FACE IT: Does Life Come Down to One Phone Call?

02/04/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Michele Willens Journalist, theatre critic RobinHoodRadio, and editor, 'Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change'

I have come to look at life these days as B.C. and A.C. -- as in, before we get the call that changes our life, and after.

It can be a good call, of course: You are cancer free! Your kid got into Northwestern! You got the job! The part! Those are wonderful and hopeful moments, but it is the other kind of call that levels the long-lasting blow. It is truly amazing how deeply our moods can be affected by what we hear on the other end. Your response may be, "I will never smile again"; or, "Thank you, this is all I will ever ask for again." Neither will turn out to be true, but how vulnerable we are to the highs and lows transmitted over the phone.

Whenever I hear or read about some horrible incident -- especially those involving a young person -- I immediately think of those answering the call. If we have never been on the receiving end ourselves, we all know someone who has. My friend Dick was in the middle of his men's group meeting when his phone rang unexpectedly. The others felt helpless as Dick ran out, having just learned that his young granddaughter had been hit by a car. Another friend got his call at work in the middle of a production meeting. His college-aged son had gone off his meds and suffered a manic attack. He was in the hospital, where he would spend most of the following semester.

While on a spring vacation with my two young children, I got the call that my father had died. My first thought was when to tell them... but should I immediately ruin the trip they had so anticipated? My second thought was that I had been waiting all my life for this moment. Suddenly, five decades passed before me, and yet they seemed like a blur. All those years with my father suddenly felt like nothing compared to knowing there would be no more. Was I as communicative as I could have been with him, especially after my mother died? When was the last time I had told him I loved him?

Sad as it was, his death was somewhat expected. He was 88 and had been ailing and depressed. It's the ones that come out of the blue that jar us. I used to tremble with fear when one of those hushed and creepy voices (erroneously thinking our number still belonged to a prostitute) would ring in the middle of the night. Now that I have a child out there living by herself, I would be relieved if the late night call were only that sleazy voice inquiring about my attire.

Some of this may seem antiquated, what with the way we live electronically now. I am assuming, first, that this kind of life-shattering news still has the decency to come from a real voice and not an email or text. Second, regardless of whether our phone is a mobile or land-line, the words will be the same and they will shatter just the same. There are certainly variations on this theme, which are equally painful. What if you get the call asking you to make the call bearing unbearable information? There is a powerful moment in the film "In the Bedroom" in which the father has just learned his child has died and must now tell his wife. As he watches her gleefully conducting her school choir, his face -- knowing that this will be her last happy moment -- is hard to watch.

How about making the call to your doctor to get those results? A man I know was literally paralyzed when it came to picking up the phone to receive his latest PSAs. (Remember when we wanted higher test scores?) One woman says her therapist insists she see this as "two calls": the first to the doctor for the results, the second to the therapist (at any time of day) to help soothe the anxiety.

Then there are the accidental calls, brought to us by something called the "butt dial." This is when you are not aware the phone in your back pocket has gone off and dialed someone automatically. I heard of one man who was on a ski lift with his mistress when his went off. Soon, his wife back home was listening to some startling and obviously intimate conversation. That's the call that ended his marriage and he never even knew it happened.

The list goes on. But it is not about the list, ultimately, or how many people we know who have answered their phones in one mood and had their lives changed in an instant. It is about how we live as we wait for the call and if we are prepared to handle its impact. Maybe we can never truly prepare ourselves for something like this, but we can remind ourselves that every moment and every action, counts. The blows will come and they will hurt, but hopefully we will handle them without regret.