The Old Black Phone

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This story was recently published in the new Chicken Soup for the Soul title Navigating Eldercare & Dementia which is available wherever books are sold.

“Hello, I’d like to disconnect a phone line,” I said. “No, it’s not mine. It’s my parent’s. Dad died, Mom has Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m her power of attorney.”

I’d memorized the number fifty years earlier when we moved to be nearer Dad’s job. Back then, the black rotary phone hung on the kitchen wall. A few years later, Dad added a longer cord that reached the table. It wasn’t until I was in high school, Mom ordered a newer tan model with buttons rather than a rotary dial.

Though the phone I held was cordless, I didn’t move from the kitchen as I spoke to the younger customer service representative. “Yes, the number is Adams 44058.” There was a silence on the other end of the line. “Sorry, that’s the way we said phone numbers back in the sixties when I learned it. The first two letters correspond to the first two numbers.” There was another pause as I imagined the customer service agent’s furrowed brow. “Never mind, it’s 234-4058.”

When we moved into the new house, I was fourteen and excited to learn about our new town. That summer, my brother and I explored the streets on our yellow banana-seat bicycles. Times were different back then. Parents allowed their children more freedom.

We pedaled downtown and found the movie theater alongside Joe’s Pizza. Then we ate lunch at the Kresge counter, where busy downtown merchants hurried through their lunch. Next, I remember the Ben Franklin wasn’t air-conditioned as we roamed the aisles. Patrons rushed in and out of the newspaper office where I’d later pay my paper route bill. We passed the hospital on our way home, then the junior high where we’d attend next year.

These many years later, those businesses have closed, as did the factory where my father worked. They even demolished the old junior high. After my father died, I spent weeks going through my parent’s belongings. I kept little and tossed away most of the memorabilia of my childhood. I found so many worthless items that had value only to my mother. Of the things my brothers and I had brought home from school, we kept only a few. But I still use the napkin holder I made in eight-grade shop class. I pondered the longest over the greeting cards. I didn’t know that Mom had saved them. She didn’t seem the sentimental type, so I couldn’t throw them away. I returned them to the senders. Bonus, I found a twenty-dollar bill my father gave Mom on her birthday.

With the house almost empty, I called the phone company. When I hung up the receiver, I paused and looked at the floor. A chapter in my life had just ended, and I felt the finality. I could never call home again. So many conversations rushed to mind.

“Hey Mom, can I stay over at Rod’s house tonight? His mom said it’s okay.”

“Dad, I’ve got a flat tire on my bike. Can you come and get me?”

“Mom, we’re home from the school trip. Will you pick us up?”

“Dad, I found a car I want to buy. Will you come to look at it?”

“Mom, thanks for the house-warming gift. We love it.”

“Dad, I need help wiring a ceiling fan. Can you come?”

“Mom, the baby is here. It’s a girl.”

“Dad, I’ve got a new job. We’ll be moving away.”

“Mom, when we retire, we’ll visit more often.”

“Dad, how’d the doctor visit go? Can they do anything for Mom’s dementia?

“Dad, how are you doing? Do you think you should get someone to come in a few days a week to help?”

In the later years, I conversed longer, but only with my father. Mom had slipped past the ability to hold normal conversations, and Dad was lonely. He wasn’t one to talk on the telephone until his last years while Mom’s caregiver. Tied at home and with less contact with his buddies, he called sometimes. I wish we’d spoken more often and longer.

After hanging up the phone and staring at the floor, I looked up at my mother. She was gawking at me with a blank expression because Alzheimer’s disease had erased her memory. She was like the phone line to our home, disconnected. I couldn’t reach her, though I had questions. Why didn’t I ask her more when she could remember?

“What was Grandpa like?”

“When did you learn to drive?”

“What was your dinner roll recipe?”

“For gosh sakes, where’s the key to the safe deposit box?”

How did she find the ability to make her last phone call? Mom dialed my brother to say she couldn’t wake Dad. Dan rushed over and found Dad dead. But she doesn’t remember the events of that day. Sometimes, Mom asks if Dad went to work. I reply, “Yes,” and she’s satisfied.

Before leaving the house for good, I wandered the rooms where my parents had raised four boys, and I reminisced. I visualized the Christmas tree in the living room surrounded by presents. My oldest brother passed out the gifts. Now he, like Dad, had died. I glanced into the dining room where we celebrated Thanksgiving. In my youth, Mom hosted various family members like aunts and uncles. In the later years, it overflowed with her children and grandchildren.

I passed the bedrooms. We boys had left the nest one by one, but the bedrooms remained much the same until we emptied them for the new owners. It felt surreal as I returned to the kitchen and picked up the wall phone. The line was now dead.

I escorted Mom from the house and helped her into the car. She didn’t know it was her last day there. We made the trip to Florida by train.

Now, five years later, she lives with me. Her destructive disease progresses at a crawl. She spends most of her time asleep in bed or sitting in her chair. We don’t even turn on the television anymore. She’s unaware.

Yesterday, a physician’s assistant examined Mom, and she whispered to the nurse. She said, “She’s skin and bones. She can’t last much longer.” Her comment didn’t surprise me because Alzheimer’s disease took my mother years ago. I’m just waiting for her body to leave. Meanwhile, I care for her as she cared for me when I was a child.

One day in the not-too-distant future, I’ll make the inevitable call to my brothers. They won’t pick up a house phone. They’ll pull a smart phone from their pocket and listen to my voice breeze across the air waves. I’ll say, “Mom’s gone.”

Others who have traveled this journey before me say there will be a feeling of relief when it’s over, but I know I’ll experience sorrow too. It will be the last step down the long winding staircase of her disease. When that day comes, maybe I’ll wish I could call home again and hear Mom answer the old black phone on the kitchen wall. How wonderful it would be to say, “Hi, Mom, how’s Dad?”

The End

Other short stories like this one can be found in my book A Trip Down No-Memory Lane.

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