The day my parents (briefly) disappeared
They were out at an eye doctor's appointment, my parents were, the follow-up to my mom's cataract surgery last week. Allison was at work, so I had the house to myself. It was early afternoon and I was hanging around, halfway watching the opening round the NCAA tournament, periodically checking Yahoo Finance (now that HRC is doing well, stocks are up again, I'm convinced there is a direct correlation) and the Dank Meme Stash, roaming around the house taking photographs here and there—"puttering about," as my mom might say. The weather was warm and the front door was open. Earlier I'd gone for a run in Highland Park and imagined how nice it's going to be to show Allison the park when the lilacs are in bloom later this spring.
The phone rang, instantly filling me with anxiety. The ringer is too loud, too jarring, although my parents seem not to hear it at times, or else they're content to let it ring a dozen times or more before answering. I can manage two or three rings before I think, "Me or the phone—one of us is going out that fucking window."
It's almost never a call I want to get—some kind of telemarketer, a political survey, a notice of an overdue bill, or someone from a doctor's office who wants to talk to my mom. I dread these most of all; even the most routine follow-ups seem to portend doom. Even if it's someone I know, a relative or an old friend of my parents' perhaps, I struggle to find the energy, I don't know, to talk to them. Phone conversations are unpleasant, draining—fraught with miscommunication, awkward silences, embarrassment on all sides. Much better to speak in person, if we must speak at all, so that at least we can read each other's expressions as we struggle to find some shared understanding in our meager words.
But gone are the days that I can simply ignore a ringing phone. I don't have the patience for it, and besides, there are in fact vital pieces of information being conveyed by these doctors who call all the time these days.
"Hello, is Janet there? This is Nicole calling from the Brighton eye care facility."
"She's out right now. But actually, she did go to an appointment at the eye doctor."
"That's why I'm calling. Her appointment was an hour ago. She never showed up. I wanted to make sure everything is OK. Is there another number I could reach her at?"
"What? That doesn't make sense. They left over an hour ago—my father drove her. They don't have a cellphone. I have no idea where they could be, or how to reach them."
The first thing I imagined was a car accident, both of my parents killed on the way to a doctor's appointment. The worst case scenario. Impossible. Not entirely—but unlikely. More likely, I thought, my mother wasn't feeling well in the car ride—too fatigued, sick perhaps from the chemo, and perhaps my father decided to take her to the cancer center instead. Not good, but still a scenario where hope is appropriate.
Would he call me to tell me what's going on?
Probably not. He would have no way of knowing that I knew about the change of plans, and he wouldn't want to alarm me. I doubted that he would anticipate the eye doctor's receptionist calling me about the missed appointment; he would be too preoccupied with the new crisis. Allison has been saying they need a cellphone for weeks. I keep putting it off, reluctant to drag my parents too much into the modern world, worried, perhaps, that admitting the seriousness of the situation might make it worse. Changing nothing, and acting as if everything is normal, is fine—until it isn't. Then you're caught off guard, with no plan—which I never am, except where my parents are involved.
We have somewhat different life philosophies. Mine is to expect the worst, and plan for it. Theirs is to plan nothing, but to expect the best. OK, that's probably not entirely true, it just feels like it sometimes.
There I was, holding the phone, stuck with this piece of impossible information: My parents were missing. I had no way of calling them. I thought about driving over to the eye doctor, like maybe I'd see the wreckage of their car on the way, but Allison had Jolene and wouldn't be back for a couple of hours. There was nothing to do but wait.
"If they come back, please have them call me," Nicole said. "And if they turn up here, I'll certainly let you know."
"Of course," I mumbled.
I sat down on the couch to think. It was too soon to panic. The mind conjures terrible scenarios, of course, but there could also be a benign explanation for their disappearance. I thought about calling my mother's other doctors, to see if maybe she'd wound up there instead. Perhaps I should call Allison, to see if she had any advice. But I didn't want to alarm anyone.
I finished writing an email to a friend in New York, which I'd been working on when the call came in. I felt kind of numb.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again. Was this going to be a call from the police or a hospital saying my parents had been in a horrible wreck and I needed to get there right away?
"Everything's fine! No need to worry."
It was Nicole again. She said that in fact my mother had showed up for her appointment on time. There had been a mixup—"our mistake," she said. When she had checked in for her appointment, they'd "thought she was someone else," and her name had never gotten taken off the appointment list.
"She's here. Almost finished with her appointment. Again, sorry to make you worry like that!"
I hung up the phone, and a wave of emotion washed over me. Good news is sometimes more affecting than bad news—or in this case, no news. Nothing. This was nothing. Just a confused 20 minutes or so in which I contemplated what it could mean that my parents had "disappeared" on the way to a doctor's appointment.
They're back now, and it's just about time for beef stroganoff from the slow cooker.