Voices of Experience: The Voice On The Answering Machine

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her. ~ Unknown

Linda Campanella lost her mother to cancer in September 2009. As a grieving daughter, she turned to writing as a way of coming to terms with her loss, never expecting that this cathartic expression of her grief would become an award-winning memoir. Her book When All That’s Left of Me Is Love is an intimate and inspiring story, filled with hope, joy, comfort for aching hearts, and lessons for how to live and love with no regrets. Four years after her mother’s death, Linda is still writing, still coming to terms with the permanence of her loss, and still yearning to feel her mother’s presence in her life. In the poignant piece she shares with us below, we are reminded that grief and letting go are journeys, not destinations.

“Erasing” is an act that seems especially difficult when one is coming to terms with loss and grief. Dad still has not felt inclined or able to erase the greeting on his answering machine at home; his sweetheart’s voice exists in our memories and, more accessibly, on that tape. I experience a surge and complex mix of emotions every time I call and hear the recorded message rather than my father’s live voice. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about hearing Mom asking me to please leave a message at the beep, and I can only imagine what Dad is feeling and struggling with as he contemplates whether and when to tape over her voice with his own.

I wrote that paragraph a few months after my terminally ill mother’s death at age 74 in 2009. At the time, my overflowing grief was finding release through my fingers and taking shape on the pages of what became a memoir, published in 2011, about our joy-filled last year together and my first few months without her.

Sometimes curious readers ask me if the voice on my father’s answering machine today is still my mother Nan’s.

Yes, it is. And no, I’m no longer ambivalent about how I feel when I hear my mother asking me to leave a message. The voice on the answering machine is a cherished reminder of the mother I miss every day. Of course I wish she were really on the other end of my calls, but it’s still nice to hear her speaking to me if Dad isn’t home to answer the phone. I wish I had taped her saying other things, telling stories, laughing. Sadly, I didn’t.

Sometimes I wonder, but have never asked, if Dad ever plays the recording in moments when he finds himself missing Nan especially much, yearning to see her, to touch her, to hear her, to feel connected with her.

Four years after wondering aloud, through my book, whether and when my father might feel inclined to erase and tape over his beloved wife’s voice, I received my answer quite unexpectedly. It came in the form of an email message from Dad to my three siblings and me; I found it in my inbox this morning:

Children,

One of the two phones which several years ago came with my (our) telephone answering machine has been kaputt for some time. More recently, the still-functioning unit is showing increasingly acute signs of disease (it just went dead as I was speaking with B five minutes ago).

I am seriously considering buying a replacement set. Just a few days ago Linda gave me a brochure about "special bargains" to be had at Costco's until the end of this month. And there is a comparable set at $20.00 savings off the "regularly discounted prices"! I think that I will splurge.

Regarding the message which greets any incoming caller: Should there be any problem copying Nan's message into the new system? I don't think so; I will play Nan's message when the new system asks to record the greeting message. Please wish me luck.

I did wish him luck. After I wiped the tears from my eyes.

He loved my mother so, so much.

Did you notice the word “our” in parentheses? Sometimes it’s still difficult for him to say “my” when describing things that once were theirs. To say “my” must feel a bit like “erasing,” I suppose.

Maybe some callers who know Mom died four years ago think it’s weird that her voice still hasn’t been erased and taped over. But those who’ve experienced loss and grief will understand how those left behind cling to whatever makes us feel close to and connected with the loved one whose physical presence we long to experience again, even years after we have survived our grief and made it through the “letting go” process more or less in one piece.

Letting go does not mean we stop holding on. Dad is holding on to Mom’s voice on the answering machine, and I think that is so very lovely. 

© 2013 by Linda Campanella. Visit Linda's website, When All That's Left of Me Is Love.

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