I’m starting to think that I don’t phone my family enough. My mum, my three younger sisters and I live in various different parts of the country and, as we’re all busy people, we probably don’t get together as often as we should. We try vaguely to keep up with what we are all doing, and generally get on quite well, but mostly we all tell my mum what’s going on and she relays it to everyone else.
So when I phoned my #1 sister the other day (she’s #1 because she’s the oldest, by the way, not necessarily because she’s my favourite – let’s knock that on the head before any trouble starts), I was quite disturbed by her reaction. She hadn’t got time to talk at that moment, but suggested that I call back the next day. That was fine, no problem. But she wouldn’t let me hang up until she had ascertained that all of my family was in good health.
“Are you OK?”, she asked. I assured her that I was. “And Natalie? Is she OK?” Most definitely, I confirmed. “And what about Molly?” Even the dog was of concern. I reassured my sister that Natalie, Molly and I were all in rude health and that the call was just a social one. No crisis. No need to panic. Everybody calm down. With sister #1 thus reassured, we arranged to speak the next day and everybody got on with their evening.
I was intrigued by my sister’s reaction – and then it hit me. The last time that my siblings and I had interacted significantly by telephone was two years ago (two years ago today, in fact), when my dad passed away quite suddenly. I mean, we knew he wasn’t well, but we hadn’t expected him to leave us quite so soon. And it took everyone a little by surprise.
My parents lived in France at that point, and I’d just been over to spend a week with them. My dad had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and both he and my mum were, I think, finding it a little difficult to come to terms with what that meant. I tried as best I could to help them learn about the condition and how things were likely to progress, but it wasn’t an easy time and I felt pretty guilty leaving them as I got back on the plane home that Sunday evening.
The next morning, I was working at home when I got a frantic call from sister #2. “I’ve just called mum and she said dad’s died,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. Can you call her and find out?” Suddenly, being the big brother didn’t seem so appealing. I tried to calm sister #2 and called my mum. “I’m really sorry, Simon,” she sobbed. “Your dad died a few minutes ago. The doctor and the paramedics are here. It all happened so quickly.”
I asked what I could do to help. We agreed that as sister #1 was in the United States on holiday, mum would try to contact her. I was to call sisters #2 and #3 to break the news to them. First call was to sister #2, who was at work and – clearly – knew that things weren’t looking too good. So I called her back and confirmed what she already knew. She was understandably quite distraught, so I said I’d figure out what we all needed to do and call her back later that morning.
Because I’m a nice big brother, I then called one of my sister’s colleagues, told her the broad details of what was going on, and asked her to make sure that sister #2 wasn’t sat on her own in tears. The very nice colleague assured me that sister #2 was being well looked after and that I didn’t need to worry. One down, one to go.
Sister #3 was a little more complicated because, well, she’s my baby sister and baby sisters get special treatment. I didn’t want to have to break the news to her over the phone, so I decided to call her husband and let him tell her in person. He wasn’t the easiest of people to track down, as his mobile was turned off and his secretary didn’t quite know where he was. But after some intense negotiations, possibly involving the use of a NASA spy satellite, we managed to track him down.
Needless to say, he was quite cut up about the news when I broke it to him. He and my dad had been pretty close. He asked whether sister #3 knew, and I suggested that it might be best for him to go over to her office (they worked quite near to each other at that time) and tell her in person. He concurred that that was the best course of action and we agreed to speak later on, once he had spoken with my sister, to figure out what we needed to do next.
Next call was to my wife, who I’d been trying to call ever since I had spoken with my mother, but who it was taking me a bit of time to track down. When we did speak, she was likewise fairly shocked about the news but – being much more practically minded than me – decided that she would come home straight away and that I should book myself on the next available flight back to France. Further calls then followed to various colleagues to make the necessary arrangements for me to disappear from work for the foreseeable future with no idea when I would be back.
So it’s perhaps easy to see how the telephone has garnered such a miserable reputation in my family. Every time it rings, the first thought that crosses my mind (and presumably my sisters’ minds, too) is that something must have happened. That there’s some kind of family emergency. That someone I love has died. And that’s not good. I think I need to phone my family more, even if only to show them that not all news is bad news.