The phone rang. I woke up with a start and looked at the clock. 3:00 a.m.
Remember the feeling!
Terror: ‘Please God, let it not be bad news.’
Hesitation: ‘I am afraid to answer the phone’.
‘Sorry, wrong number’.
Relief: ‘Thank God’.
Irritation: ‘Why can’t people dial the right number. Waking me up in the middle of the night.’
Chastisement: ‘Just be grateful that it isn’t bad news’.
Remember the feeling!
When I was a little girl, growing up in Pakistan, we had no phones in our homes. This was the fifties. Bad news was delivered in telegrams. The postman would come riding on his bicycle, knock on the door, and call out, “telegram”. We would all just freeze.
“Open it quickly,” my grandmother would tell Daddy, her voice quivering. And we would all pray that it be an out-of-town auntie announcing her arrival. Baby boomers would remember the age of telegrams. The postman never got the welcome that Liesl gave Rolfe in The Sound of Music.
The phone remained the bearer of bad news as recently as my parent’s passing. Daddy died in 2010 at 1:00 a.m. As I felt his hand slowly loose its warmth, I could hear the voice of my niece on the phone, “Grandpa has died. Funeral is tomorrow.” Later people would tell me that when the phone rang at that hour, they had feared the worst.
It was a January morning, two years ago, when my phone rang at 7:00 a.m. Not a odd-hour, but not an un-odd hour either. Who could be calling at 7:00 a.m., I wondered. It was my cousin from Pakistan. Mummy had died in her sleep.
This weekend, as I stood on the subway platform waiting for the train to take me home, I did what everybody around me was doing. I looked at the screen on my phone.
You just figured this out, didn’t you.
A message flashed that a friend has posted on my Timeline.
My heart didn’t miss a beat. It didn’t seem ominous. I didn’t say a prayer. Just had a social media curiosity moment.
I opened Facebook.
I tried to turn my face away from the crowd, not knowing how I would handle a gentle hand on my shoulder asking, ‘are you alright?’ Deep down under, with no signal, I stood disconnected, yearning for words of comfort. As the throngs surged towards the opening doors, I let myself be pushed in. Alone in the crowd, I held onto the pole for support. After two stops, I found a seat, took out my phone, and scrolled down the comments seeking comfort. Halfway through, I noticed that all the condolences were from people in the U.S. My cousin—my dear cousin—had died in Pakistan, yet there were no comments from that part of the world. I did a mental calculation. It was 3:00 a.m. in Pakistan, 6:00 p.m. in New York. Families in Pakistan had not been woken up with a 3:00 a.m. phone call. They will find out when they check their Facebook, probably first thing in the morning.
My sister in Pakistan would later tell me, that that is precisely what happened. She had travelled to the city of Lahore, specifically to meet our ailing cousin, and was going to visit her first thing in the morning. But my cousin died during the night, and my sister, only a few miles away, slept through the 3:00 a.m. Facebook posting. I, at the other end of the world, in my USA time zone, had seen the message flash on my screen, walked into my husband’s arms, and was crying my heart out.
Facebook has turned the world upside down. Physical distances are no more; you have to be looking at your screen.
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