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Family Matters: Answering the call


By Claire Mullen

My column in last month’s issue was dedicated to mothers and all of the amazing things that they do. Oftentimes, it seems that the matriarch of our families is the sun around which everyone and everything else orbits. For the first 19 years of my own life, that was most certainly true. As I read through all of the thoughtful “best thing” tributes that so many CityView readers submitted for their moms, it dawned on me that my dad did all of those things too. This month, we celebrate our fathers, and I would be remiss if I did not dedicate some sentiments of my own to the person who was the light in the darkness for his kids when the sun stopped shining and send wishes for a Happy Father’s Day to all of the dads who are answering the call.

I distinctly remember calling home from college throughout my freshman year and always hoping Mama would be the one to answer the phone. It was usually after suppertime, and I would dial my family’s landline. With three younger siblings, ever-eager to take a call, and my dad almost always home from work by that time, there was a one in five chance that I’d luck out and hear her sweet Southern drawl on the other end. She’d recognize my cell number on caller ID, and exclaim, “Hey, my girl!” I wanted her to be the first to know about a good grade on a term paper, a pair of vintage cowgirl boots I’d scored for five bucks at the thrift store in Carrboro or plans for a spring-break trip to the beach that my girlfriends and I were cooking up.

She would listen to me yammer on, reply with genuine enthusiasm, and always, always tell me how much everyone back on Sugar Cane Circle missed me. I imagine as she sat on the kitchen barstool beside the wall-mounted phone and twirled the spiraled cord around her fingers, she was wistfully thinking of her own days as a co-ed in Chapel Hill, where she’d met my dad. She genuinely wanted to know every little detail of my life that I would disclose and didn’t seem to mind that I very seldom stopped talking about myself long enough to ask much about what was going on with her. Even if what was going on with her was that she was battling breast cancer.

On the occasions that Dad was the first to answer my call, we’d chat briefly about everyday happenings before I requested that he hand the receiver off to my mom. Looking back, I know that he was just as happy to hear from me, just as interested in the goings-on of my life, and wonder if it hurt my daddy’s feelings that I saved all the exciting news or juicy details for her. I’ve thought a lot about why I used to do that. I loved my dad. He’d been a present and proud parent to me since the day I was born. And really, I think it all boils down to the fact that an 18-year-old young woman navigating life on her own for the first time just plain needs her mom.

By my sophomore year at Carolina, the tone of my phone calls home began to change. Some nights, Mom answered and couldn’t seem to talk for more than a few minutes. Sometimes Dad, in an effort that I imagine was almost impossibly difficult, roused some cheerfulness to inquire about how I was doing, and let me know that Mom was sleeping and unable to come to the phone. And then, one day in late September, I called to say hello, and my daddy told me it was just about time to come home to say goodbye. I’d planned to stay at school for the remainder of the week to try to get through a big exam, but as I sat in a Wednesday morning French class, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming urge to get home that day. I walked straight out of the lecture hall to the car to make the drive back to Fayetteville. My mama left this earth only several hours after I got home.
We all spent the days and months that followed learning how to re-route our lives without the matriarch of our family. I returned to school days after her funeral, and my dad, then only 45 years old, was left to run a household, a medical practice and solo parent 17-, 14- and 11-year-old children. Over the years, when the topic of our mom’s death works its way into conversation, well-meaning people like to say, “I bet you really had to become like a mom to your younger siblings.” I always have to tell them that the God’s honest truth is that was just not so and give credit where it is most certainly due.

My father, Dr. Horace Long, a well-loved pediatrician to now multiple generations of Fayetteville families, shouldered each and every parental responsibility in a way that became even more impossible for me to comprehend after I had children of my own. He packed lunches. Rearranged his work schedule so that he could be there to pick up my brother, his youngest child, from school. He came home from long days at his office and dug out my mom’s handwritten recipes and cooked for his children, resolved to continue the delicious sit-down dinners to which we’d been accustomed our whole lives. He baked homemade birthday cakes and shopped for thoughtful gifts for his daughters from their favorite girly boutiques. He lugged his 8-seater, solid wood kitchen table out to his backyard on his own and hung twinkle lights in his big cherry tree to set the scene for an outdoor graduation celebration. He served as right-hand man to the three of us daughters as we planned our weddings, thoughtfully weighing in with his surprisingly adept opinions on gown styles, veil lengths, floral arrangements, program fonts, musical selections and appetizer options. He showed up on front porches with home-cooked meals and the offer to stroll a grandchild around the neighborhood while tired new mamas rested. All of this and so much more for his own four children, while continuing his full-time profession of caring for so many others.

Just next month, my dad will marry a woman exactly like the one I have prayed he would find. She is a lot like him: steadfastly faithful to God and her family, even after the unexpected loss of her own spouse to cancer. Between the two of them, there are seven children, eight grandchildren (at least one more to come) and one big goldendoodle named Mookie. I am so happy that my dad, who has dedicated the last 16 years of his life to taking care of those he loves all on his own, will have someone to share the rest. And these days, when I need time-tested parenting advice, am bursting to share a bit of good news or realize I forgot to buy the can of diced tomatoes needed for the soup already in the works on the stove, I dial my daddy’s phone. He answers the call just about every time. And I love to hear his voice.
Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@gmail.com.