For a year and a half, I talked to Mom on the phone every day. She insisted. The cost of a long-distance phone call was no longer prohibitive because I had convinced her to move from her apartment in Pennsylvania, to one in Kentucky, about ten miles from the house my family and I rented. Every evening after work, I was to call her, and on Saturdays and Sundays, she would call me.
“Mom,” I had said earlier in the week, “can’t we skip a day sometimes?”
“Why?” she asked in the hurt tone of voice I had grown accustomed to. “Don’t you want to talk to your old Ma? Sorry for bothering you.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “You’re not bothering me, but when we call each other every day, what’s there to talk about?”
“Janemarie, I just want to hear your voice so I know you’re okay. And stop taking God’s name in vain.”
“All right, fine, but don’t ask me what’s wrong and why we never have anything to say to each other,” I said before exchanging “I love you” with her and hanging up the phone. I knew I would maintain our daily phone call ritual. Lord knows it was easier to be annoyed than to live with Mom-guilt.
On a typical Sunday morning, I was fully immersed into the “me time” that I longed for all week. My two children, Bridget and Ben, were still sleeping, and my husband, Wes, was at work. I even had a small respite from my mom because I knew she had gone to Mass with her friend and wouldn’t be home before one or so that afternoon. I popped “Beaches” into the VCR and didn’t have to fight back the tears as I watched Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey portray childhood best friends who had drifted apart but reunited after Barbara’s character was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition.
One o’clock. Mom would be home soon, and “me time” had already ended after Bridget and Ben woke up and hijacked the TV with Nickelodeon and its re-runs of “Spongebob Squarepants.”
One thirty. Mom and her friend must have grabbed lunch at Burger King. I knew sometimes they did, and I was glad my mom had a friend who would take her places she couldn’t normally go to since she had sold her car before moving to Kentucky.
Two o’clock. I decided to go ahead and call her. No answer. I bet she and her friend had hit up the local dollar store and were rummaging through the plastic flowers or personal hygiene products, looking for a bargain.
Two thirty. Mom must be changing out of her church clothes into the faded Navy-blue cut-off sweatshirt and matching sweatpants she liked to wear. Two thirty-five. Bathroom, maybe? Two forty. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up. Pick up.
Two forty-five. Where the hell are you?
A few months earlier, obsessive worry held me captive in its extreme grip when I called my mom after I came home from work, and she didn’t answer her phone then, either. I’d pounded the “repeat” button on the phone every few minutes for at least an hour, convinced a tragedy prevented her from answering, before she finally answered. “Mom,” I said, “where’ve you been? Are you okay? You scared me half to death.”
“Jesus Christ, Janemarie–and I do mean that prayerfully–stop worrying about me! I was playing Bingo in the activity center. Not that I’ll be doing that any time soon. These old people here? Boring as hell, plus I can’t smoke.”
“Well, don’t be mad at me. You’d feel the same way if it was the other way around.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice softening. “I promise if I ever go out, I’ll let you know.”
Three o’clock. Four. Still no answer, but my friend, Polly, had stopped by with her husband, Tim, and their son, Erik, so I had to give my frantic phone dialing a rest. I poured Polly a cup of coffee and looked out the window, watching Tim toss a football to Ben. “I can’t get a hold of my mom,” I confided. “It’s weird. She always calls me after church, and she hasn’t yet, and she’s not answering her phone, either.”
“Do you want me to take you over there?” Polly knew I didn’t drive. It is a secret I only reveal to my closest friends, and only then when I have to. I’ve always been ashamed of allowing anxiety to control my life in such a way that traps me and sets me apart from most people over the age of sixteen.
“No, but thanks anyway. I’m sure she’s fine,” although I was anything but sure and had already decided to call Wes and see if he could come home early and drive us to my mom’s because at this point, I know longer knew what I would find when I got there.
I wished there was someone I could call there at Mom’s apartment complex, a friend of hers, maybe, or someone who worked at the front desk. But Mom didn’t have any friends that I knew of, and the front desk was closed for the weekend. Besides, even if there were someone I could call to check up on my mom, I was sure she would have been furious with me. I remembered a time when I was in high school, and Mom was out with one of my aunts. I couldn’t sleep until I knew she was home, so by midnight, I was pacing down the sidewalk in front of our house, bare-footed and wearing only a summer nightgown. I eventually broke down and called my uncle, waking him up, to see if Mom was at his house with my aunt. After my mom found out about that, she was embarrassed. And angry. “Don’t you ever, ever do that to me again. I am an adult. I do not have to check in with you.”
By five, Wes was home, and I no longer cared about my mother being mad at me. We were almost at Hathaway Court Apartments when Wes said, patting my leg, “I’m sure your mom is okay. It is weird, though, her not answering.”
“Don’t say that!” It was one thing for me to worry, but another for my husband to confirm one of my greatest fears.
It was almost dark outside when we pulled into the parking lot outside the complex, where I fumbled for the key that would get me into the secured building. A few minutes later, I was in the hall outside of her apartment door and realized Mom had never given me the key to her apartment.