The phone rings shortly after 6:00 in the morning. Too early for anything typical: car pool questions, school bus changes, telemarketers. When there are 3,000 miles and three time zones between us and family, calls at odd hours mean a quick intake of breath. A racing mind that generates a list of benign mistakes that might be behind the call.
I want it to be a wrong number, something annoying, because calls from far away can turn a life upside-down in an instant. When that happens your life acquires a new time zone. Life Before the Call becomes Life After the Call. And there’s no turning back from that.
I pick up the phone on the second ring. “Hello?”
A pleasant voice, a woman’s voice, asks for me, though she shortens my name. I recognize the Appalacian accent—my thoughts go to my mother-in-law—but the voice itself is unfamiliar. I assure the woman that, yes, I am the person she’s asking for.
“I’m looking for….” she gives my husband’s full name. Almost. First name, last name. Just shy of his middle name. Correct first letter, though. “Do you know him?”
My husband is sitting at the kitchen table, drinking strong coffee and reading the front page of the paper while our tussle-headed daughter, who’d rather be in bed, is reading the comics. Neither of them had looked up as the phone rang. Their sleepy curiosity is held by the papers scattered in front of them.
“No. I’m sorry. There’s no one here with that name.” Because there isn’t.
“Oh.” Longer pause.
Maybe it’s delicate. Maybe it’s none of my business. But she’s a stranger calling my house early on a dark autumn morning, causing the familiar start of adrenaline that comes with an oddly timed call. I want to know why she is looking for this man.
“Is there a reason you want to find him?” I ask. I’m polite because I am always polite on the phone.
It tumbles out in a bit of a rush. “I’m looking for my son. I gave him up for adoption in 19___. His real father wants to find him. We’re sixty now. He was taken to a small town in Ohio. I searched the internet and got this number.”
“It is a common name,” I say unhelpfully.
“I know,” she says. Another long pause. Disappointment? Relief?
“Well.” There’s not much else to say. “Good luck with your search.”
I picture her, a woman sitting at the kitchen table in southern Ohio, it is 9:00 there, three hours later for her than it is for us. She’s not thinking of time zones. She’s not even considering that in some places people are barely awake, less prepared for astonishing news from far away in space and time than they would be at midday. But when is anyone prepared for a voice from the past shattering a mundane day, one that started with newspaper and a coffee just like any other morning?
She sits there at her table, sheets of printed names in front of her. Dozens of versions of her son’s name, men born around the same time, men in towns all over the country. I imagine her calling each of these numbers, ticking down the list. Those common names, the unknowing families answering on the other end.
Is she nervous as she dials each number? Does she look out her window at the lovely, crisp autumn day as the phone rings? As she says, “Hello. I’m looking for my son,” hoping a little that the answer will be no? Or does her heart soar a little, hoping that this time it will finally be a yes?
I look over at my husband with his newspaper and his coffee and his child. They’re still focused on what’s just in front of them. I tell them about the pleasant voice, the enormous task in front of her, the odd way her voice flew across those miles, those time zones.
They are momentarily caught up in the mystery, then turn back to their papers.
The woman remains in my thoughts. A perfect stranger and her past, her choices, her quest turning my regular morning routine into something altogether different.
I lean against the kitchen doorframe, musing. “What do you think would have happened if I’d said, ‘Yes, he’s sitting right here?’” I asked my husband. “If you’d been the one?”
He turns the page. He looks up at me and says, “There would have been a long silence.”