Long-Distance Call From Heaven – Purple Clover

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My cell
phone doesn’t ring that often. Especially not at 7:40 a.m. So when the
phone—parked near my feet on the coffee table while I nestled on the couch with
my laptop—began to buzz one recent morning, I had to look.

The caller
ID said “Dad.”

That would
have been odd under any circumstance. My father owned a cell phone only at my
mother’s insistence; he never charged the device and rarely carried it. I doubt
he even knew the number.

But also, as of
that winter morning, he had been dead for 20 months.

I watched as
the phone pulsed. “Dad. Dad. Dad.”

I do
believe people occasionally send messages from beyond, that unmapped field
where soul somehow meets soul. How else to explain why my friend Claudia’s
watch stopped at the exact moment her mother died, even though Claudia was on a
cruise, her watch locked in the ship’s safe-deposit box, while her mother took
her last breath in a hospital outside Philadelphia?

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How to
account for the smoke that spiraled from a wastebasket after Sarra begged for
a sign from her friend who’d died of AIDS; or the see-through sprite, the
figure of a young boy, who clambered up a dresser and vanished before my
partner’s astonished eyes?

But I don’t
believe the dead dial direct. And anyway, while we buried my father with a
miscellany of keepsakes—family photographs, a Miracle League baseball cap, a
pocketful of ceramic hearts on which we’d written messages in Sharpie marker—we
did not tuck the Samsung Galaxy into his casket.

The phone continued
purring against my foot. “Slide to answer,” instructed the bubble. For one hot,
spooked second, I imagined pressing my thumb to the screen and hearing my
father’s pebbly Brooklyn twang—the voice that answered the phone, “H’yellow?”
and told me, between gasps, just before doctors inserted the ventilator tube,
“I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you.”

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Once, I
mailed a postcard to my parents from Zihuatanejo, Mexico. It took 13 months to
arrive. Could this be similar—an old phone message, initiated more than a year
ago and archived in that amorphous Cloud, only now worming its way to the light?
A ghost pocket-call triggered by an atmospheric blip? Or perhaps a cruel hoax
perpetrated by some basement-dwelling telecommunications troll?

My sense of
reason had pretty much dissolved. Still, I thought, if the source were a mean-minded
stranger, wouldn’t the caller ID signal “unknown”? Some imposter could pose as
my father, I guess, but only one contact in my cell phone’s queue said “Dad.”

In an
episode of “Black Mirror,” a speculative and satirical British TV anthology my
daughter recently discovered, a woman whose fiancé dies in an accident learns
of a website through which she can contact her sweetheart. The site mines every
bit of the dead person’s digital lore—every email, text and social media
post—then uses that data to generate characteristic responses.

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At first,
the grieving woman finds the idea bizarre, even repugnant. But once she
realizes that she’s pregnant (of course), she’s desperate to share that news
with her beloved. She clicks on the link. She emails a tentative hello. And
her lover emails back, with all his familiar wry humor and idiosyncratic turns
of phrase. The messages sound so like him that she takes the next step and
orders an avatar—again, extrapolated from her sweetheart’s digital footprint.

It comes in
a large cardboard box: a scrum of pale, stiff limbs that need to be
reconstituted, like sea monkeys, in a warm tub. After a finger-biting 20
minutes, a man emerges from the bathroom—a little wan, a little shy, but
looking and talking and acting just like the dead fiancé.

The woman
realizes she’s treading on perilous turf. She can’t help herself. It’s not so
much denial—she was at the burial; she wore the black dress—as desire, a
ferocious, beyond-all-sanity yearning to see
that person again.

I get it. What
wouldn’t I trade for one more moment cocooned in my father’s arms, one more
foxtrot at a family bar mitzvah with him counting softly in my ear, one more
email tapped out in his signature rat-a-tat rhythm?

You can
guess what happens in the TV show. Gradually, the woman realizes that this
walking, talking replica of her beloved isn’t really him. There’s versimilitude, down to the V-necked sweaters and the inside
jokes. But something’s missing. He can only say what he’s said before, only do
what he’s already done. She’ll change. He’s stuck.

Eventually,
that truth drives her literally to the brink. She lures fake-fiancé to a cliff
where they used to picnic and walks him right out to the grassy edge. The
camera zooms down on surf roaring over toothy rocks below. She grimaces. He
pleads. The screen snaps to black.

Then the
story fast-forwards a decade. The in-utero babe is now a pre-adolescent,
celebrating her birthday and begging mom to go visit “the man who lives
upstairs.” Ah, she couldn’t kill the avatar after all—just stowed him in the
attic, where he looks pretty good for ten years’ gone.

The dead
stay dead. That’s the awful, incontrovertible grief of it. They do not show up
at your door with a pint of blueberries that just happened to be on sale at
Wegman’s. They never meet you for coffee at the farmers market on a Friday
morning and insist on paying, even though you are 53 years old. They never
write a card that ends, “I love you to the stars and back.”

They do not
call.

I answered
the phone. What else could I do? And the voice I heard, after my shaky “hello?”
was treble, not gravel. I remembered: After months of avoiding any of my dad’s
possessions, my mother had finally given the cell phone to my 10-year-old
cousin Dylan, so she wouldn’t be incommunicado during her 45-minute ride to
school. I could hear the clamor of kids’ voices, the grind of a bus.

“Oh, hi. I
meant to call my friend,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t
tell Dylan about my weirded-out tumble of thought after the phone rang. I
didn’t tell her how my hand quavered as I picked it up. I said the ordinary
thing, the thing we get to say to the ones who are still here.

“That’s
OK, sweetie. It’s good to hear your voice.”



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