3 days, 3 phone calls

Plinky writing prompt: Draft a post with three parts, each unrelated to the another, but create a common thread between them by including the same item — an object, a symbol, a place — in each part.


It’s Saturday August 13, 2011. I’m in the emergency ward of the Royal Children’s hospital. My daughter is stretched out on a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace, crying with frustration and pain. We are waiting for a diagnosis on whether the hairline fracture discovered on a vertebrae in her neck is going to require surgery.

Or at least, I figure that’s what we are waiting for.

Surely if the news could be any worse, such as that her injury was going to cause paralysis, and was inoperable, the staff would show more urgency about examining her?

We’ve been in the Emergency ward since about midday, and before that, we were 3 hours at the Radiology clinic before they decided to rush my daughter J here in an ambulance.

In the Emergency ward our patience is put to the test – clearly her case is not urgent enough to warrant immediate attention. (I realise that must be a good thing, even though the interminable waiting is frustrating, not least for my daughter, who hasn’t eaten since 8am.) Once she is admitted and settled on a bed in a cubicle, the pace slows. A nurse bustles in and does “Obs” – checks blood pressure, asks questions, makes notes on a chart, and bustles out again. We are left to ourselves. An hour goes by. A doctor comes in, introduces herself, asks the same questions, makes some notes, and leaves again. More time passes, rounds change – a new nurse comes in for the next hourly obs – the same questions are asked again. My daughter loses it. I’m trying to keep her spirits up, but there is not much I can offer that will improve her mood. She’s not allowed to eat or drink anything until a decision about surgery is made.

It’s at about this point that my phone rings. I look and see that it’s my brother John. This is a rare occurence: John rarely calls. I haven’t spoken to him for weeks. I know he’ll be a good person to talk to in a crisis: he’s calm and practical, and works in the health care system himself.

John: Hey Maria, how are you?

Me: Actually, I’ve had better days, John. I’m at the Royal Children’s Hospital at the moment.

John: What has she done???

John is my daughter’s Godfather. He was 21 when she was born, and he spent a lot of time with her when she was a baby. Back then, he was often between jobs, and free to visit us.  When she was only a few months old, he came to Melbourne at my request and spent a week with us, to help me look after her. He’s a tender, playful, and practical uncle.

On this particular afternoon, John is calling to ask if he can drop round to our place. He currently works as a Personal Care Attendant and he has decided to enrol in a Diploma of Nursing (to become a Registered Nurse) and needs to sit some tests to get into the course. This is great news, and even though I’m pretty distracted, I congratulate him.

He had been hoping to come around and use our computer to do some practice tests, but obviously we are not there, and can’t say when we will be home. I tell him what the situation is, and as much as I can about what the doctors have said so far, and he says he will call me again tonight.

John’s unexpected call is the only diversion in that long and draining day. The combination of high adrenalin levels caused by anxiety, and the tedium of spending so much time waiting for an end to the uncertainty, slowly saps all my energy.

At about 5pm, my daughter is finally discharged. It is decided that surgery is not required. By this time, she is beside herself with hunger, tiredness, pain, and the sheer boredom of lying in a hospital bed all day. The news that she must wear a neck brace for the next 6 weeks is greeted mostly with indifference at this point – she just wants to get out of here. We leave with a spare neck brace, and prescriptions for 3 different kinds of pain-killers.


On Saturday September 10, 2011, my Mum leaves a message while I’m out, to say that a friend of my sister’s passed away suddenly in the early hours of the morning.

Patrick, my sister’s friend, was considered a mate by most of my 5 siblings. My sister is a close friend of his sister, and his parents are friends of our parents – in short, there is a strong connection between his family and ours. He was a bit of a “character”,  an Irish-born Australian boy with a deep love of music, which was probably what caused a friendship to spring up between him and my sister when they were studying together years ago. He had died during the night, from a heart attack caused by a severe asthma attack. He was a few months away from his 40th birthday.

During the afternoon I make some calls to pass on the news. I call John, but his phone rings until it goes to voicemail. That is nothing new with John, and, as he rarely returns calls or messages, I don’t leave a voice message. My sister C, who was closest to Patrick, now lives in Ireland, so I wait until the late afternoon, when it will be a civilised time in Dublin, to phone her with the news. She is surprised, and saddened, to hear of the death of her friend.

My phone rings, and it’s my brother, P.  He has phoned to tell me the news about Patrick. We talk for a while, first about Patrick, and then I ask how John’s entry tests for the Nursing course went. P and John rent a house together in Melbourne.

We talk a bit about how pleased we are that John is going back to study. John is a favourite of both of us, and probably of the whole family – he’s by far the most easygoing, generous person in our family. It’s natural that we are pleased for him, because he has the least schooling and never completed any study beyond year 10. He spent years in temporary, contract jobs, usually labouring. But more recently he completed  a qualification as a Personal Care Attendant, and now works in a high dependency unit of an aged care facility. It’s clear from the way he talks about his job, that he gets a real sense of fulfilment in being able to assist elderly people who are sometimes classed as “difficult” by other staff, and that he has found the vocation that is right for him.

P and I are both certain that he will make a great nurse – he is gentle, but also cheerful and practical, with a no-nonsense approach to getting things done. The highlight of the conversation is when P. asks me to get a pen, and gives me the brand new email address he has set up for John. We both have a chuckle, because it is very amusing that John, who if he texts at all, generally texts in all caps,  has finally entered the 21st Century and got an email address.


The next day at about 4pm, I am at home, attempting to write a blog post when my phone rings. It’s my brother P,  but my phone is upstairs and I don’t hear it ring.

Shortly after, it distantly registers that A. is on the phone to someone.  I think I hear him laughing, so I assume one of his family members has phoned.

Then I’m interrupted by A, who asks me to come upstairs. I’m annoyed by the interruption, but I figure he needs to tell me something that he doesn’t want our daughter to hear.

As he walks upstairs, he starts to cry. I assume that he’s had some bad news about someone in his family, as his parents are very elderly, so I try to comfort him. He is shaking and sobbing now, and says the words, It’s so unfair. At the top of the stairs he tells me a piece of news that I’m unable to process. I scan my memory for someone who fits what he has just told me, but I don’t  know who he can be talking about. I say, John who? 

Another cog turns over, and my brain makes a connection between the level of grief in front of me and the name that A. has given me, I hear myself say, in a tone that sounds like someone acting as if they are distressed: Do you mean my brother John? 

At that moment, something is switched off. I am removed from myself. I grasp that I must behave as if my brother has died. A strange image, conjured by my suddenly scrambled mind – the black sandshoes he always wore, poking out from under a doona, like the wicked witch’s shoes under the house in the Wizard of Oz – rises up in front of my eyes. It comes back intermittently, and illogically, over the new few days and weeks.

In this newly-numb state I have a job to do: I must now pass this news on to my other siblings. In incredibly bad timing, my sister is flying from Dublin to Spain that morning for a holiday. I don’t want to give her this news while she’s about to step on board a plane, so I text her to ask when she leaves, and discover that she is, quite literally, about to step onto her flight. I ask her to text me when she is in Spain. This seems totally surreal – to let my sister leave for a holiday. I feel as though I am granting her a few extra hours of grace, a time-warp, an extension of the blissfully unaware era of her life that will come to an end with the news I’ll give her.

I have four brothers, so there are still other people to be told. P. was not in a state to tell them. I phone my brother F. Unlike me, he seems to comprehend what I’m saying immediately, but he pleads with me, not to tell him this news. F. lives with his girlfriend, and with our other brother G, a social recluse who sees few other people. He will go and knock on the door of G’s room and tell him in person. These two live closest to my parents, so it falls onto them, the hardest task of all, driving out to tell them in person.

(Amongst all the horribleness of this time I register some comfort when I learn that my brother G, who never visits or speaks to my parents, not only accompanies F out to tell them, but takes it upon himself as the older brother, to be the one to deliver the news. Although my heart breaks a little bit more when I hear how, unaccustomed to seeing him, Mum and Dad displayed looks of pleasant surprise when he walked in the door. My brother said they had some bad news, and my mother responded, “Yes, we know about Patrick already.”)

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my sister to text. Finally, a text: she is at her accommodation in Spain. By now it’s about 10pm in Melbourne. I phone the hostel. The person on reception speaks fairly good English. I am put through to my sister’s room, or she comes to the phone, I don’t know which. She wonders why I’m phoning her so urgently in Spain but assumes I must have more news about Patrick. She doesn’t know yet that while we were all phoning one another the previous day about Patrick, someone even closer to us had died on the same night, or sometime during that day.

I ask her if she has someone there with her (she does.) I tell her that it’s about John. She probably braces herself for something – an accident, something that is not good. I say that John has died. She says, What do you mean? I tell her again. She says I don’t understand.

It’s Sunday, September 11, 2011.

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