I recently went through the contacts on my phone with the intention of getting the jump on a little virtual spring cleaning. I planned to shorten the list and remove the contacts I no longer needed. It did not go as planned.
I picked up my phone and tapped the Contacts icon. The thought that I remembered very few phone numbers anymore struck me. In fact, for anyone added after about 2009, the only time I ever manually used their phone number was to create the contact (assuming I didn’t just tap the number after they called me to create it). With the fears of computers taking over our lives and being reduced to numbers, it bemused me to think that in this one small instance, we had moved from numbers to names.
I scrolled down the list past family, current friends, not so current friends, people I worked with years ago, friends whose last names changed, people whose last names I needed to change in my list, people known only by first name, and some known only by last. There were five people in A through C that I haven’t talked with on the phone or texted with in years. I removed two, but kept the others. I figured they may just text me some day and it would save me the embarrassment of typing, “Who’s this?”
Then I reached D. There were only two contacts, the second of which was a current coworker. The first entry? It was neither a first name nor a last. It was just three letters. Dad.
My finger stopped scrolling the list and I took a moment. I don’t usually peruse my contacts and was ill prepared for this ambush. It had been nearly two years since he died, two years since that designation came up on a call or text (later after he got the hang of it – sort of) and yet here he was. I had a strong urge to tap and call even though I knew his phone was disconnected. The echo of our conversations from his last couple of months reverberated and his memory floated like a whisper in the stillness. I contented myself that I felt more wistful joy at our time together rather than sadness at his passing. Both emotions were there, but the proportions had changed drastically.
Still, I wasn’t quite ready to deal with that particular contact so I scrolled on. I stopped and smiled frequently as the name of someone I hadn’t spoken with in a while reminded me of a particular story or situation. You’d think I would call or text them to tell them I just thought about them, but I didn’t. I briefly wondered if they had similar thoughts about me and it was the real reason we hadn’t reconnected, that we both couldn’t reach out and contact out of some bizarre desire not to disturb the other.
I ran across the daughter of some friends who put her name in my phone to annoy me. I kept it because she misspelled it and that makes me laugh. I continued scrolling and, despite my confidence at removing two contacts right off the bat, came up with rationalizations for keeping numbers I probably didn’t need anymore. At least I knew everyone else in the list was alive and well and didn’t anticipate another moment.
Then I got to V and came face to face with a contact that hadn’t been used in nearly five years. It was for the neonatal intensive care unit at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. I labelled it as Vandy NICU and for a couple of weeks in 2009 it was one of the most important numbers in my phone. Right after his birth, our son spent a brief (though it was far too long for us) stint there with several days on a ventilator. When that number came up, I answered.
I caught myself thinking of how trying that time was and the moments we wondered if we would ever take him home and hold him. I thought of our daughter, five at the time, dancing with excitement when we took her to see him in the hospital. I thought of how it took him so long to start talking and how we’ve tried to make him stop a little since. I found myself in laughter because three conversation he and I had over the past year swam into focus.
The first happened in my truck while my wife was out of town. I don;t remember what started it, but I remember how he exasperated me.
“ARRGGGGH!” I said (or some equivalent).
“What?” my son asked.
“You’re making me crazy.”
“No I’m not. I’m making you nuts.”
“Fine. You’re making me nuts.”
“No I’m not. You’re already nuts.”
The second conversation came when he was sick. I took off from work to stay with him and at lunch time I asked, “Do you want chicken nuggets?”
“No, they are scratchy. I want something soft,” he replied in a most pitiful sounding voice.
“Chicken nuggets are scratchy?”
“I want something soft.”
“OK, you want something soft. Like what?”
The third one was more recent and involved a temper tantrum. After a weeks long kick of wanting smiley fries all the time, he suddenly switched to tater tots. The only problem was, we were out of tater tots. There was much yelling and screaming about, “I hate smiley fries! I want tater tots!”
“Son,” I patiently explained, “we don’t have tater tots. Mommy went to get some, but she won;t be back in time and you need to eat now. Wouldn’t you like some smiley fries? You know, your favorite food from yesterday?”
“No! I hate smiley fries. I hate potatoes.”
“Uh, son, tater tots are also potatoes. That’s what ‘tater’ means. Potato.”
“But I hate them!”
This went on for about thirty minutes. Once he finally calmed down he told me in a very polite voice, “I’m hungry. Would you please fix me lunch.”
“Sure thing. What would you like?”
I smiled thinking about what Dad would say if he could have been there. He’d point at my son and then shake his finger at me as he said, “Those are chickens coming home to roost.” It was his go-to phrase when my kids we being, well, little clones of me. After my son was born and Dad repeated that phrase for nearly seven years I finally realized something.
“Hey, Dad,” I asked, “if they’re my chickens coming home to roost because of how I treated you when I was a kid, doesn’t that mean that I was your chicken coming home to roost and you deserve whatever I did?” He never said it again, though in that moment I’d love to have heard it.
Then it really hit me. My dad wasn’t around for those three conversations, and yet I could clearly see the paths connecting my son back to him and the generational story we write. I knew in that moment that I wouldn’t remove either of those contacts. While one was a contact I wished I could still use and the other was one I hoped never to again both provided contact with the bigger picture, the greater narrative.
All the other contacts did as well. They are touchstones on the journey. Some will be revisited, but even the ones that won’t can’t lose their importance. I found myself hoping my name was in somebody’s contact list, possibly unused and yet kept because at at least one moment in time it was important enough to save.