Imagine you drive down to Lake Murray to visit your dad. He’s eighty-three years old, but it doesn’t surprise you to pull in the driveway and catch him arm-wrestling with a chain saw or spinning donuts on the riding mower or hunkered over his lathe. He keeps the future at bay with a little yardwork, a little woodwork.
That evening, just as the two of you sit down to dinner, the phone rings. The landline. Yes, he still has a landline. You’ve tried to tell him the only calls that still buzz through a land line are the kind you don’t want to answer, but the old yellow push-button phone is a piece of the past he insists on protecting. And not because he avoids technology. This is the guy—the eighty-three-year-old guy—who texts you and wants to know how to upload photos from his iPhone to his Instagram account. But still. At least he uses the decade-old portable sometimes when the landline rings. He always pushes the button for the speaker phone because he likes everyone to enjoy his phone conversations. Today, you hear a woman on the other end of the line, a woman with a grandma-smooth voice. You listen to her ask your dad how he’s doing, if he’s having a good weekend. He tells her his son is visiting and he has to go. But she keeps him on the line, thanks him for his last contribution, tells him that it’s so simple to do even more. Oh, she’s good, you think. She knows how to string a conversation. Somehow, she senses how much your father enjoys talking on the phone. Across the room, you make hand signals like a third-base coach, pantomiming for him to hang up on her, to cut it short. The burgers are getting cold.
Tough Call // Protecting elderly parents from hip fractures is one thing, but staving off relentless attacks from crafty charity telemarketers is a whole different story.
They always call at suppertime. You’ve heard this all before. You know what he’s going to tell her. You’ve heard your father have these conversations so many times. He’s going to say (politely) that he sits down once a year and writes checks for his charitable contributions. He’s going to ask her not to call him until the end of the year, that he’s done all he’s going to do at this time. And she’s going to say something like, “Well, Mr. Gould, you don’t have to sit down at all. We can help with that. You can send us money automatically, every month!” She is so cheerful as she reels him in. The more he protests, the more syrupy sweet her voice. And before you know it, he’s asked her to mail him more information. She promises she will. And you know she’ll call again. And again. Your father is too nice to these people. He possesses patience you’ll never have.
The next morning you walk to the top of the driveway and retrieve his mail. On the way down, you sort through the envelopes. A half dozen of them carry the postmark of a charitable organization. They are slick direct-mail solicitations, asking for more. And more. The envelopes are stuffed with tear-stained narratives of the needy and the saved. It would be so simple for you to toss them into the outside garbage can.
You wonder what happens when you’re not around, when you’re not there to make wild hand signals from the dining room table or open envelopes in the driveway. You are sure the calls come through like clockwork, always those uber-friendly people who ask how you are, then “How much can you give?”
He doesn’t give these people much. Each year, he spreads a few bucks over a number of organizations, writes checks to the ones that hone in on a major organ or a debilitating disease. He does it because he’s a nice guy. He’s not trying to personally fund a miracle. He pays to swing. You’re packed and trying to hit the road, but you decide to answer it for him. It’s one of those people. You hear it in her voice.
Trust Funds //When it comes to donorship, the elderly Mr. Gould is at the mercy of smooth-talking sales ladies.
“Is this Mr. Gould?” she says. She is younger than the last one, you think, perkier.
You don’t lie. “Yes, this is Mr. Gould.”
She wants to know how you are doing this fine day, and instead of answering the question, you simply ask, “Why are you calling?” You want to hear her say it right off the bat. You want her to be up front for once. You want a confession. You want this woman to say: Well, Mr. Gould, we know you’re eighty-three years old, and because of that, you have a big old target on your back. We are positive you don’t have the energy to say no. We can wear you down. We have you, Mr. Gould, and we’re never, ever going to let you go.
But she doesn’t utter anything close to that. Rather, she thanks you for your generous contributions in the past. So you repeat yourself, “Why are you calling?” She says that you are in a special group of contributors because of how many years you’ve supported their causes. When she pauses to breathe, you say, “Why are you calling? Really, why?” You don’t feel the need to say anything else. Just that one, simple, direct question.
By now, she thinks you are having a stroke or some sort of psychotic break. “Mr. Gould?” she asks, and you reply, “Why are you calling?
She’s says she’ll try again later “when you’re feeling better,” and quickly hangs up. Your father strolls in just as you hang the yellow push-button-phone-from-the-70s back on its receiver. You can’t be here all the time, screening calls and sorting mail. You can’t protect him from the world, from the smooth-voiced hucksters who put him directly in their fund-raising crosshairs. You hate that he’s just there for the taking. Those people, they are so good at what they do. There should be a law, you think. When good people with big hearts hit seventy-five years old, the vultures should go circle somewhere else.
“Who was that?” he asks.
“Nobody important,” you tell him. “Funny thing, they couldn’t say why they called.”