Losing A Friend
We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the time (July 19, 1997) when I wrote the following. It's one of those experiences that gets imprinted indelibly on your memory but not an event you'd ever want to repeat.
I picked up the phone at about 9:00 a.m. and autodialed my message service to record a "neutral" message for the time I'd be out of town, but to my surprise there was a message that I hadn't heard. It was received at 11:39 p.m. the previous evening, the digitized voice announced.
I pressed "1" to listen to it.
In a weak and breathy voice, came this message. "Perry, this is Phil (the bass in my barbershop quartet, The Fun-Addicts, a man who normally has a wonderfully resonant bass voice) and I'm having a massive heart attack. I wanted you to be the first to know."
There was a pause. Then he said, "I guess I'll have to call someone else."
Finally, he ended with "I'll see you . . . up there."
Then he hung up, and I was startled by the answering service's demand that I "Press 1 to erase this message or 2 to save it." I chose 2, figuring I might want to hear it again to see if it said what I thought it had said.
I hung up the phone. I realized that it was now 8 hours later than when the message was recorded, so calling back seemed stupid. There was nothing I could do for him now. He was gone.
It wasn't hard to believe that Phil might have a massive heart attack since he has carried a lot of weight for his height for years. The last I heard he was above 300 lbs, and he doesn't come close to my 6' 1" height. As I contemplated that, I decided to listen again to his message to assess it for genuineness.
The second time through was more disturbing than the first, since listening carefully, convinced me it was genuine. I decided that as pointless as a telephone call might be, 8 hours after a massive heart attack, it was the only option I had. I was probably calling a dead man.
After four or five rings without an answer, his answering machine picked up.
When I heard the message on his machine, I was struck that I might be hearing that strong voice for the last time as it delivered its jovial invitation to leave a message and its promise of a prompt return call.
Then I realized I needed to leave a message for whomever might get the next message. I chose to leave it by speaking to Phil. I told him I'd just gotten his message and was leaving at that very moment for a story telling workshop in Michigan. I would be gone until Saturday. I said I hoped he had survived the experience and that I wanted him to call me and leave a message on my machine so as to let me know his current condition. I said, "If you are able, send me an email."
And then I got into my rented car and drove for nine hours to Michigan. I had the entire trip to contemplate the years of our friendship, my feelings for him, and to shed my tears at my loss. Though I managed to avoid thinking about him for some of the trip, it was never very far from my consciousness and destined to return again before very long.
Now I have returned from that workshop, a wonderful experience that has enriched my understanding of the power of the story and has given me an unexpected, but welcomed, dose of emotional recharging. It might even have given me some new business. (Being overheard as you are running your mouth is my primary advertising strategy.)
I checked my answering machine. There is now a second message from Phil, recorded at 5:00 p.m. the next day. This one seems equally strained as he told me he hadn't been able to get anybody else to tell them about his heart attack. He said, resignedly, that he'd just try to call me later. Then as if an afterthought, he added he'd email me.
Well, at least he had survived the first assault of the heart attack.
That was a good sign.
Next I checked my email, and I received a message from him that began thusly.
"Well, I won't try THAT again! I certainly didn't mean to shake you up - only get a laugh. Macabre sense of humor, I guess."
Among the things he said about his little joke was . . .
"Again, I apologize for scaring you (I almost sensed tears in your voice)."
I've not yet written him to say that there were indeed genuine tears in my voice and a lump the size of Stone Mountain in my throat because I believed a dear friend was dead ... or to tell him how I feel about his little joke.
This event probably qualifies as my most disturbing answering machine message ever. I know it has lead me to conclude that one shouldn't play funny little songs on other people's heartstrings or on their answering machines.
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