"I'm Sorry, Sir, Your Son May Die"
The Hardest Phone Call I Ever Made
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October 21, 2000
Two days ago, one of my students showed me how to put a ringtone on my cell phone. I chose a snippet from Beethoven’s Ninth, and just after dawn on this Saturday morning, the Ode to Joy jars me awake.
I reach for the phone on the nightstand. I drop it. I curse. The tune plays more insistently. I fumble, get the phone to my ear.
“Yeah,” I croak.
A young woman’s voice, frantic. “Johnny fell off the balcony, six stories because it broke and he’s in the hospital and they say he’s going to die and you need to come now.”
I am one of two Pasadena City College faculty members in charge of 40 students spending a semester in Italy. We’re just past the halfway point of our three months together in Florence.
My brain assimilates the information. I recognize the voice now.
“Is this Vanessa?”
“Yes. Hugo, we’re at Careggi hospital. Please come.”
I hear murmurs and sobs around her. I know better than to ask follow-up questions before I can get there. I end the call, throw on shorts and a t-shirt and a cap, and brush my teeth.
I suddenly remember I have the emergency contact information for all my students, and I find Johnny’s paperwork, which consists of a crumpled pink sheet. I see decipherable phone numbers. I don’t think about whether I’ll need to use them.
I phone for a cab, give my address on Borgo San Frediano. By the time I step outside, the cabby’s already waiting.
“Caravaggio Ospedale,” I tell the driver as I climb in. He looks at me. I repeat myself. My Italian is lousy but under normal circumstances, I’d know not to ask to be driven to a renaissance painter.
“Careggi?” He is helpful.
“Si. Pronto, per favore.”
10 minutes later, I jog into the run-down waiting room. Seven of my youngest students are there, Johnny’s roommates and some of his other friends. Several run up to me. Vanessa wants to be held. Others stand dazed.
Simone, the girl Johnny has just started dating, is sitting at a table, staring at her arm. Another young woman sits with her, rubbing her back.
The students tell me the story. Just after 2:00AM, Johnny and Simone were on the balcony of his sixth-floor apartment, out in the Florence suburbs. The others were inside, drinking. Johnny leaned back against the balcony, and looked up.
“He told Simone to look at the stars,” Vanessa recounts.
The balcony railing gave way. Simone tried to grab him, but couldn’t hold him. Johnny fell six stories. He’s in surgery. The last update the kids got, it was looking very grave.
At one of our pre-departure meetings, I’d joked with the kids that I had only three rules for the trip: “No jails, no hospitals, no unwanted pregnancies.” Standing in the waiting room, it seems I remember that Johnny was the only student who didn’t smile at that.
I shake my head. My memory isn’t that good.
I look at Simone again. Her wrist is bloody, presumably from where she fought for Johnny. She looks calmer than everyone else, but she’s rocking in her seat. The kids are looking at me. I feel panic rising.
I remember sitting on a porch in Montecito with my second ex-father-in-law, six years ago. Jim had been a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War. He described once making an emergency landing on a carrier. “Sometimes,” Jim had said, “the faster it comes at you, the less time you have to be afraid. All you have is decisions, and you can be very still in that decision.”
The decisions come. I ask a second girl to go sit with Simone, tell her not to let Simone out of her sight. There must be English-speaking psychiatrists in Florence, but that can wait an hour. I ask to speak to a doctor, the kids — who speak better Italian than I do — helping.
“Are you going to call his parents?” Vanessa asks.
“I need something to tell them.”
A doctor comes. He speaks passable English. He wants to speak to me alone, but I tell him the kids have brought Johnny this far, they deserve to hear.
Johnny has a severed spine. His kidneys have both been destroyed. His liver is near failure; his heart and lungs are bruised. He has a major concussion. There is massive internal bleeding. Johnny is too fragile for major surgery; all they’ve been able to do is stabilize him for a while.
“I need to tell you that it is more likely that he will die than that he will not.” The doctor’s eyes are only on mine.
The students don’t weep. They hold very still.
Johnny’s pink emergency contact paper sits folded in the front pocket of my shorts. I feel it pressing against my thigh. I ask the doctor how long until we know if Johnny will survive. If he makes it a week, he says, it will be a miracle. In the meantime, he’ll have us updated as often as possible. I write down my number for him.
I walk over to check on Simone. The doctor calls me back. “How soon can his mother be here?” he asks. I calculate; flights, arrangements. “30 hours, probably.” The doctor frowns, tells me that they’ll do what they can until then.
It has been just over an hour since Vanessa’s call woke me up. And from that moment to this, I have pushed the inevitable from my mind.
The students have called my fellow instructor, and she’s on her way, but I have the folded paper. I’m the designated deliverer of news.
My cellphone is fully charged with battery and prepaid minutes. No excuse there.
It is midnight in California, and for a moment, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to wait six or seven hours, let his parents have the sleep. That excuse won’t fly either. If this is a battle of life and death, the evangelical inside me points out, his family deserves a chance to start storming the gates of heaven now.
I take two minutes to talk to Simone. I kneel down next to her, and she kisses my cheek with strange, motherly affection. Simone is 19. She shows me her wrist. The blood I saw earlier is from long deep scratches left by Johnny’s nails. There is much more blood on her sweater and her pants. I will learn later she held Johnny while he lay on the ground until the ambulance.
“Should we put a bandage on it, you think?” I ask. Simone shakes her head.
I ask if she wants anything. She nods. “I want to see him. And can I have a Coke?” I wave some lira at one of the tearful boys and he heads off. “We’ll talk in a minute,” I tell Simone, wondering if I should have asked the surgeon about emergency counseling services.
I’ve delayed enough. I walk to the far corner of the waiting room. There is a narrow vertical window, little more than a transparent crack that lets in light and a glimpse of a car park.
I don’t pray. I don’t gather my thoughts. I just punch numbers, bring the phone to my ear, stare out at the cars.
Just after the third ring, I hear the handset lifted off the receiver. Fumbling, muttering. They were in bed, of course. A man’s voice, elderly, confused.
I am not here, having this phone call. I am running up Mission Peak, on my family’s ranch. I am alone, and I am hot, I am 200 meters from the summit.
Somewhere safe, Johnny and Simone are kissing on a street corner. Her teeth gleam.
There’s a long pause, and I sense the bewilderment. “No,” the voice says. “That’s my ex son-in-law you want.”
An old woman’s voice in the background, also confused and annoyed: “Who is it? What time is it?”
A new vision pops in my head, this time the scene in Sixteen Candles when Michael Schoeffling wakes up Molly Ringwald’s grandparents. My brain splitscreens, and the classic film runs alongside what is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
“I’m sorry, sir, are you Johnny Continetti’s grandfather?”
“Yes, yes.” The voice is waking up, fear bestowing sudden clarity.
“Sir, my name is Hugo Schwyzer. I’m one of Johnny’s teacher’s in Italy. I’m afraid there’s been a serious accident. I need to speak to his parents.”
In the parking lot, a middle-aged couple is doing the kissing. The man leans back against the driver’s side door, the blonde woman presses herself against him. They each have cigarettes in their hands. Her dark roots are showing. I know exactly what she tastes like.
“Is Johnny alright?” the grandfather asks, and I hear the grandmother start to mumble prayers beside him.
I explain it is a matter of life and death. I explain the fall, the broken spine. I try to speak slowly. I think about the day my first girlfriend broke up with me over the phone. She spoke firmly, clearly, choosing words that would erase both hope and ambiguity.
When you’re breaking bad news, she taught me, choose clarity. It’s kinder in the end.
I give the grandfather my cell number, repeating it four times and making him repeat it back to me. The couple in the parking lot gets into their car, and I will them not to drive away until this wrenching conversation is over. Their timing is perfect. They back out of the space just as the stricken grandfather thanks me, and I hear the first audible sob from the grandmother.
I turn. All my students are watching me, except Simone, who is drinking her Coke, staring at her wrist.
My co-instructor, Deborah, walks in. We confer, triaging like ER doctors confronted with a dozen patients. We decide Deborah will take charge of Simone, and I’ll take the other kids to the cafeteria.
They are all hungry, and I buy breakfast for everyone. I save the receipt to be reimbursed by the college — and remember I need to call the administration too. There’s a protocol for this, I realize, and I don’t know it. I was ready for heartbreaks and pregnancy scares and alcohol poisoning. I wasn’t ready for my handsomest and most athletic student to fall six stories.
I think about what Johnny’s body did in the air. He was drunk, the kids said. He landed on his back. Did he flap and flail? Did he see the stars?
Did he let go of Simone deliberately so as not to pull her over as well? I decide that he did.
They have no Coke Light, so I drink a passable Macchiato. I can’t eat. The kids are ravenous though, grief and exhaustion fueling appetite. As soon as they’re done, I decide, I’m buying cigarettes.
My phone, sitting on the table next to my cup lights up, starts playing Beethoven. The bloody Ode to Joy, now of all moments. The students freeze as if in a cartoon, forks halfway to mouths.
I answer the phone and rise in one movement, desperate for the nearest window. I know who this must be, and I know I must see outside to say the things I need to say.
It is indeed Johnny’s father. Mr. Continetti is a lawyer, and his questions are rapid and precise. I recount the fall, the injuries, and the doctor’s urgency. I am not thinking about what I’m saying, but I am utterly certain I am saying the exact right things, or at least the truest things. Something is speaking through me. There is stillness in the decision.
The cafeteria window doesn’t look out into a parking lot, but instead onto a playground. A brother and sister are on a teeter-totter, but the boy is older and heavier, so every time his end drops, his sister’s rockets into the air. She is maybe four. Her puffy yellow jacket collar reaches almost to her eyes, but I can see she’s laughing. Her brother is rough, though, and I worry at any moment she will be thrown clear, tumbling to the ground.
I wonder if she’ll land on her back.
“So to be clear, you’re saying there’s a good chance Johnny might die.”
Mr. Continetti and I are chill customers, that’s for sure, cooler than cucumbers. I’m watching children play, and he’s asking me about life leaving his son’s broken body with the same tone he’d use to ask whether there’s a chance of rain next Wednesday.
“Yes sir, I’m sorry. There’s a very good chance. That’s why you need to come as quickly as you can.”
I can hear him writing something down, the sound of paper being torn off a pad. A doctor, writing a prescription. He and Johnny’s mother are divorced. He will call her now.
I turn back to the kids. And at this moment kids they are, regressed a decade in their fear and terror and grief. They are all in tears, Johnny’s roommate sobbing on another boy’s shoulder. One of the girls, Natalie rises, turns, and in a quick step is in my arms.
A month ago, drunk and exuberant and 20, Natalie kissed me on a dance floor. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she shouted in my ear over the music, “I just wanted to do that.” Now, she tells me she wants to go home. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” she sniffles. Two more of the students come, and then the rest, and soon there’s a group hug in the middle of the cafeteria, the hospital staff moving around us, inured to the routine spectacle of grief.
For the first time in my life, I realize I am born to be a father.
For the rest of the day and the next and the next, I find the words that need finding and I make the calls that need calling and I comfort and I herd and I listen and I buy food and I eat none of it and I smoke four packs of Gauloises and I don’t sleep. I’m heartbroken and elated and a thousand other things but all the feelings stay under thick, transparent glass, emotions glittering like sapphires in a jeweler’s bulletproof window.
Johnny’s parents and stepfather arrive the next afternoon. Johnny’s mother reaches her son’s side, takes his hand, and tells the doctors that she has come to bring him home. She is a mother, she says, and she will not let him die, and a month later, Johnny is flown home on an ambulance plane.
So Johnny lives. He is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. Today he is a high school math teacher, popular and charismatic.
Simone recovers as well, and now works in the fashion industry.
Lawsuits and countersuits about the accident and attendant liability will continue for more than six years after we return from Italy. I will be deposed four or five times.
And as for me, for two weeks after Johnny’s fall, I feel nothing real. Then one morning, running around the Cascine, Florence’s largest park, a wave of nausea hits me. I vomit in the bushes, and then start to sob. I cry, then vomit, then cry more. I pull a muscle in my chest from the effort. At last, I feel small. At last, I feel frightened. At last, I feel so terribly sad. I lie on the grass in the park for nearly an hour, puke and tear-streaked.
I was strong for as long as I needed to be, and then I crumpled. I am not afraid to say I’m proud it was that way.
To this day, I dream about Johnny’s fall. Usually, I dream I’m on the balcony, sometimes right next to Simone. Sometimes I’m Simone herself. And every time he falls, I’m too late or too weak, and I watch him tumble away, surprise on his face.
One night in 2013, when I am on the psych ward, I have a different version of the dream. This time, when the balcony breaks, I go over the side, and Simone does too, the three of us falling together. Simone and I cry out in terror, and Johnny grins at both of us, grabs our hands.
“You don’t understand,” he says, his dark eyes dancing. “We just keep flying. Look at the stars.”
Wow! What a story! Glad to know that the young man survived, and that, since you describe him as a "charismatic" teacher, he has been able to emotionally adjust to his physical condition. Can he live alone? Who is taking care of him? I find your delayed reaction to the trauma most interesting! certainly a blessing that you were able to remain "calm and rational" during the crisis. Do you still have the same ring-tone on your phone?
You wrote this piece beautifully. I was full of emotion reading it. I'm glad the young man survived.