The pile of clothes on my bed was ringing, a muffled musical tone. I dived underneath the discarded shirts and extracted my phone just before it ticked over to voice mail. “Hello?” I said, breathless.
“This is Relay Indiana with a relay call for Lauren.”
It was my mom. Well, sort of.
Back when FaceTime seemed about as believable as a flying car, my Deaf parents and I relied on a telephone relay service to communicate in real time. In Indiana, they put their phone on an electronic typewriter called a TTY and typed to communicate with the relay agent’s TTY. The agent then spoke their words directly to me in London, the string tying together our trans-Atlantic tin cans.
The relay service seemed like cutting-edge technology in 2004, but it was always awkward to end a conversation by saying “I love you” to a stranger. My sisters and I joked about using relay to plan a fake murder, just to see if we could crack the agents’ facade. Relay agents were like the guards at Buckingham Palace — inscrutable but surely still affected by other people.
“Hi, Lauren, it’s Mom,” the woman said. She spoke with a soft, rounded drawl, and it was all wrong. My mom wouldn’t have had a Southern accent.
“I have some bad news,” the woman who was not my mother said. “Grandmother died today.”
I crumpled to the floor at the foot of the bed. My grandmother was — had been — robust and healthy. She ate fresh vegetables. She didn’t smoke or drink. She was 92, but she seemed 60. That couldn’t be my grandmother she was talking about.
“Your mother?” I whispered.
“She had an aneurysm,” the stranger said. “It was very quick. She didn’t feel any pain.”
I had nothing to say to the relay agent; I wanted to talk to my mom. The relay service was supposed to make these situations more personal, but I felt as if I’d answered a call to a wrong number.
The three of us — me, my mom, the neutral stranger — discussed the details: whether my parents would fly or drive to Florida, when the funeral would be, how my grandfather was doing. “Are you OK?” my mom asked. “I’m OK,” I said. “Just surprised.” Nobody asked the agent how she felt.
“I love you,” the stranger said. “Me, too,” I responded. I couldn’t bring myself to say “I love you, too,” because the words didn’t feel real when they passed through an intermediary. I thought afterward about my mom on the other end, typing letters into an unfeeling machine that responded with words but not emotions or misplaced accents, and I regretted my decision.
It was never the relay agent’s responsibility to make the news of my grandmother’s death easier to bear. She did her job, which was to convey a difficult message without getting emotionally involved. I was the one who let the medium get in the way of the message.
I live in Australia now. Thanks to FaceTime, Skype, and text messaging, relay agents are no longer part of our lives. My parents and I can easily communicate directly in American Sign Language using video technology, and our only challenges are conflicting time zones and poor Wi-Fi.
Despite all the modern options, news of every type usually comes by text, an instant and time-zone-friendly method of communication, albeit the least personal. Though with the recent introduction of the ASL “I Love You” emoji, nobody in the family has an excuse to skip an “I love you” — not when it can be done with the click of a button.
Time, as I should have realized the day my grandmother died, comes in limited quantities. When you’re far apart, it doesn’t matter how you say “I love you,” just that you do.Lauren Fitzpatrick is a writer in Newcastle, Australia. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.