Got Your Number by George Merrill

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Recently, I thought that I’d bring a measure of order to my unruly life, the way I occasionally clean out closets or drawers. I began sifting through contacts listed on my iPhone in order to delete some. The list was long.

Maybe half were still current contacts: others had moved away, some had changed their phone numbers and email addresses, and there were others from whom I’d simply drifted apart. What was disquieting was that so many had died. But all the names and numbers, which for a variety of reasons had grown obsolete, remain listed as if auld acquaintance – whether among the quick or the dead – should ne’er be forgot. In truth, they were not. They were listed among my “contacts.” I went through most all the names. Some I’d not thought about for years, but deep in the corridors of memory they were alive and well. So were the associations I had to them and the circumstances that once connected us. Our relationship to others is reciprocal in nature; in all our exchanges, in varying degrees, we give and we get. We belong to a huge network of significance. The longer we live, the wider it grows.

Not long ago on Facebook, I received an invitation to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday, her picture smiling and happy: she died three years ago. When I saw her picture a pang of grief swept through me as though it was the day she died. How easily a ‘then’ leaps from the past to become a ‘now.’

Old phone numbers that should be lost to me from disuse often linger in my mind’s memory bank, hidden from immediate sight, but easily recalled. I remember my childhood phone number at home. It began, ‘Gibraltar 7.’ Several friends’ numbers began “St. George 7” and one had the famous “Murray Hill” exchange. These were the arcane codes by which we once dialed or directed the operator to connect us with one another. Even at my age, when immediate recollection can be unreliable, I doubt that I will ever forget my father’s dog tag numbers assigned him by the Army during WW II – 0527071. That was seventy-five years ago. In all kinds of ways, we continue doing numbers on ourselves.

Numbers are symbols. Typically they quantify by being icons of amounts and how much. The ‘how much’ can also be construed as the total depth of meaning. Take December 7, 1941. My father had been playing poker with friends. I suddenly recall sitting on his lap. I do not recollect what he said, but I could see the anxiety on his face. The dates and numbers may carry not so much a clear thought, but a depth of feeling, the chilling kind that I felt when seeing the look in my father’s eyes on that day.

For Americans, 9/11 holds a particular horror. It was the day we lost our innocence. Since perhaps the war of 1812, Americans have believed in our geographic invincibility, and our psychological invulnerability.

Then 9/11 became an infamous date. When I see the date signifying that day I recall just where I was when I heard the news. I had been standing on line in Graul’s super market and perusing magazines at the checkout counter. The headline of one tabloid announced how a woman had given birth to a frog. The tabloid included pictures – not of the birth – but mother looking happy and although hard to tell, baby frog, too. I thought at the time what a heavy burden this places on friends who are usually moved to say how much baby looks just like dad or mom. I didn’t get to read on as someone in the checkout line mentioned an airplane crashing into one of the twin towers. How quickly my world, our world, can go from absolute absurdity to total horror in a matter of seconds.

As I scrolled down looking at names and numbers, I noticed how some spanned my lifetime. Others represented chapters in my life. The names conjured up places I’d been, things I’d done, and affiliations I’ve had; there are names of fellow clergy, and people connected with college and seminary; Habitat, Talbot Mentors, PEACE, the church, the writing community, photographers and not the least a brother and sister I’d grown up with.

Years ago a friend of mine commented on relationships and how transitory they seemed to him. We move in and out of each other’s lives. A few relationships remain active and close for a lifetime, but they are few. Most are more transient and although not that close are nonetheless highly influential. The influence may not be apparent at the time. In fact the relationship may seem so casual as to be totally inconsequential. I look back at so many names and numbers, and can see in some a particular contribution to my life that, at the time, I was unaware of.

One was an artist. She’s been gone some time now. I met her when we first moved to the Shore. We were in a workshop and I remember thinking that she was a snob and not anyone I’d particularly want to associate with. As only time can weave through its web of connections, we were to grow close and become soul mates in many ways. We were to share in each other’s spiritual journeys. And how strange it is that only seeing her name on my cellphone contacts that I think of this: clouds.

My friend introduced me to a whole new way of seeing of color. She showed me a characteristic of certain cloud formations I had never seen before.

On bright sunny days with blue skies, white clouds are not really white. When I look closely I now see a variety of the subtle colors that she introduced to me. I cannot look to the sky on days like that, but that I think of her as I note the soft hues on the undersides of clouds and the journey we shared as friends.

Remembering fondly and treasuring these names and the stories/history we have shared, I decided that for now I would not delete any of my contacts.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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