We all know what it’s like to get that phone call in the middle of the night. This night’s call was no different. Jerking up to the ringing summons, I focused on the red illuminated numbers of my clock. Midnight. Panicky thoughts filled my sleep-dazed mind as I grabbed the receiver.
My heart pounded; I gripped the phone tighter and eyed my wife, who was now turning to face my side of the bed.
“Daddy?” I could hardly hear the whisper over the static. But my thoughts immediately went to my daughter. When the desperate sound of a young crying voice became clearer on the line, I grabbed for my wife and squeezed her wrist.
“Daddy, I know it’s late, but don’t…don’t say anything, until I finish. And before you ask, yes, I’ve been drinking. I nearly ran off the road a few miles back, and…”
I drew in a sharp shallow breath, released my wife and pressed my hand against my forehead. Sleep still fogged my mind, and I attempted to fight back the panic. Something wasn’t right.
“… and I got so scared. All I could think about was how it would hurt you if a policeman came to your door and said I’d been killed. I want…to come home. I know running away was wrong. I know you’ve been worried sick. I should have called you days ago, but I was afraid…afraid…”
Sobs of deep-felt emotion flowed from the receiver and poured into my heart. Immediately I pictured my daughter’s face in my mind and my fogged senses seemed to clear. “I think –”
“No! Please let me finish! Please!” She pleaded, not so much in anger but in desperation.
I paused and tried to think of what to say. Before I could go on, she continued, “I’m pregnant, Daddy. I know I shouldn’t be drinking now…especially now, but I’m scared, Daddy. So scared!”
The voice broke again and I bit into my lip, feeling my own eyes fill with moisture. I looked at my wife who sat silently mouthing, “Who is it?”
I shook my head and when I didn’t answer, she jumped up and left the room, returning seconds later with the portable phone held to her ear.
She must have heard the click in the line because she continued, “Are you still there? Please don’t hang up on me! I need you. I feel so alone.”
I clutched the phone and stared at my wife, seeking guidance.
“I’m here, I wouldn’t hang up,” I said.
“I know I should have told you, Daddy. But when we talk, you just keep telling me what I should do. You read all those pamphlets on how to talk about sex and all, but all you do is talk. You don’t listen to me. You never let me tell you how I feel. It is as if my feelings aren’t important. Because you’re my father, you think you have all the answers. But sometimes I don’t need answers. I just want someone to listen.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and stared at the how-to-talk-to-your-kids pamphlets scattered on my night stand.
“I’m listening,” I whispered.
“You know, back there on the road, after I got the car under control, I started thinking about the baby and taking care of it. Then I saw this phone booth and it was as if I could hear you preaching about people shouldn’t drink and drive. So I called a taxi. I want to come home.”
“That’s good, Honey,” I said as relief filled my chest. My wife came closer, sat down beside me and laced her fingers through mine. I knew from her touch that she thought I was doing and saying the right thing.
“But you know, I think I can drive now.”
“No!” I snapped. My muscles stiffened, and I tightened the clasp on my wife’s hand. “Please, wait for the taxi. Don’t hang up on me until the taxi gets there.”
“I just want to come home, Daddy.”
“I know. But do this for your Daddy. Wait for the taxi, please.”
I listened to the silence in fear. When I didn’t hear her answer, I bit into my lip and closed my eyes. Somehow I had to stop her from driving.
“There’s the taxi, now.”
Only when I heard someone in the background asking about a Yellow Cab did I feel my tension easing.
“I’m coming home, Daddy.” There was a click and the phone went silent.
Moving from the bed with tears forming in my eyes, I walked out into the hall and went to stand in my sixteen-year-old daughter’s room. The dark silence hung thick. My wife came from behind, wrapped her arms around me and rested her chin on the top of my head.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks. “We have to learn to listen,” I said.
She pulled me around to face her. “We’ll learn. You’ll see.” Then she took me into his arms, and I buried my head in her shoulder.
I let her hold me for several moments, then I pulled back and stared back at the bed. She studied me for a second, then asked, “Do you think she’ll ever know she dialed the wrong number?”
I looked at our sleeping daughter, then back at her. “Maybe it wasn’t such a wrong number.”
“Mom, Dad, what are you doing?” The muffled young voice came from under the covers. I walked over to my daughter, who now sat up staring into the darkness. “We’re practicing,” I answered.
“Practicing what?” she mumbled and laid back on the mattress, her eyes already closed in slumber.
“Listening,” I whispered, and brushed a hand over her cheek.
I did not write this. I first came across this essay here, but have since learned that it has been circulating the Net since 1995 and appeared under a number of names claiming to be the author. So, though I can’t credit the originating author, the lesson it teaches is one we all need to learn.