I’ll admit, this is going to be a somewhat morbid story… But I’ve found myself retelling the series of events from the last few days a couple of times now, and frankly, I feel like I should put it in writing and put it out there, if for no other reason than to let concerned friends know without me having to repeat the awful story over and over again.
So here goes… the awful series of events that brought me to the cheap Las Vegas hotel room from which I write this blog entry:
Sunday night, I had settled in to my hotel in Westlake Village (in the general Los Angeles area) and gotten caught up on some work. It was late on the East Coast, so I was tired (a few hours on the ground does little to convince yourself that the clock isn’t actually three hours slow!) and I went to bed. About 9:30pm Pacific Time (12:30am Eastern Time) my phone started buzzing on the bedside table, right as I was drifting off to sleep.
I groggily glanced at it, saw it was a number that was NOT in my phone, calling from a 702 area code (which means Nevada) and assumed it must be work calling. Half awake, I reasoned that whatever they wanted at 9:30pm could wait until morning. It didn’t occur to me then, in my uncomprehending state, that I no longer have any teammates in Nevada, and regardless they certainly wouldn’t have been calling at that hour.
So I slept. Until around 2:30am Pacific Time (5:30am Eastern Time) when my phone’s buzzing woke me up again. This time, I got to it right as it stopped buzzing, just in time to notice that it was a number NOT in my phone, from the 202 area code. Again, initial thought was that it was one of my teammates in Washington, D.C. until I realized that it was the middle of the night, and none of my colleagues would ever call at that time.
In a flash, I realized a common denominator between these two area codes: I have siblings living in both places. I immediately went cold.
Right as I was debating what Melissa and Jim were calling to tell me — had something happened to Janet? to our Dad? — my phone beeped to say that I had a voicemail. I looked, and I actually had two; one from each number. The first message was from my sister Melissa’s husband Hal, saying that I needed to call him immediately. I quickly moved on to the next message, which turned out to be my brother Jim, telling me that our sister Melissa had died a few hours earlier.
I had to call Jim back and get the full story about what happened. I tried calling Hal back but didn’t reach him. And I realized I would need to call my mother and give her the news — she was very close with Melissa growing up and always thought of her as the biological daughter that she never had. (Having a gay son isn’t quite the same as a daughter!) Finally, I called my sister Janet and my father to make sure they were okay.
As I was making those calls — especially the one to my mother, since I had already confirmed that no-one had told her yet — I found myself wondering why we have this societal ritual of waking people up in the middle of the night to tell them that something horrible has happened to a loved one. Why on Earth don’t we wait until morning, so people can have what may be their last good night’s sleep in a little while?
I knew when I heard the voicemails saying, “Call me back right away” that nothing good would come from this conversation, well before the voicemails said anything significant — if it wasn’t dreadful, they wouldn’t be calling me at that hour. My mom, too, was smart about it: when I called, she immediately asked what was wrong.
See? I can’t complain too much, because I knowingly woke someone up before dawn to tell them what had happened, without giving it a second thought. My mom NEEDED to know, right? But when I stop and ask myself, “What harm would it do to let her sleep a bit before I called?” I honestly couldn’t answer.
And yes, I don’t know that I would change my approach if given the chance to do it over again. Because the late night phone call has become a time-honored tradition of breaking someone’s heart with disastrous news. When the phone rings and you’re fast asleep, you instinctively wake up with a sense of dread, and you brace yourself for whatever doom is about to be announced. (Unless you have friends who frequently drink too much and then want your help to be safe… and even then, it’s a gut-wrenching experience until you confirm that everyone is okay.)
I guess the late-night phone call is here to stay… but from now on, I’m turning off both the ringer AND the vibration alert when I go to sleep. Next time, I’m just going to have to find out about disaster after I awake at a normal hour, damn it.