I pull my minivan into the school parking lot with five extra minutes—a good boundary for a phone call. The ruffled pages of my journal to leaf through, and find the hospital number.
The ringing ends with a click, then a fumbling sound, then voices discussing what is apparently a news story. After a few moments confusion, I shout her name into the phone, “KAREN? KAREN ARE YOU THERE?” A fumbling sound again and I hear her “hello?” back, as she locates the phone, somewhere near the television speaker I’d wager.
“Hello?” Karen finally answers, out of breath. I wonder if she is figuring how to hold the phone, struggling to find a comfortable position after all that.
“Karen? It’s me, Denise.”
“Hi honey. How are you?” Her breathing is labored.
“I’m good, Karen. Things are fine, here. You’re in the hospital. I’m so glad you made it through surgery okay. How are you?” I don’t add the usual “and what do you need?” I can offer nothing but this phone call.
“I’m okay.” The end of her sentence trails off, not nearly okay. She asks about my children, about my writing, and then talks about the next place she will live, after the rehab hospital, after the burn unit. She thinks she will have work for me, she says.
I am quiet. Her family hasn’t spoken to her yet, then, about the shape of the future. Her sedation is heavy, with the recovery from the skin grafts. She knows she will not be moving to her home again, but she’s planning for a next place, a next independent place. I don’t allow myself to argue with her hope. That’s not my job.
I ask when she might be ready for a visitor, and she says not this week, “I’m so tired, honey, so awfully tired. It’s so much work being in the hospital.” She tells me she can barely stay awake for this phone call, and I hear that it’s true, she is struggling. We spoke for ninety seconds or so.
“You will call me again soon, won’t you? Next week, maybe? I miss talking with you. It’s been a long week," she says.
I smile at the understatement, a long week since your house burned down, long week since you lost what precious little you had left. “Yes, it has been a long week, hasn’t it? I miss you, too, Karen. Rest up and we will talk again soon.” We say our goodbyes.
The children sing their way down the school steps and out into the pickup area. I fold up the phone and pull my shoulders back in a stretch, undo the seatbelt and open the door into the sunny afternoon.