Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sacred Duty of Answering the Phone

I carry a fancy touch-screen phone that doubles as a computer, mp3 player, camera and photo album, twitter machine, texting device, GPS, a movie screen.  It can set alarms for me and tell me where I am supposed to be 10 minutes from now on any given day, and probably do a dozen other things I haven't even found yet.  But for the past 10 days, my focus has been on the other phone in my pocket, the simple Cricket phone that only makes and receives phones.

The Cricket phone is full of love and it has been my sacred duty these past 10 days to take care of it.  The first day I saw the phone was when Fred was first in the hospital and the phone rang a few times.  He had 18 messages but had lost his glasses and couldn't see his phone.  With his permission, I listened to the messages, took notes, and helped him return the calls.  Fred had no idea how to save contacts or attach names to his contacts, so I took that on.  It was a nice way to pass the afternoon at the hospital.  "Freddie, who is this 616 number?"  "Oh she's a good friend named Dora.  Yeah, put Spanish for her name.  Did I ever tell you the time I ........ Yeah, that was Dora."  OK, Dora (Sp) Rodriquez is the 616 number.

Now who is this 457 number?  That turned out to be one of the old guys (75) who always needs Fred's help around the house.  (Fred was 82).  OK,  Do we know the old guy's name.  Ah yes, Gonzalo.  He speaks English or Spanish.  Got it.

The man who sings in Yiddish on his messages?  "Oh that's the reconstructionist rabbi, but you can talk to him in English.  It's OK."

Three hours later, we had the phone all sorted out and I had heard wonderful and nearly true accounts of their exploits with or without Fred.  One of the numbers was for the singer in his Yiddish Mariachi band, another belonged to the neighbor whose animals Fred loved to care for, but not at 4AM. I also got to hear about his mother and his grandmother, his father's experiences as a World War I veteran, the town of San Diego, TX, and I heard repeatedly about the devastation of his memories caused by the people who broke into his house in October.

ז״ל Fred Grant z"l
Then I went to home and later to work for the week, put the phone on the charger in the hospital room, and let  the nurse and other visitors know where it was.  Fred was doing fine, visiting with everyone who came by, and pretty much ignoring the fact that he owned a phone.  So I checked it again Tuesday morning and helped him return calls to his best friend, a lovely young lady who had once worked in his cardiologist's office, and we deleted a few messages.

Between Friday morning Nov 19th and Saturday of this week, his body began to shut down.  Organ failure, pneumonia, breathing tubes, the beginning of death.  I was there.  The phone rang and I answered it, mostly in Spanish but occasionally in English.  By 10AM Saturday, it was very clear that it would be his last day with us.  (I am not shomer-Shabbat and will gladly to for someone else what I would do for myself.)  In the ICU waiting room, I spent Saturday morning listening to a week's worth of messages and returning some of his 20 calls.  Two were in Yiddish, though we quickly switched to English when they heard the state of my Yiddish communication skills. Oy.  Two from organizations that didn't answer on the weekend, and about ten calls to his dear friends, telling them that today would most likely be the last chance to say goodbye.

And then, at 3:15 on Saturday, Freddie died.  The Yiddish, Mexican, German, Texas Caballero in tzitzit and a cowboy hat, flirting with girls and ladies everywhere and starting a conversation with anyone who would listen, carrying a Birnbaum Siddur wherever he went, he was gone.

Fred's body had died, but he still needed attending.  Somehow or other, I was the go-to-person for Jewish ritual. Which three psalms do we recite when we see he has died?  When do we cover him with a sheet?  Do we light a candle here or at the funeral home?

By this time, I now had a good list of Fred's phone contacts and had spent a whole listening to the phone messages he'd collected in the past week.  I started to return them yet again, and told everybody on the other end what the funeral arrangements were, how to find the cemetery and our section of it.  I gave everyone my number, but didn't turn off Fred's machine.

At the cemetary, I was easy to find.  The Jewish people in town knew who I was, and I had told all Fred's Mexican friends that I'd be the lady with the wheelchair, and they all introduced themselves.  Two other Spanish-speaking congregants helped me explain to them the differences between a Christian and a Jewish funeral, why the casket was closed, what language the singing was in, etc.

I'm supposed to be switching Fred's outgoing voice message to something that politely tells people that their loved one has died, and gives them a phone number to call for more information,  I haven't done it. I've instead been answering the phone when it rings and taking the calls myself.  Today had two calls that touched me:  The first was from a home health care agency that has provided care off and on.  They knew he'd been planning to go to the hospital, but they never heard about what happened.  I called Saturday because I called everyone who'd left him a voicemail during the week, but their offices were closed.

The other call that came in today (while I was teaching) very emotional.  I listened after class.  It was from the sister of Fred's wife who passed away 20 yrs ago.  We didn't know he had a sister-in-law, we didn't have her phone number, and she wasn't among the people we called on Saturday or Sunday.  His sister-in-law cried on the phone, was distraught that she missed the funeral, but glad to talk to someone who was with Fred near the end, and through the afternoon of his death.  She was comforted to know that he brought together many factions of the community, four different synagogue communities, the Jewish War Vets, Mexican neighbors, and the entire larger community to bring him to his final rest.

There's one more person who calls almost every day to sing Mexican cowboy songs into Fred's voicemail.  I don't know his name, his phone doesn't accept voicemail, and I haven't yet answered the phone in real time, so I haven't had the opportunity to tell the singer that his friend is gone.

The phone still rings, and I still answer.  I've decided that I will continue to.  If it were my brother-in-law who died, I think I'd much rather hear from a real person than hear about it on his answering machine.  So for now I am keeping the phone until someone turns off the service.

Being a shomer or shomeret between the time of death and funeral is a huge mitzvah.  Performing a proper burial is a mitzvah in which all the community can take part.  Telling stories about the person who died is also a mitzvah.  And I think that answering the phone can be elevated to the stature of a mitzvah when one handles the calls responsibly and kindly, responding with compassion and information in the same language that the caller feels comfortable.

Update: In the two weeks following Fred's death, I continued to get phone calls for him, and I continued to tell people about his death, his funeral, and his memorial service.  The phone has been turned off now, but it still sits in my living room.


  1. That was so beautiful, Betsy. It made me cry. You really are a tzadeket. (You may want to go back and fix the many typos, though. I'm guessing you haven't gotten much sleep in the past few days.) May Fred's memory be for a blessing, and may Peace be upon him.

  2. I don't know what all the Jewish words mean, but it doesn't matter. You are a very kind person. And I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

  3. Thank you both.

    Batsheva, I think I fixed most of the typos.

  4. Betsy.. Thank you for sharing this. What a lovely mitzvah you did and what a treasure you are to so many.