Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Last Phone Call

I stayed up late last night finishing Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The novel is about a search, and reading it involved me in the pleasure of seeking, even though it's not a particularly pleasant search.

Some of it also turned out to be related to something––some kind of forgiveness, or relief––I guess I've been needing (kind of without knowing it).

The main character is a little boy, Oskar, who has lost his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Oskar finds a key hidden in his dead father's closet and sets out across New York City to find its matching lock.

He's seeking an ongoing connection with his father--this is obvious enough to both the character and the reader.

What slowly unfolds is that Oskar is also seeking relief from the weight of a secret:
On the morning of 9/11, he was sent home from school. Alone in the apartment, he listens to five phone messages from his father trapped inside the WTC.

Then the phone rings again, and Oskar can see on caller ID that it is his father's cell phone.

Oskar hides the recording of his father's messages and never tells anyone else about them, wanting to spare his family pain.

Throughout the book, the reader is gradually let in on the first five messages.


At the end of the book, in great distress, Oskar finally tells an old man––someone he thinks is a stranger––about the calls. This is the first time the reader, too, hears the sixth call:
"The  answering machine went on....
"There was a beep.
"Then I heard Dad's voice." 
Are you there? Are you there? Are you there? 
"He needed me, and I couldn't pick up. I just couldn't pick up. I just couldn't. Are you there? He asked eleven times. ... There are fifteen seconds between the third and the fourth [times he asked], which is the longest space. You can hear people in the background screaming and crying. And you can hear glass breaking, which is part of what makes me wonder if people were jumping.  ... 
"And then it cut off."
Oskar asks the stranger for forgiveness:
"Do you forgive me?"
"Do I forgive you?"
"For not being able to pick up?"
"For not being able to tell anyone."
He said, "I do."

My Secret Phone Call 

Forgiveness for not being able to tell anyone?

This struck me as weird, when I read it.
Would you really need forgiveness for that?

Then I remembered the last phone call I got from my mother, before she killed herself.

I always tell people that the last time I talked to my mother was on Thanksgiving.
I'd called her––(I was relieved when I got my phone bill after she died to see that I'd called her regularly)––and we'd had a blessedly good connection.

This had become more and more rare over the past dozen years, as she'd become a crazy-making master of invitation and rejection.
It's like she was being courted by Death: sometimes she wanted to go and didn't want anyone to hold her back, and sometimes she felt just the opposite.

That Thursday, however, it was like talking to the fully engaged person she used to be.
I always tell people that we talked about radiance, that she told me,
I've realized that what really matters in life is radiance,
meaning the radiant quality of people she admired like Bishop Tutu.

And that's true, that is what we talked about, and that was the last time we talked.
But that wasn't the last time my mother called me.

A week or so after Thanksgiving, she called and left a message.
I didn't call back.

She called again and left another message:
Why don't you call me back?

(Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?)

I didn't call back.

A week later my sister and brother called and said our mother had shot herself.

Why hadn't I called her back?

I suppose, in part, for the same reason Oskar didn't take his father's call:
panic in the presence of death, almost an animal instinct.
And partly (unlike the character of Oskar) because I was worn-down by the long haul of loving a suffering parent, and I wanted a break.

I don't know that I need forgiveness for that, exactly...
I do wish that hadn't been the last call––we never know when something-or-other is the last something-or-other.
And I deeply regret that my skills at dealing with people in burning buildings hadn't been better.

I do know I never told anyone about that last phone message.
I've carried it as a shameful secret.

And now I've told it. 

 From among my mother's things

Chase's Improved Spectacle Case


    In closing the Cover, press a little behind of, or on top of the INNER END, where the friction takes place, and not at the outer end.

Patented Aug. 30, 1881



The pleasure of reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close––which seems it shouldn't be pleasurable since it's such a sad and painful story––lies partly in the pleasure of participating in a search, I think.  (After all, I didn't know it would end in the bittersweet relief of reconciliation.)

The search reminded me of what Temple Grandin calls SEEKING in her book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. SEEKING, Grandin says, is a pleasure in itself.
She calls it a Blue-Ribbon emotion:
one of the core emotional systems that drive animal (including human) behavior.

She also names RAGE, LUST, and PLAY as blue-ribbon emotions, which are familiar enough. I wouldn't have guessed SEEKING, but it sounds right to me.

Grandin writes:
"SEEKING... 'the basic impulse to search, investigate and make sense of the environment'... is a combination of emotions people usually think of as being different: wanting, looking forward to, or being curious about something... 
"...SEEKING is a very pleasurable emotion. If you implant electrodes into the SEEKING system of an animal's brain, it will press a lever to turn the current on. 
"SEEKING feels good."
Stories, even hard ones, are kind of like scavenger hunts, don't you think?

For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:
"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.


bink said...

Wow... I didn't know about the phone messages... but I think you are right to dwell on your last call about radiance. Your mom could be glorious, but she also could be -- to quote herself -- "a vampire mom." And picking up the phone, you never knew which one you were going to get.

Seek... such a biblical word. I like the idea of it being a core driver of us humans.

Fresca said...

Thanks, bink, for the reality check.
Now I've written this, I'm going back to remembering the radiant phone call as the last, best talk.