He always worried that when he called he would be greeted with some horrible news. That his grandfather or some other family member would answer only to inform him that his grandmother had been gone for weeks. It was probably his own guilt eating away at him for not calling her more often. He always promised he would, but then remember later that it had been months and he still hadn't called. So it was, and all he could do now was wait painfully as each ring of the phone went unanswered.
Then finally the dreaded "click" of an answer and the fear that it was going to be someone other than her. "Please, please, please" he said in his head as the moment seemed to hang forever."
"Hello," came the soft voice at the other end, and with it sweet relief. She was alive and sounded well.
"Hi," he said.
"Well hello Michael Ross, how are you?" It was almost always her greeting with him. She was always eager, always happy when he called. She never held a grudge or complained about how long it had been, even when there had been gaps of a year or more. She was his anchor, his constant.
"I'm good. I'm good," he lied. Time had been hard lately. They always seemed to be hard when he called her. He knew she couldn't do anything specifically, not on retirement, but just the sound of her voice was enough.
"That's good to hear," she said.
"Yeah, I just called to say thank you for sending the CD full of family photos." He tapped the arrow key on the nearby computer to see a much younger version of the woman on the phone holding a baby version of himself.
"Oh that. Your granddad sent that. He's the only one that gets on the computer. I don't know how to check my e-mail." Even her dismissals were cheery and upbeat.
He pondered that thought. He had just assumed that she would have been the one to prompt sending the photos. She'd always been the sentimental one. Jim had always been the stern, no non-sense kind of guy. Never really showing any emotion beyond the rare smile, but certainly nothing approaching warmth. So the gesture of all these collected family photos seemed out of character.
"Ross? Are you still there," she asked.
"Oh, yeah. Just a nice surprise," he responded slowly. "I have to say I was a little surprised to see pictures of Brook in there."
"Oh? Yeah. Well I'm glad you got them." Her normal upbeat attitude faltered a little. He could sense the hesitance in her voice at what she knew could be the follow-up question 'could I see her' or 'how's my dad?' He had to ask anyway even knowing the response that was coming.
"You could try to talk to him, but he's probably not going to be receptive. I don't think he wants you to have contact with her. I'm sorry." It had that ring of finality to it. Like a door had once and for all been closed, locked, welded shut, and buried with a back-hoe.
All he could hear was "not going to be receptive". He knew his own culpability with that turn of phrase. He knew the damage he'd caused with his own father and the distance that created. It was crushing. It was why he worried all the time about the loss of his grandmother, because she was that thin lifeline to this other life, to his absent father and mysterious step sister. When she was gone he had nothing tying them together anymore.
"Michael Ross, you need to ask your mother about this." The statement came out of the blue. He wondered what his mother might have to do with this. How could she fix what he himself had put into play.
"Why? What does she have to do with this," he asked incredulously.
His mom had been almost as absent as his dad, but he hadn't pined for her half as much. She was there and then she wasn't. He was invited to live with her and his sisters and then he was dis-invited. He spent years circling the drain of her diminishing approval hoping that she'd eventually either fully take him or fully let him go. That moment finally came with her fourth married, where he got punted to another set of grandparents. There he could be easily within reach if she wanted to visit, even though she never did. She wasn't someone he wanted to ask questions of. He feared the answers.
"Just ask your mom." She repeated. "She was a good woman once. She was really good at keeping house and cooking and she always really loved you."
He heard the words but they were like a puzzle. Why say these things? His mother had been inconsistent at best, abusive at her worst. He hadn't been speaking to her for years and didn't really want to start now. However, his grandmother had piqued his interest. There was something here that he needed to know and it was going to be something big and he dreaded it.
"Uh, ok. I guess I'll give her a call... um... tell granddad I love him and thanks for the pictures. I'll call and talk again soon." He knew what soon was like in reality for him, and thinking of his mother reminded him of where his own neglect of people came from. "I love you."
"I love you too Michael Ross." Then with her customary, "I'm glad you called and I got to hear from you."
"Me too..." and she was gone, maybe for the last time. Everything felt so final.
He took in a deep breath and spiraled through all the scenarios in his head. He'd seen his dad only twice in 30 years. Once when he was 5 and again when he was 15. The last time, his mom and dad seemed to be on a path toward getting back together. It was short lived though and she was soon off to other diversions. There were some letters exchanged, a phone call or two, but nothing with permanence. What had happened between them that could cast such an ominous shadow? Abuse? Another child? A lost child? Was one of them dying some slow death? Was it something his mother did? Why would his grandmother try to portray her in such a positive light and play up the person she had once been 30 years before? How did being a homemaker factor in to the distance between him and his father? He was missing the obvious and could only find out by picking up the phone.
For the second time today he sat in fearful anticipation of what lay on the other side of a phone call. The difference this time was that he wanted it to keep ringing and each ring was a relief and a promise that he could put off that conversation for another day.
Click, "Hello?" He wasn't so lucky. His mother answered with that southern accent he knew so well.
"Hi," he said sheepishly.
"Hi," she responded in kind. Since his calls had been non-existent for so many years he could tell she was just as surprised and ready for bad news.
"I just talked to grandma Shirley. I asked her how dad was." He paused. "She told me to ask you." He paused again, hoping she'd interrupt, but she didn't. "What's going on?"
The silence in the pause that followed felt like sitting on a the edge of a cliff at the darkest part of a moonless night. Any wrong move and you might fall to your death onto the hidden rocks below, but you knew the rocks were there and you wanted to do nothing but put distance between yourself and that edge.
He listened, waited, wondered if she'd just up and walked away like she'd done so many times before. But he knew she was still there. Somehow he just knew.
Then the slow sad response formed out of that darkness "I'm so sorry. It was never supposed to be like this. Jim and Shirley were supposed to adopt you, but I just couldn't and Ross was such a good man..."
As she began to divulge a lifetime of secrets he just sat in stunned silence. Almost all at once his entire life and everything he knew about himself and his history unraveled. His whole extended family had lied to him, two sets of grandparents, all of his uncles, everyone. They all knew and they all kept quiet. The man he called dad was just some guy his mom dated after she broke up with his real father. He was good man, but the plan was supposed to have been for his parents to adopt the baby, not for him to pretend to be a dad. That was the real problem though. As much as Jim and Shirley wanted him, his mother just couldn't let him go and everything unraveled from there.
It all explained so much about his life. Yet all he could do was sit on the other end of the line and listen to his mother cry and beg for forgiveness. Meanwhile he sat there numb inside trying to piece together the reality of what had been his life and what all this really meant.