Monday, February 21, 2011

Call Home, Signed Officer Beam

Meg and I were at the wedding of our nephew, Tyler, a couple of nights ago. Meg was wearing a cute skirt and boots and pearls. I love weddings. They’re romantic. And there’s always champagne. I like to pretend Meg is a bridesmaid and I’m a dashing party crasher. I don’t think I’ve ever confessed that particular fantasy to her, but I’m sure she wouldn’t be surprised. She’s always the cutest bridesmaid, by the way.

We were past the toasts, which were particularly sweet, and into the first dances when I went upstairs to call our son Nick. Meg came with me. We roamed around the old mansion where the wedding reception was being held and left another message for him, the umpteenth in the last five days, and looked in our cell-phone contacts to see if we had a phone number for any of his friends at the University of Michigan, where he is a freshman. We didn’t. Let’s hang around up here for a while, I suggested, where the cell reception is good. Surely he’ll call soon.

Here’s the thing about Nick. He’s one the world’s best sons, but he’s not a worrier. Only a worrier can understand another worrier. And here’s the thing about Meg and me. We’re not worriers either, not too bad for parents, anyway, but once the worm or anxiety works its way into us, the virus spreads fast. It’s high fever and intensive care before you know it. Both for us and the one we’re worrying about.

Nick, in his kind of fantasy, a Medieval
armor shop in Prague
So, naturally, we called the University of Michigan hospital. No Nicholas Clayton, they said. Well, that was good news, anyway, unless of course the ambulance just hadn’t arrived yet.

The University of Michigan is big on treating undergraduates like adults. They won’t even let parents call in to change emergency contact numbers. The kids have to do it. We had dropped our land line a few weeks earlier. We had asked Nick to list our cell numbers for emergencies, but, as I said, he’s not a worrier. When we called campus security, they said that the land line was still the emergency number.

Campus security wouldn’t let us change the emergency number either, but even though I was trying to sound cool and worldly, they must have heard the quaver in my voice when I asked for the third time how anyone would even know how to reach us if our little boy was hurt, or worse. They agreed to send someone over to his room in the dorm. It was midnight there by then.

Officer Beam called back fifteen minutes later and said she had knocked on the door and, receiving no response, had used a passkey to go in. No one was there, but a fan was blowing. Toward which bed, his or his roommate’s? I wanted to ask. She noted that it was mid-term week and a lot of kids were at the library studying, showing charming optimism about likely student choices at midnight on a Saturday night. She said she left a note for Nick to call us, and added that a couple of boys had seen him in the morning the day before. I thanked her without pointing out that yesterday morning was a long time ago, approximately ten texts, emails and voice mails, and a sighting then was perfectly consistent with his being buried under a snow bank, or still in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. After I hung up, I wondered briefly whether AT&T could re-connect our land line that night.

We debated staying there in the secluded library we had found until Nick got the note and called us. I debated with myself driving to the airport and taking the next flight to Michigan. Instead, we called him again and left another message on his voice mail and went back downstairs to the party.

Weddings are all about giddy happiness. We were pretty far past giddy happiness at that point. There was no way back. We thanked our hosts and drove home.

On Facebook (Nick’s such a good boy that he even let us be his friends on Facebook), I saw Nick had friended someone three hours earlier. Hey, I said to Meg, he was oaky three hours ago. Of course, that still left plenty of time for a long ambulance ride. I chatted him from gmail. “Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick,” was the gist of my message.

Mirabile Dictu, he replied. “sorry, been kind of busy.”

Now that I knew he wasn’t dead, I briefly considered rectifying that problem. I chatted back, affecting a casual tone: “No worries, we sent the campus police.” He didn’t reply.

We talked to him the next day. It was the same old wonderful Nick, full of what he was doing at school, talking about his computer science mid-terms and how the campus bus had gotten stuck in the snow and he’d had to walk the rest of the way to Glee Club rehearsal down the dark icy street (a convenience for the ambulance that would pick him up after he slipped and cracked his noggin). He sounded great.

That was the next day, as I said, but that night, when we finally got that brief chat message from him, when the worry fell off us like a soggy cloak, it left us feeling relieved, of course, but also somehow vulnerable and exposed. It was too late to go back to bridesmaid fantasies. The skirt and boots had been replaced by flannel pajamas. I’ve got to tell Nick about that. I think it would help him understand the importance of staying in touch. He’s not a worrier, but, like his dad, he loves fantasy games and romantic comedies.


  1. What can I say...I didn't want to stop reading - and *that* is a Very. Good. Thing! Glad Meg twittered your blog. From one parent to another, I really think you're on to something here...the part at the end about how to communicate with Nick :~)

  2. Mac, what a wonderful post! I don't have kids but I know all about the anxiety cascade with unanswered messages. Tell Meg I'm sorry about all unfulfilled romantic fantasies--both yours and hers.