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The Call

The Call has many forms. There may be as many versions as there are people, but I suspect there are a lot of similarities.

Look at your life. Pick a spot where you are vulnerable, where life has you by the fucking balls. Pardon the colorful metaphor. Now imagine a phone ringing. That’s The Call – in your life. It’s a wily bastard. It changes as your life does, adapting to your weaknesses. For me it changed (again) when my daughter got her driver’s license. When I imagine it, it’s better when it starts with her voice, but my imagination can be a bastard too – so it’s not always much better.

I got The Call Thursday morning at work.

  • “Dad?“ she said with tears in her voice, ”I’VEBEENINANACCIDENTANDIDONTKNOWWHAT….”

  • Beth, stop. Take a breath and start over, but slower this time.

  • “I’ve been in accident and it was my fault and it was so bad and the car spun around and I thought there was enough room but there wasn’t and I’m so scared and it was so bad…”

You’re on dad.

Where to start? It’s easy and freaky hard at the same time, or it is for me. I wanted to know that she was o.k., but in situations like this time slows down. I’m listening to what she’s saying, processing how she’s saying it, and considering not only what I’m going to ask but how I should ask it. I want – NO – I NEED to know if she’s hurt. But at the same time I know she desperately needs something from me too. What I say and how I say it will be parsed in a similar way, though probably not as efficiently given her state of mind. Even a simple question will communicate how I feel. Am I concerned? Mad? Am I panicked, and if so does that mean she should be more worried than she already is? All of this is going through my mind in the span of her single, run-on sentence.

My heart is pounding but concern carves it’s way through my own panic, forcing a slow, measured tone: my loving, calm but concerned, father voice.

  • Beth. Beth. Elizabeth.
  • “Um, yeah?”

  • I just want to know if you’re o.k. Are you hurt?

  • “I think I’m o.k. but I’m scared because I’ve neverbeeninanaccidentbeforeandhaveyoubeenin….”

  • Beth. Beth. Has anyone called for help?

  • “Yes there’s a man here who saw it and he said he was calling and….”

  • Beth. Where are you? Can you tell me where you are?

  • “I was just trying to pull out from our street and I thought I had time but the cars were coming faster than I thought and I tried to stop and….”

  • O.K. Beth. You’re near the house?

  • “Yes. I was just trying to pull out….”

  • Listen to me Beth. I’m coming right now, o.k.? I’m going to be there soon. You know my office is pretty close right? I’m going to be there really soon. You’re not alone.

Fuck that calm crap. Fuck the bad neck. Fuck what anyone else thinks. I ran down the stairs, across the elevated walkway connecting my building to the parking garage, juked a few late arrivals walking the other way, jumped in my car, then took a quick moment to gather myself. I needed to drive there safely. I needed to actually get there.

When I did my eyes ignored everything about the scene, save one thing: my firstborn child, my only daughter, standing on the sidewalk. Looking at me. Crying. But most importantly: standing.

  • Are you o.k. Beth? Does anything hurt?
  • “Nothing hurts but I’m really scared dad.”

We hugged and I looked around, relieved. Her car was pointed in the wrong direction, 180 degrees from the right direction. The SUV that hit her was driving away, driven by the other driver’s spouse. The other driver, an adult, had a small entourage gathered around, twenty yards up the street. The officer on the scene seemed to be camped out with the other adults. Beth, a 17 year old kid, shoulders slumped with shame and shock, had stood alone on the sidewalk on this rainy, overcast morning. Waiting for someone, anyone, to stand with her. For her. Waiting for anything in the world to tilt her way, though fearing she didn’t deserve it, knowing the accident was ultimately her fault, and feeling overrun with guilt.

I knew it could have been much worse. No one seemed to be hurt. The other car was being driven away. But seeing my daughter there, alone, so vulnerable, the weight of the world on her shoulders and feeling as if it was leaning against her – it broke my heart.

I gently took her head in my hands.

  • Beth. Close your eyes and listen to me. Just listen to my voice. Only hear my voice. You are the only thing that matters to me. You didn’t hurt anyone. It was an accident. They happen all of the time. You made a mistake and I can tell you learned something from it. Everyone has accidents. You got to learn from one where no one was hurt.
  • It was just a car.
  • It can be replaced.
  • You can’t.
  • It was just a car.
  • It can be replaced.
  • You can’t.
  • You’re just as special to me as you were two hours ago.
  • It can be replaced.
  • You can’t.
  • I love you.
  • This changes nothing that’s important to me.
  • I’m here with you.
  • I love you.

I want to protect my kids but I know I can’t protect them from everything. I know they shouldn’t always be protected from everything. Childhood is the opportunity to make mistakes in life when the stakes often aren’t so high, to learn by trial and error in a (somewhat) controlled environment.

But of course, we gradually and steadily lose that control as the years pass, until suddenly we realize we’ve lost it altogether – or perhaps was an allusion all along. It’s another one of those things I alluded to in my last post. You can read about it and think you understand. “Yeah, yeah. I get it.”

Then your hysterical child calls you in the morning, when you thought she was safely at school. In a single moment of carelessness, your gifted child pulled out into heavy morning traffic at the wrong moment, the collision spinning her car like a toy. You see the point of impact, the bent axel of the driver’s side front wheel forced back into the ruined transmission. You see the untouched, driver’s side door and you know: a couple of feet was the difference between her standing on the sidewalk crying… and not standing.

There’s nothing like standing there and realizing you didn’t get it at all, but you sure as fuck do now.

**Note: this post was approved for posting by Beth.

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