My phone rang early in the morning about a week or so ago. I knew it was a FB Portal call from my older sister who resides at a Manor in a small town in Nebraska. Around the beginning of the Covid pandemic the manor purchased a Facebook Portal for her room. This device is incredible. It has revolutionized how she communicates with family.
Back in the late 90s, upon the counsel of her case manager, I moved her from institutional care, where she had lived for years. She shared an apartment with a roommate, and the two received round-the-clock care. As her legally appointed guardian, I wanted her to have freedom to call and report any troubles she might encounter in this new living arrangement. I bought a speaker phone and programmed our siblings’ phone numbers for her to have handy.
She could call whenever she wished, but not as easily as with the FB portal. Speaker phones were temperamental and often unreliable. Plus, in visiting with my sister on the phone, we soon learned that face-to-face communication was essential to interpret what she tried to say. She either laughed at my attempts to guess what she was saying, or more frequently tired and moved on to another subject.
Without the aid of her facial expressions and body language misunderstandings multiplied and resulted in shortened and frustrated conversations for both parties on the phone.
Back then, when she called and encountered our answering machine or voicemail, she always left us a message.
It was impossible to miss the disappointment in her voice when no one answered on the other end. I understood, and even recall my own frustration when hearing that dang robotic message: “No one is available to take your call!” But, my frustration paled in comparison to hers.
Before the gift of the portal, staff at the manor would call and leave voice messages or send texts, “Your sister would like to talk. Can you please give her a call?”
Days, and I’m sorry to admit, even weeks, would go by while she waited in anticipation for one of us to call back. Another text would remind us she was still waiting, put on hold so to speak, but without the irritating elevator music to help pass the minutes!
“Always busy,” she would say! “Too busy!!”
The FB portal is the first time she has access to a communication device that she could manage on a whim – on her own terms – without the aid of another person. She is seen. She is heard. And it works so well.
In her left hand she holds a long, slender, cylindrical rod, about 15 inches long, with a rubber tip on the end. This gadget allows her to ‘ring-up’ family members whenever she wants. When no one is available she simply goes through her roster of family pics and calls someone else.
If no one answers, and this does happen more than not, she’s free to call back on her own time. FB Portal has given her an increased sense of independence and agency. She easily grasped basic telephone etiquette.
I never know when she’ll call. She’s an early riser, “up at seven” and “bed at nine” she reminds me.
She often calls early in the morning and catches me on screen in my bathrobe, my hair standing up in a mess, sleep still in the corners of my eyes. This used to bother me.
When I was busy with chores or needed to attend to other activities I chose to call her back later at my own convenience. Now we sit and chat while I sip my coffee.
Lately, I’ve discovered she’s content to chat and watch while I’m loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, preparing a meal, dusting and sweeping — just spending a few minutes together, means a lot to her.
There were times she also missed my calls. I’d call. No response. She was away from her room and the portal – having lunch, going to therapy, or, best of all, tootling around the corridors in her car (power wheelchair) visiting staff.
We’ve gotten into a nice rhythm.
One day, I failed multiple times to get in touch with her. When she finally answered, I expressed concern.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to get hold of you. Is everything alright? Are you okay?”
“Yeah! Me busy!” Then she laughed! I believe I detected a touché in her voice!
Another time, we finally connected after we both had been missing several of each other’s phone calls.
I said, “Well, I guess we’ve both been playing phone tag,” and chuckled, hoping she wasn’t too upset.
“What phone tag?” she asked quizzically, in her short phrases that often lacked a helping verb.
After explaining what ‘phone tag’ meant, I sensed she was pleased to play the game that many of us have played for years – happy to belong – to participate in the privilege of communication we take for granted.
One day she called and I was in my study. I answered.
She asked, “Doing?”
“I’m reading and studying.”
“Yes, I’m studying about God.”
The other day, after writing Who Tells the Story , I decided to tell her of my idea of writing her story and my story. I had made up my mind that I would not proceed if I sensed any discomfort from her with the idea.
I explained, “It’s kind of like writing a book for others to read.”
“Do you wanna help? I’ll be needing you to try to remember things so I can write them in a book.”
She perked up, and enthusiastically responded, “Me help!”
I told her that would be great. We chatted a bit more and then I told her I had to go.
The next morning, she called bright and early.
“Book?” I asked what she meant. “Me more say!”
She caught me by surprise, and was already wanting to share a memory from her childhood!
We each have a story just waiting to be told.
We long to be fully known. This requires being heard and seen by others. It requires vulnerability and risk.
Some might think my sister and others in her condition – unable to read, to write, or to communicate with a constant flow of words – have no story to tell.
But we are so wrong. How do I know, you ask?
FB portal is ringing off the hook and her stories keep coming!