessons were learned. Friends remained friends. But what swelled my heart with joy was that she wanted to tell me about the misadventure. I thought about some of Leah's acquaintances who wouldn't tell their parents that they were date raped, or that they had gotten pregnant, or that they were failing in school. Leah cared that I knew, and knew that I would care.

So parents, no matter what happens, how bad or how mundane the news is, just hope that your teenager calls you. Rejoice in being given a tiny glimpse into the mysterious world of adolescence, your child's transformation from appendage to independent spirit. The topic may be trivial or it may be earth-shaking, but your job is to be there and make them glad they called you -- and hope that they will be there for you, when that time comes.