Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Call

Holy December Batman, this time next week I'll be in England!

Yup, a 10 hour flight, 3 hour layover, 1 hour flight and 1.5 hour train ride await, starting on Tuesday night. A total of ~7320 kilometres (~4550 miles) lie between "home" in Vancouver and "home home" in Yorkshire.

I know that many (most?) of you are also a long way from home, and possibly from aging parents. And, like me, I'm sure that many of you live in fear of the call.

You know - The. Call.

The call from home that means "you need to leave for the airport now".

Last week, I thought I'd had The Call.

Stepping out of the shower at work, I realised that my phone was vibrating in my bag. I frantically started to dig for it under the clean clothes, towel, spare shoes, lunch, and other assorted crap that I haul to work every day. I just missed the call.

Hmmm, I thought, wonder who that was?

My "Recent" list showed that the missed call was from my parents. And that, during my bike ride into work and nice hot shower, I had in fact missed a total of nine calls from my parents.


I talk to my parents at noon PST (8 pm GMT), almost every Sunday. And at no other time during the week. This is the way it has been ever since I moved here almost seven years ago1. So nine calls at 8.45 am on a Thursday meant one thing.

The Call.

At this point, a voicemail message alert popped up.

The message was two seconds of silence, and a click.

So clearly this was not the kind of thing that could be left in a message, but rather had to be communicated in person.

It was The Call. It had to be.

I frantically started to punch in my parents' number. (Have I ever mentioned that I'm a bit of a panic merchant?). I misdialled the first time, and got someone else's answering machine. I redialled, even more frantically, and my Mum answered.

"Hi, Mum, it's me - you were trying to reach me?" I said.

(Actually, it probably came out more like "Himusmee, tringrichmi?")

"Oh, hello love", came the cheery reply, "thanks for ringing back so quickly! Your Dad thought you'd be at work. I was just wondering, what size feet does [Mr E Man] have? I think I might get him some socks as part of his present. He seemed to like the ones I got him last time".


When my heart stopped pounding, I told her that
a) she'd scared the shit out of me,
b) yes, I'm at work, and in fact this phone call is making me late for a seminar, and
c) I have no bloody idea what size feet he has.

"Oh well, it's not really urgent, just let me know before you come over. Oh, and I got him a [thing], but I don't know if he'll like it, so I kept the receipt. It's from [shop] and it's [colour] - do you think he'll like it?".

"Mum... seminar..."

"Oh, right, I'd better let you get on then. Sorry for scaring you. What's the seminar about?"

"Genomes2. Bye Mum, talk to you Sunday".

I love my parents, but they are obviously in need of some retraining. Starting with the existence of time zones3, cell phones, and email.


1) With one exception... this story really shouldn't have come as THAT much of a surprise to me, as something similar happened a few years ago.

2) I'm sure most of you are aware of the recent heated blogosphere conversations about the representation of women at conferences and seminar series. This "seminar" was actually a full-day forum, with nine (almost all local) speakers and a panel discussion. Five speakers were women - including the keynote speaker, and also the recipient of a Young Investigator award. Yay! I bumped into the event's chief organiser the next day, and congratulated her on an excellent event. "It was especially nice to see so many female speakers", I said. "Oh, you're right! I hadn't even noticed!". Double yay!

3) My sister will probably want to help with this - they once called her in London at 3.30 am on a week night, because they were in Canada and got the eight hour time difference the wrong way round. My Dad is still amazed that it's only noon in Vancouver when I call them on a Sunday. Mind you, he has also - more than once - responded to news that it's sunny in Vancouver with a surprised "Really? It's raining here". And these are smart people.


  1. Yikes.

    Yeah, that's... I always panic when there's a missed call on my phone and it's my folks.

    I had a great email a couple of weeks ago. The subject: was

    "Your dad's OK"


  2. I got the call in June 2007. At first my mother hadn't called me, because it wasn't such a big deal. By the time she reached me it was. He had a heart attack, and they had given him so many blood thinners they couldn't operate. I remembered that my knees just buckled, and all I could say was "no, no, no, no." This wasn't happening, it couldn't be happening. He wasn't aged, he was only 62.

    And I couldn't rush over, because I was worried that if I left the US I wouldn't be able to get back in. So I stayed put.

    Two days later my father passed away. Only we had contacted the US embassy ahead of time, faxed all my material over so they could make a preliminary assessment, did I dare go for the cremation.

    The Call. Sheer horror.

  3. When I was in college my Dad left a message on my machine: "You need to get home. NOW!" I was sure something horrible happened to my Mom, but I was scared to call back and find out so I got in my car and drove the 5 hrs home, just as I was told. When I got there my parents (BOTH of them) were like "Why didn't you call before you headed down?" I asked "why are both of you alive after leaving that message on my machine?"
    The answer: "Well, we bought you a new car (used car, new to me) and we wanted you to come and get it."
    Me:"I thought you were dead!"
    Mom (to Dad):"See. I told you not to leave that message."
    Thanks for the car and the mini-stroke.

  4. Makita, I'm so sorry about your Dad and that it happened like that. We never know when it is going to be... I never know, either.

    Cath - I guess your parents don't read your blog? A hair-raising story!

  5. yep, that's why I'll never leave Europe for more than holidays....

  6. Yes, this is one of the difficulties of the distance. I've yet to have 'the call'. Mine most likely would come in an email and indeed last year I had 'the email', it was about a grandparent and it was not a surprise, although slightly surprising how quickly. I then did get on a plane for the funeral, just over 3 weeks after I had just been back at Christmas. I was glad I did.

    As for the weekly phone call: lol! I do nearly exactly the same thing and same time. I've found since being here it is not the distance that is the issue but the time zone difference, that makes things like calls fit into a very limited window.

  7. Yeah, I had several 'discussions' on what an appropriate voice mail was when I was in Canada. I got several 'call home asap' type messages and freaked. My folks found it very difficult to comprehend why these voice mails were alarming, especially when you get them at 5 pm PST and can't phone the UK without waking people up.

  8. Ha, I had something very similar to your experience a couple of weeks ago! My father is not well, and one day there were several calls, no voice mail, including a couple to my husband's phone when I didn't answer mine. I called back, terrified - it was my dad, in a perfectly jovial mood, calling to tell me he found out we were related to Pocahontas. ??? Sigh.

  9. I love it. Had the same thing a few months ago... my father gets annoyed when I dont answer when h calls. You know, so kind of "hi sweetie, obviously you are not having your phone off.. why not?!" My answer, maybe becasue I am working? Or sleeping (in the middle of the night). THis time, no voice mail after four missed calls. yep, I know what you mean. horror horror horror.

    and everytime I talk to them, their evening my afternoon, dad asked "so, are you really still at work" yes... it is lik e 2 pm dad.... ;)

    it is something innate. Good luck with your trip! Enjoy the holidays and your family. I have almost booked my flight home in feb ;)

  10. And the "i Love it" in my comment was related to the fact that they (parents) do not really seem to get exactly how scared we (their kids on the other side of the planet) are that something happens to them and we arent there...

    Makita; I am sorry. That must have been horrible.

    Microbiology XX: i would have done the same thing. not leave messages like that to nervous children. not fair.

  11. RPG, and your journey home makes mine look reasonably short... was there any context for that email?!

    Makita, I'm so sorry to hear that story. I've been present when each of my parents got The Call about their mothers, and in neither case did they make it back in time. I'm glad you made it back for the cremation though - funerals always seem to help a little with the grief.

    Immigration certainly adds another layer of stress and worry - I had about 6 months recently of having no permanent resident card, so I could have left the country, but would have had hassle getting back in. And I can't send away my UK passport to get my name changed, because then I'd be passportless and stuck in Canada. I'm going to have to wait until I get a Canadian passport to keep as back-up. So I'm travelling with my passport in a different name to my PR card and credit card, and a copy of our marriage certificate...

    XX, nightmare... I'm glad your Mum understood the reason for the panic though.

    SF, they may be vaguely aware of the existence of one of these weblog thingies, but no, they don't read it. After this, if they ever ask, I'll direct them to the other one...

    HG, very sensible...

    Dr. J, I had The Call about one grandparent when I was in Glasgow. I knew it was likely, and when the phone rang at 7am, I knew...

    The time difference really does leave a very short window. If I call before 10 am PST it's OK, but between then and noon they'll be cooking/eating Sunday dinner. And 1.30pm is getting a little bit late. It is very disruptive to brunch plans sometimes!

    KH, that's the thing, and it's difficult to communicate the reason for your stress without saying "you're really old and could go at any minute". I've had the afternoon message too, and ended up staying awake until 11.30pm (VERY late for me on a weeknight!) to call back. My mum was in hospital, but only because her regular doctor had completely overreacted to something relatively minor - the hospital docs couldn't find a single thing wrong with her, other than the usual heart murmur (another reason for stress).

    Dr. BH, another example of what KH was talking about - I guess they just don't think of themselves as vulnerable, which is, of course, a good thing.

    Chall, yep, must be an innate "Dad" thing. And I'm glad you're getting home soon!

  12. With a mother living alone on the other side of the same continent (still and 8 hour trip) and grandparents on another continent, I too live in fear of "the call." And am yet to convince my mom that calling my phone and husband's phone a bunch of times in the one hour we are both stuck in a seminar and never leaving a message is a recipe for my freak-out. At least I no longer worry about visa/passports/etc. issues; that was a point of stress for awhile also.

    Cath, I hope you have a great trip back home!

    Makita, I am so sorry!

  13. Yes Cath—dad had been knocked off his push-bike. He was stationary at the time, waiting to turn right and an incoming car cut the corner. OK, just bruises—but ever since he was nearly killed on his motorcycle in 1994 (when I was at a conference in Prague) we've been a bit jumpy.

  14. Thanks SG, I think it's going to be fun, once I stop worrying about getting everything done before we leave... and Mr E Man's family's party on Saturday, which got moved to our place at short notice because his sister's under-renovation house won't quite be ready on time...

    RPG, at least my parents don't engage in foolhardy behaviour such as riding bikes. Golf is about as dangerous as it gets, for them...

  15. Cath, I noticed you mentioning that neither of your parents made it in time for their mothers and I guess they were all in the same country. It confirms my thought that it's not a question of absolute distance but rather other circumstances (connectivity between places; when in the process the call is being made; how easily your everyday life can let you leave...).
    However, living further away probably makes one consider the possible scenario and thus fear a lot more. Or maybe this is just my own justification for not considering these things when choosing where to live...

  16. I'm glad it turned out to be just Christmas presents.
    My dad called me a little over 2 years ago, early in the morning -- I wasn't even awake yet. I missed it and called right back, scared. He told me that my mom was in Intensive Care, and when I could get a flight. She had been sick for a while, but nobody thought it was this bad. I'm glad I could fly home that day. She died two days later. Since then early morning calls scare me. And I don't switch my phone off anymore unless I have to.

    Makita, I'm so sorry you couldn't go. It must have been very hard.

  17. I have had a few calls and emails like that over time, both when I have been living in the same province and when I was in Australia.

    1) An email entitled "Your mom is OK" then with a brief note saying she was in a head-on collision but wasn't too hurt....turns out she had a strained neck and back but nothing worse (thank god)
    2) An email from my Mom something like "we finally found your Dad"....apparently he had been hurt while working in the north of the province and was taken to hospital, but no-one thought to call Mom, who of course panicked when she didn't hear from him. I only found out about that AFTER the fact, so all was somewhat OK by the time I called.
    3) A voicemail from my Dad when I was in Australia, desperately trying to sound casual and saying something like "When you get back home, can you call us? We have some questions about cancer". YIKES! The next few days were a flurry of calls and emails discussing something my Mom had been diagnosed with. Fortunately, she had been mis-diagnosed and after a scary few weeks we discovered she was fine.

    Parents!!! You try to raise them the best you can and they still scare the hell out of you :).

  18. Lisbeth, we were actually on holiday in Southern Germany when my Mum's Mum became ill. It was very sudden, we'd seen her the week before and she was fine. We started to drive back, but she died while we were on the ferry and out of phone contact. For my Dad's mum, the neighbour found her just before she died - my Dad was only a couple of hours drive away, but didn't make it. But yeah, it depends on more than distance, but distance is a major factor.

    Amelie, welcome. I'm so sorry to hear about your Mum. I'm glad you were able to get back though.

    Mermaid, #2 and #3 sound particularly harrowing. YOur mum must have been freaking out during #2.

    I remember my mum calling me in Glasgow on the night when my sister was flying home from Italy. I answered the phone and she said "Hello Catherine, it's your mum" in her best bad-news voice. Then my dad yelled something from the kitchen and she turned away to answer him - leaving me hanging and imagining horrible plane crashes and whatnot. When she came back the news was bad - my auntie (her sister) had just been diagnosed with breast cancer (9 years later she's doing fine BTW), but not as bad as I'd imagined while she was talking to my dad...

  19. We worry about this so much too with EGM's family. Far Off Land is really far away so it's just not possible to get there quickly.

    I'm glad that in this case, the call was nothing.

  20. EGF, thanks - it was obviously a big relief.

  21. I lived in Canada for two years as a post-doc and my folks never got the time right on PURPOSE, only by accident - and my Dad is an engineer.

    Hope you have a great trip home to God's Own County!

    Yeah, I dread 'the call' - my Dad rang me at about 8am recently (he's in the same country now) to tell me that he'd realised that he had now lived longer than any of his relatives. Which wasn't a great start to the day...

  22. Maybe it's an aging thing, and I'll have problems with timezones too when I'm older.

    Thanks for the well wishes! From reading your blog I suspect that you might be based in my original home town and site of my undergrad degree. We'll be spending this coming weekend there before heading even further north!


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