Our NTT landline phone almost never rings. We use our cell phones for everything, so a landline call means something out of the ordinary has happened. My wife answered the phone, and I heard her say "Yes?" and look for me. Something was up.
It was my mother. My stepfather had died only 10 minutes ago. He had been unconscious for a week before that, "So it's not like it was a surprise." She would call me when she had more information, but what more information could there be?
After she hung up, I checked Skype. Mom had been trying to get me on Skype and had left me a voice recording. "It's your mother. Call me when get this," and then there was a rustling and a thump, and then her voice was farther away, muffled. There was a rhythmic, repetitive whining and hissing, like the beginning of a techno track. I could hear her in the background, "I knew I wouldn't be able to reach him. He must be at work or something. He lives in Okinawa Japan, so he's in the middle of the Pacific. Might be something with the connection." And then a man's voice, very close, grunting in agreement, and then another man's voice, farther away, near Mom. The close grunting continued, out of sync with Mom's voice. I recognized him. It was my stepfather, unconscious. Mom had left Skype recording and dropped the iPad onto the bed. I looked at the screen. The message was 10 minutes long, the limit for Skype.
I almost stopped the playback. No one intended for me to hear the rest, but I continued to listen like a morbid voyeur, eavesdropping on him. Mediated by technology and shifted in time, I was lying next to a dying man, and I could hear him groaning and mumbling like a sleep-talker. His verbalizations were a strange, rhythmic commentary to the conversations in the background.
The man talking to Mom had a deep voice and a Louisiana accent - probably my step-brother. I haven't seen him for twenty years, so I don't know his voice, but that was probably him, behind the air pumps and the sudden gasps. Mom continued, "It sounds like he's tryin' to wake up, but I don't think he's in pain. We gave him so much morphine."
Then there was a woman's voice, and that of a child, a girl. It must be the daughter of my step-sister. They had come to see grandpa. "I never saw him hit his children, or mine, either. He didn't throw chairs or punch holes in walls, never hit a child, or me. More than I can say for a lotta men." Then the rising tone and languid pace of a child's timid questioning, and Mom replies, "Gotta let him rest, honey. Gotta let him rest." More inaudible, distant talking, and then, "No, he wasn't angry at you all that time. He was just hurtin'."
I have never seen or heard my mother cry or break down, though I am sure she must have at some point. I was waiting to hear her choke up, to weaken. I thought I would hear her voice drop as she started to cry, but no. Not in the recording, at least. She was as she had always been - deadpan, matter-of-fact, and unsentimental... resolved. "There's some bad people in this world, and sometimes bad shit happens, but you gotta just keep on keepin' on." That was her outlook on life. Life is hard, and perseverance and dignity in the face of misfortune is the measure of a person's virtue.
At some point, I could only hear distant thuds, and then the voices went away. I was left alone with him, just the two of us. I could imagine him there, inert but for the movement of his chest and throat, and next to him, I am craning my ear close to the PC speaker, listening intently. In that moment, we are in his time, and I am a ghost, eavesdropping from just a few hours in the future, when he no longer will be. I listen with a mixture of shame and duty, like a time-shifted priest or an archeologist, until the recording ends, and he is silent.