I suppose every memoir contains a chapter that could be called “The Phone Call.” It is that ringtone that signals the end of the world as you have known it and the beginning of a new reality. There is always a before and after the phone call. And it always starts out as an ordinary day, doesn’t it? It was an ordinary day and then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It was an ordinary day — not a cloud in the sky — and then the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was an ordinary day and then a man in a bell tower shot the President of the United States. It was an ordinary day and then two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s the ultimate “disruption.” Of course, these disruptions happen in smaller but equally disorienting doses in our own lives.
Sept. 26, 2018, was a typical day for me. The sun beamed benevolently as I strode toward one of the academic buildings at the university where I teach when my phone rang. I saw that the call was from my ex-husband, and I answered it.
“I don’t feel good,” he said. “I’m nauseous and weak.”
“You probably have that stomach bug I had last weekend,” I said. The previous weekend he had been over at my house, hoping desperately for a good hurricane. Herb always enjoyed a weather event. A blustery storm, wind, rain, ice, snow, a power outage. He was always prepared with plenty of food and usually some way to generate electricity. Unfortunately for him, the hurricane that had started out so promising on the coast was merely a few gusts and some sprinkles by the time it got to Charlotte.
He also liked any excuse to park himself at my house and pretend we hadn’t gotten divorced six years earlier, to pretend we were still family, which, in a way, we still were. But I wasn’t that interested in just sitting around with him that weekend. I had my annual stomach bug, so I didn’t feel great. And I intended to finish a draft of a novel that a literary agent had asked to see. So we sat in my living room boring each other until finally he and his black lab, Grendal, left.
The so-called hurricane moved on, my stomach got back to its healthy, hungry self, and come Monday I was back in classes. Then on Wednesday the phone call. I had to get to class so I told him I would call him back later that day to see how he was doing.
I went into the classroom and talked about paragraph unity and topic sentences and that sort of thing, but the whole time I was uneasy. A niggling notion scratched at my brain. Something about his voice, about the way the words didn’t stand up by themselves in that California non-accent of his.
By the time the first class was over, I knew I was cancelling the next. I knew what I hadn’t realized I knew from the moment we spoke. It took me that whole class period to understand what I’d heard — the slight slur in his speech. My ex-husband had had a stroke, and our world was changed irrevocably.