Phone Calls From Parents

I periodically get calls from my mother that lasts approximately 15 minutes and are focused solely on the state of my parents’ finances. For a while, it was all a little murky; my father, who spent most of his life working in the automotive industry, spent more than a year suing for disability payments after getting injured at work and nearly losing an arm. They got by with what my self-employed mother was earning as an esthetician, and with some of my help.

The central, recurring theme of the calls are usually the same: things are tight, and how are you? Things are good, I always say, though, of course, it’s much more complicated than that. I work long hours and am constantly being shuttled from one city to the next for work, but these calls aren’t about me. These calls are about their ever increasing burdens, and I don’t want to trouble them even more by listing mine.

Although I expect these calls about once a month, I don’t know exactly when they’ll come. I’ve had these conversations on the street while I’m on the way to the grocery store, or in the middle of a party, which causes me to quietly slip away in search of privacy. Earlier this week, it was while I was at work. “I can’t talk for very much longer—maybe five more minutes,” I had said, watching the minutes digitally tick away on my phone.

The calls come during times of heightened anxiety—a car accident, say, or an unexpected bill. This week it was because my father had just returned from the hospital after another surgery. “But the good news is,” my mother said, “we found a tenant for the room we’re renting out.” When my father finally won his disability case, my parents used some of the money they received to remodel a part of their house and create a private entrance to a room they wanted to rent out to help make up for the fact that my father had effectively been forced to retire from working in the automotive industry. They had little in savings and retirement, but there were still bills to pay—still a mortgage to pay off.

The goal, I hope, is to get the mortgage paid off in the next 10 years so that their living expenses are much more manageable when they both stop working and are living on Social Security income.

Once, perhaps out of frustration, or even to purposely get a reaction out of me, my mother had remarked offhandedly that I probably could have helped them even more with their mortgage if I had chosen a different career, or at the very least, a cheaper city to live in. “You coulda been a contender, instead of a bum” was how it came across. I don’t think you fully realize, I had said, the person I’ve become. Can you consider for a moment that maybe I turned out okay; that maybe I’m one of the good ones?

Yes, she had said, and before she could add a “but,” I told her that we had run out of time. Okay, alright, I got it, she had said. She’d call me again soon.


This story is part of our relationships month series, which ends today.

Photo: John Christian Fjellstad



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