Novak: Finding connection amid the chaos
April 21, 2013
I was the typical impatient customer. Standing in the middle of the Apple store in the mall with my dead laptop, leaning against one of the high counters, actually tapping my foot, and repeatedly checking my wristwatch. I had arrived early, and yet here it was, minutes creeping by my actual appointment time, and still nothing.My cellphone – my aunt. But with hopes still high that any minute an employee would come up and whisk me off to the actual Genius Bar to save me from the “gray screen of death,” I quieted the ring and ignored the call. Time continued to crawl by, my foot continued to tap and I shrugged and checked the voice mail message.It was brief. Only nine seconds: “Hi Jana. It’s [your aunt]. It’s about 3:15. If you get this message soon, give me a call real quick. Thanks.” At first blush, it seemed simple, straightforward. At first blush, it was a “if it were something important, she would have said so.” At first blush, it seemed like nothing …I looked up, glanced around the store and called back immediately. Rare for me. There was something – quiet, unsure, but something nagging me. My aunt started talking, and I was listening, but not hearing. “The marathon. Bombs at the finish line. At last check on the website, your sister should have been near the finish line.” I’m nodding, listening, not hearing, hearing.My friend comes up, shows me her new iPhone, points to her 5-year-old and mouths, “playground in mall.” I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. The Apple employee finally comes up, starts to introduce himself. I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. I put my hand up: “Wait. Two seconds.” I mouth, “I’m sorry.”I try to listen to my aunt, and finally have to give up. “OK. We don’t know anything yet. I’m at a store, I don’t have a TV, let me try to find information online, let me try to figure out what is going on, what happened. The employee is here, I have to go. Keep me posted. I’ll be in touch soon.” I nod. I pretend like anything I just said had meaning.I turn to the employee. “The Boston Marathon. Apparently bombs at the finish line. My sister was running. This is around the time she might be finishing.” He stares at me, starts saying he’s sorry. I stare back, hand him my laptop, and say, “I have the gray screen of death. Please fix it. I’ve done everything recommended in this online Mac blog and nothing worked. It’s probably the logic board. I don’t know. Just fix it.”He leads me to the Genius Bar counter, gets me a stool, starts running diagnostics – I stare at my phone, searching for trending info on Twitter, posts on Facebook, articles on Safari. Of course. In a social media age, news is a social thing. I glance around the Apple store; having worked in politics, specifically in communications where we kept four televisions going at all times to ensure all four major channels were monitored constantly, it feels weird to not see a single television. It seems even weirder that no one else has any idea right now. Somehow I suddenly feel the need to change that: I post on Facebook and ask for prayers for my sister and everyone else. A social media age translates into a need to share – to not be alone in one’s thoughts (even when sometimes that is definitely for the best). The Apple employee looks at me, says, “I hope this isn’t weird or offensive, but I’d like to pray for your sister, you, your family.” I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing: He’s worried I’d be offended or weirded out that he wanted to pray for her, for us. My brain twists on that as I nod back more vigorously now. “No, not at all. Please do. That would mean a lot.” He goes back to the diagnostics.And I think I took my first real breath then. Yes. I know I did. The employee looks at me again. “Your hard drive has died, it could be days, we’ll have to keep it.” I nod, listening, not hearing, hearing. I’m starting to find more news reports now, starting to see pictures. I show one to the employee. He shudders, breathes, “Wow.” Says, “I don’t know how you can be so calm.” I can feel the sad, bitter smile before I know it has made its appearance: “I’ve been too close to tragedy too many times now, and the only thing I’ve learned is that there is no point in worrying or freaking out until you have an actual reason to do so … ” I pause, searching, wanting to offer something “more,” something even a bit positive, a bit hopeful … Finally: “Oh, and always trust that others will eventually – even immediately – restore your faith in humanity.” I feel the wry smile linger … and am helpless about it. I shrug hard, focus momentarily, return to the subject at hand: my dead computer. Explain I live in the mountains and am heading back the next day, so if it can’t be finished then, I would be back in 10 days. He nods, talks to a manager, makes a note, says they will do what they can to finish it by the next morning. I’m already back on my phone, scanning, clicking, still hearing around me the constant happy hum of technology talk among employees and customers, background noise as in the foreground I’m staring at blood on my little screen. I stand up, and the employee touches my shoulder, puts his hand out to shake mine, says: “I won’t stop praying for your sister. I hope she is OK.” Yes. Yes. It’s been maybe 30 minutes since that first call with my aunt. I walk out of the store, stand in the middle of the mall, staring down at the children’s playground. I call her back. Tell her I’m done with the store and will find a television. Tell her I’ll start trying to track down my sister via every means I have. I’ll talk to family. We agree we shouldn’t talk to my father until we know if we had any reason to worry. I say I’ll be in touch soon. I find my sister’s cell phone number. Can’t imagine she would run with that extra weight, but I have to try. I dial, listen, hear, not hearing: one ring, two rings, five rings. Dead. No voice mail, just a crackling sound, and the phone is disconnected. At first blush, this is worrisome. At first blush, a heart jars. But there was something – quiet, unsure, but something – nagging at me. Oh yes. Cell phone service always gets overwhelmed in tragedies. It crashes. It is why I have always insisted upon a landline. Just in case. Of course. I go to messaging, and compose two text messages: “Obviously seen news so worried & sending love & prayers. If you can touch base with us. Love.” “Phone wouldnt even go to vm so thot I’d try text.”It’s laughable now: I had to explain why I was worried? Why I was texting? Why I wasn’t calling? And it is laughable. And it’s not. As it’s so me: so “particular,” so careful to be concise and yet thorough. Yeah, also known as anal retentive, finicky, fastidious, nitpicky, exacting … Heaven forbid a tragedy change my modus operandi, my personality, my special baggage. Of course, it was mostly about me, but truth be told, it was also about the relationship between my sister and me. We’ve never been exactly close. Especially not growing up, where we were just such different personalities that we seemed to have nothing in common. Unlike my brother and me, who have personalities that are too similar. Of course, it’s not like we ever really fought – unlike my brother and me, who fought constantly – but we never really connected either. Sometimes I feel like we just stared at each other as if we were zoo animals in opposite exhibits. After many years, recently we’ve been trying to forge those connections again. Sometimes the connections are highways, sometimes paths bushwhacked through jungle territory; sometimes silken scarves, sometimes threads. Yet connections they are – as any one knows who loses touch with someone, sometimes all that matters is that a connection is made. It doesn’t matter how small, how big, how weak, how strong – it just matters that the connection is made. I remember when I was working in the U.S. Capitol and a gunman broke in, killing two. Our press office, located just above all of this, stayed “open” when everyone else had to shut down. So for hours, all we did was listen to phones ringing off the hook, every line blinking, trying our best to field every call we could, provide any information we could to every reporter desperate for information. It was so busy, so nonstop, that there was no moment to comprehend. All we could do was nod, listen, hear, not hear. No time to think, reflect, feel. Nod, listen, hear, not hear. And for most of the day, that is what I had done: field calls, texts, not think, not reflect, not feel. Nod, listen, hear, not hear. And it was only in one sudden moment of quiet that I started to reflect.I could lose my sister. I wasn’t even sure what that meant right then, wasn’t sure what to do more than say that to myself. Had we connected enough yet? Didn’t we still have so much unfinished business? Doesn’t everyone? What do connections even mean? Are any connections ever enough? One moment of quiet … And all I could do in response was nod, listen, hear, not hear. And in that moment, my phone finally buzzed, and this time the text was actually from my sister: “Just got home safely.” Sometimes the smallest connections are indeed enough. Jana Novak lives in Frisco. Her sister was running the Boston Marathon on April 15. She was still a mile or so from the finish line when the bombs went off.