My Phone Tells Me Bad Things

I know this sounds like GenX nostalgia, but I miss not carrying around a personal emergency alert system

The note Josh left for the kids when we left that morning.

On a Saturday a few weeks after Labor Day, my husband Josh and I woke up early and snuck out of the house, leaving the kids asleep in their beds (they’re finally old enough). He headed to the park on his bike; I went to a nearby playground to take an outdoor Pilates class (don’t judge). I rolled out my mat, lay down, looked up at the morning light streaming through the oak leaves above, and tried to take deep breaths of the crisp air through my mask. Another pandemic morning in Brooklyn.

Normally I would have put away my phone, but the kids were home alone so I left it lying on the pavement next to me. Sixteen minutes into class, I noticed a missed call alert. Then, a couple texts, the most recent of which said:

This is katy, they are taking Josh to methodist hospital

It must be part of the modern condition that, when an emergency happens, we immediately externalize ourselves and feel like we’re in a movie or outside our own bodies, already telling the story to someone. In my mind, I wrote the sentence I’m writing now: I jumped up, feeling like I was going to vomit into my mask. Was he dead?

I called the new contact that Siri had already added to my phone and spoke to Katy, a massage therapist who happened to be jogging in Prospect Park when my husband fell off his bike nearby. “He dislocated his shoulder,” she said. The taste of vomit retreated back down my throat.

I rolled up my mat. Called my sister to ask her to come stay with the kids. Walked home and packed up a bag with a button-down shirt and granola bars, so we’d have something to snack on in the ER and he’d have a shirt to put over his sling, once his shoulder got popped back in. Painful, but no biggie.

Fortunately, he had not hit his head or broken his neck. Unfortunately, he did not have a dislocated shoulder. His injuries were more like those of a motorcycle accident: broken scapula, broken collarbone, a dozen broken ribs. And a punctured lung which, later that night, filled with blood. We did not eat granola bars that day. The button-down shirt never came out of the bag. Ten days, two surgeries, and one blood transfusion later, Josh came home.

The story of how it feels to wait in pain for an ambulance in the park you go to relax in every weekend is my husband’s to tell. I did not have a near-death experience.

But I’ve been thinking hard about being the receiver of bad news. I keep imagining what would have happened if I’d not gotten that call in the park. What if no one in that Pilates class had a phone lying beside them as she endeavored to take an hour off from a virus, job loss, and/or election stress? In the era before a stranger could call you while she was holding your husband’s hand to tell you he’d had a shitty bike accident, I would have finished my class and stopped to get coffee on the walk home. Then, as I made lunch for the kids, I would have gotten a call from the hospital. In the nineties, a friend of mine was at home in a D.C. suburb when she got the call that her mother had died in a glider accident. Her parents were in Vermont, taking a special ride to see the leaves changing color from above. “I ran out of the house, got in the car, and realized I still had the phone in my hand, Manoush. I pulled it out of the wall,” she later told me. Now we always have our phones in our hands.

The only reason I like flying is because I have to give up control to the pilot. All I can do is sit there. With my phone on airplane mode. For years I’ve reported on how technology has changed our relationships. And yes, I’ve advocated for people to put their phones down. A couple years ago I was at a conference and I ignored my buzzing phone in my bag while arguing with a really irritating Facebook executive. Turns out it was my mom. She was in the ER with my son, who’d broken his wrist. There was nothing I could have done but oh, the guilt.

I think that I have to accept that not being on high-alert has gone the way of Duran Duran, LeSportsac, and Tretorns. It’s over for me. To be a responsible person in the world, there’s no saying that you don’t want to know when everything is NOT okay.

I’ll be writing here every week. Please follow me and tell me things. To hang out even more, find me on Twitter, sign up for my newsletter, and listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

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