Scenes on the Telephone

Walking home after I first heard, I called my cousin. It was a short conversation but a necessary one. Good to have the firmness of someone else’s response to add to my own. Later she called back to check in. She said, “Have you eaten yet?” It was 10 p.m. and I hadn’t.

I’ve always been the one to remind, never the one that forgets.

The first time I talked to my mom, it had been more than twenty-four hours. My brother put me on speakerphone. Having the phone next to her ear would be too much stress. I didn’t know what to say, how to say how worried I’d been, the fumbling walk home the night before, the sleep I didn’t get, the shock a friend thought I was probably in. I could hear the drugs in her voice. She insisted on talking about my upcoming move––do I have the apartment and where am I getting boxes and what about money. I didn’t know what to say but knew enough to answer her questions.

My dad explained head trauma to me, about how the body decides it needs rest and she would be more awake in a few days, probably.

I called the airline, moved my flight up six days.

My brother called to put me on the phone with my grandmother, when she and the family were there in the waiting room, all rotating through my mom’s room, where I was told my dad was sitting next to her head, letting her know who was standing at the end of the bed. She didn’t open her eyes but she smiled at them. The cousins and aunts and uncles passed my voice around the room. On the phone, I could hear the way they arched their voices for me, asked me how I was, said that she looks good, there aren’t any bruises so if you didn’t know you wouldn’t know. I spoke with my brother last. That was when he told me about my dad sitting next to my mom’s head, whispering in her ear as people came in. After I hung, that was the detail that made me cry.

The third time I called her after the accident, my impulse was to ask, “How are you?” Of course she didn’t respond. I fumbled over something about my apartment, about work. I can’t remember which now.

My brother told me that if I’d gone home and she’d woken up to see me next to her bed, she would’ve been freaked out. Even just seeing her family, she’d say, “Something bad must have happened for you to be here.” I made cookies, to calm my nerves about not being there for the first two weeks. When he told her that, she raised eyebrows and said, “This must be bad then.” I never bake.

One morning, when her voice was clearer, I told her she sounded better and she said, her voice pleased, “I do?”

One night, I ducked out of this evening class I’d started taking, to call my dad and check in after the surgery on her collarbone, the only surgery she would have. He sounded encouraged, said that things went well. He put her on. She started with: “What don’t I know about, Kelsey?” Her voice was aggressive, harsh, clipped. I didn’t know what to say––I didn’t know what she didn’t know, what her brain had held onto. I told her about the class. She asked if I’d heard from that boy and I said no and she said, “That’s weird.” Then she passed me back to my dad because the conversation started boring her. He kind of apologized, said they were getting a new JoLee now that she was becoming more aware.

“She’s like, How did this happen, Who did this to me.” At that point, he’d had to explain a dozen times, at least, what had happened, why she’d woken up in a hospital bed. Whenever she understood, she’d say some variant of, “This is stupid.”

The rest of it, between then and my flight home, is mostly fragments.

“I want you to write a movie about this,” she told me another night. “I’m taking notes for you. About a woman who gets brain damage. Cathy is here but I’ll let you know the notes I take.” Another conversation she said, “I’m really trying, Kels,” after I’d said that it sounds like she’s doing much better.

Those two weeks felt like I was walking up a down escalator. Every time I thought she’d made a big step forward, there was another bigger step I hadn’t seen. Still do. It’s a new kind of fear.

Her friend texted me: “She’s looking better today! She’s starting to understand the ramifications of her head injury.”

Another conversation, when she said Today and I corrected with Yesterday, she said, “Time isn’t easy for me.”

By the end of those two weeks, I was so tired from packing, walking across the city with boxes under my arm, spending the mornings in front of the computer coding, waiting for an hour before deciding to call, again, like I had the hour before and the hour before that. I called so much, there was never anything to say. Most conversations lasted two minutes. More of the same, they’d say. More of the same.

Friday morning, I called the cab, dragged my suitcase down the narrow stairs.

When I got off the airplane, I texted: “Just landed.”

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