“Your mom is dead!”
Yes, I had heard her; I just couldn’t believe that she was saying those words to me.
“I said your mom is dead.”
In a flash, or less than a flash, I wondered how this woman could know that my mom was dead. My co-worker, whose name I still do not know, was standing across from my work-station, stretching as far away from her own station as her head-set cord would allow her to reach. Her eyes were wide open and she had a pale, freckled face and curly, long, brown hair, the images of which have embedded themselves forever in my mind. They are as vivid as if this happened yesterday, and not six months ago.
How could she know that my mom was dead? Why was this woman, this fellow call-taker, telling me that my mom was dead? Why hadn’t my supervisor taken me into one of the offices and told me, gently, that my mom was gone? Why? Yes, my mom was sick. She had a mitral-valve prolapse that was slowly worsening, and if she didn’t have an operation pretty soon, the valve was going to give out completely and she would die. The heart would lose its compression and not be able to pump the blood through her body. It would still beat, but the blood wouldn’t go anywhere. So, knowing that my mom’s surgery was scheduled for the next week, and that she was doing OK the last time I had spoken with her, I couldn’t grasp the reality of what this lady was telling me – that my mom was dead.
I stood up from my terminal after telling my own caller to hold-on a second.
“What…what did you say?”
“Your mom is dead. You know…from your call.”
Oh…not my mom…the one from my call. The call I had taken 15 minutes ago. The one that I had already tried to place in the back of my mind so I could move along and take whatever other calls were going to interject themselves into my life, one beep at a time.
One beep at a time. We never know what is going to be happening on the other side of the phone when we hear the beep and answer it with “9-1-1, What is your emergency?” The callers may be misusing the emergency phone system and want to know how to get from one side of the city to the other; they may want to talk to an officer about their Elvis on black-velvet painting, “You know, the one I reported as stolen last year,” that they found this afternoon at a garage sale; or it may be serious…like the one I had several minutes earlier.
A near-frantic woman’s voice answered my question by saying that the two neighbor girls just banged on her door and told her that they had just escaped from the bathroom in their apartment where they had been locked-in since about 7:30 that morning. In the background, the girls were talking very fast, whimpering, crying, rambling…. “He broke through the door and pointed his gun at us and shoved us into the bathroom. He had some cord and tape and wrapped us up real tight and then ran into the other room where he started yelling at our mom.” The voices were excited, scared, and it seemed that they were almost unbelieving of what their own eyes had witnessed those many hours before, and were now reliving, as they told their neighbor what they thought they remembered seeing.
The lady went on…“The mom’s boyfriend then went into her bedroom and started throwing her around. The girls said they could see him tying her to the bed and then he started choking her. When they came to my door they said they didn’t know where their mom was…they think the guy may have taken her somewhere…or that she may be dead…and you’ve got to send someone over here quick!”
My mind was racing and trying to get it all down right and to remember to hit the correct keys and to ask the right questions and to code it properly and my mind was getting stuck on what to call this because this was the first call that I have ever had like this and I’m scared and I know that if I don’t do it right all kinds of things can happen and I’m still on probation and what if they pull the tape and review it and…. I managed to get everything done and then I hit the transmit button and the ‘Hot-Radio’ button and told the lady to hang on a second while I got the officers going.
“Radio,” she answered. “Radio, this is for Chase North. Incident Number 3694. We have a possible kidnapping or murder or something…at such and such an address at the San Carlos Bay Apartments in Number 3122…. The little girls think their mom’s boyfriend may have abducted her and the last time they saw her this morning, the man was choking her…and they just got out of the bathroom.”
“Ma’am, we’ve got officers started…help is on the way. Can you ask the girls what the man’s name is? Do they know where he might have taken their mom? Do they remember what he was wearing? Have they seen the kind of vehicle that he drives? Can you ask the girls….”
…those little girls, the ones right there beside you, the little girls who saw their mom strangled to death…can you ask them….
I was gone. I was lost. There was nobody else in the call-center. The other operators had disappeared like so much dust and left me there, alone at my console. There was no laughter; there was no sound from the ring-down lines from Fire or DPS. The supervisor’s station to my left had vanished into the misty haze of my periphery and the fax and computer printers were mute. The large bank of windows in front of me might as well have had bricks mortared into their frames, for I saw none of their light. Someone must have put black canvas over the several sky-lights…silenced the other 25 phones, and…taken it all away…there was nothing in the world but the screen in front of me with its lines and the words that I was feeding it…and my fingers couldn’t type fast enough. My mind couldn’t think fast enough. My ears couldn’t stop hearing the little sobs on the other end of the phone. The lady was brave for them. Her strained voice rose and fell. I could hear the words cracking as she forced herself to repeat my questions to them. My own throat was tight with the need to cry, and I could almost see their tears as they were glistening down their cheeks. I could feel the girls’ shaking bodies in my own. My face was burning; adrenaline was flying through my veins; my heart was pounding in my chest; there were four heartbeats echoing in my temples as the lady and girls huddled there around the phone and shared their horrible sadness…asking me to help them.
Somehow…I got the call to Radio within 50 seconds of the tone sounding in my ear…the dispatchers had it over the air within another 15 seconds and the officers arrived in less than another two minutes…and then I heard them at the door, and the lady hung-up…and I don’t know what else….
My arm felt like lead as I reached up to press the ‘Not Ready’ button that would prevent another call from coming through to my phone. I guess that motion was like releasing a spring that held the shade down over my eyes, for suddenly, there was light in the room, the other operators were talking, and I could hear them tapping out the words that would send help to another caller in another part of the city. The supervisors were moving about their station, leaning over now and again to listen to the Chase-dispatchers who had taken my call…and the other calls. The bricks were gone from the windows, the canvas was removed from the sky-lights, and the other familiar sounds began, once again, to move in and out of my awareness. I leaned back in my chair and stared blankly at the air in front of me. My burning, tear-filled eyes didn’t move as other people glanced in my direction; my chest slowed from its heaving while my left index-finger twitched with an abnormal pulsation.
I looked at the phone and saw that the ‘Calls Holding’ light was blinking and knew that I had to get back to work. Someone else was calling for help, or for whatever. Another reach of my arm and the “Not Ready” button was released. And the tone beeped in my ear again…and again.
I don’t know how many calls I had taken after that one call, but the minutes passed, and before I could take the time to look at the call-history to see what the officers had found at the girls’ apartment, that co-worker of mine stood up and said “Your mom is dead!” I suppose my own mental trauma, or whatever one would choose to call it, of having taken that call, must have caused me to separate from my surroundings, so that when she said those words, I didn’t think about what I had just gone through, but instead thought of my own mom. I can’t sum-up the psychological processes that were working at those moments, but what I do know is that, when my co-worker said my mom was dead, that is exactly what I thought she was saying – that my mom was dead.
But she wasn’t, and isn’t…but those little girls’ mom was, and is…and that tone still beeps in my ear.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from October, 2009.