I Wonder What Phone Service God Uses

November 17, 2011
Every day, after school, the little red light on my family’s land-line phone would flicker on and off, on and off. New message! New message! it would caterwaul, until my mother finally dropped off her purse on the dining room table, stepped over the heaps of books and backpacks my sister, father and I had littered all over the floor and moved towards the contraption, probably yawning all the while.

The majority of those missed calls, with numbers both listed and unknown, came from questionable telemarketers, and my mother would disregard them with a decisive click of the delete button. Others were from family members, touting gossipy bits about people who lived too far away to really care much about, while a few were left by snippy doctor’s assistants, nagging about scheduled appointments and due payments. These messages were listened to, noted in planners or Post-it notes, and then obliterated from memory (both the machine’s and mine).

But every once in a while, there would be a call – a communication - of some grand importance, enough to beckon me away from my math homework (which, to a third grade bon-a-fide workaholic, was pretty much as significant as priorities could become) and compel me to attention.

This message was one of these.

“Hello, Maria,” said a voice, shaky, breathy, and low, but infused with some unique and gentle candor, like the slight wisp of the air around the flapping wings of a majestic eagle. “This is Pope John Paul II. A friend of yours mentioned that yesterday was a special day for you. So I would like to personally wish you a happy birthday. May God bless you and your family, always.”


As the words played out in the still sweltering, summer atmosphere of the living room, my mother’s red-lipped mouth dropped open and the silliest, giddiest grin began to spread over her face. “The Pope just wished you a Happy Birthday!” she yelped, her hands flying to my shoulders and her arms shaking me energetically.

Completely missing the point, I folded my arms and said, “Yeah. Uh. Why?” Perhaps the randomness of the situation overshadowed the depth of the moment, or perhaps my mind couldn’t reconcile with the sudden discrepancy between logic and reality. Or maybe, on a less mumbo-jumbo note, I was just really confused.

By now, my mother had moved away from the telephone and was now flipping quickly through her address book. Her finger paused at the R’s. “John Ross, most likely,” she responded, glancing at me as if the name would flash life-changing, Pythagorean-theorem level epiphanies in my brain. All she received in return, however, was a quizzically raised eyebrow.

After a definitive pause, she expatiated, half-sighing, “The milkshake man.”

Oh. “Oh!” And the tips of my ears colored red beneath my hair.

There was a man who had “interned” (or whatever the equivalent is in priest-training) in the rectory where my mother was employed. He was impossibly tall, to the point that he barely squeezed into my mother’s van, and he made the best milkshakes ever. Ever. I could never really remember his name (though “John Ross” has a very admittedly smooth and impressive sound to it), so my sister and I unofficially dubbed him “the milkshake man.”

This John Ross relocated to the Vatican the summer before my third-grade school year. I only met him four or five times before then. Yet somehow, he felt the need to mention to the Pope that a newly minted eight-year old girl whom he had once made a milkshake for had a birthday coming up, so would you give her a call, please and thank you? I’m positive the man had much better and important things to do, like organize and shepherd the souls of 1.1 billion people scattered throughout all the countries of the globe. That phone call was, well, an infinitesimal matter - bordering on nonexistent - in the grand scheme of history, right?

I thought of it as just one of those fleeting, once-in-a-lifetime things, the kind of random fact people would use to describe themselves at team-building exercises. I never got another message from him – though John Ross made it a point to call every year – and so the moment simply faded.

But when Pope John Paul II passed away years later, the memory resurfaced, and I retreated into my room, feeling the urge to meditate on it, turn it over in my head and run my mind against the texture of it, like a stone. His death touched the lives of almost every person in the world, so I wondered, somberly, if my well-wishes and prayers for his soul would be even be heard amongst the universe’s. That day, I felt tiny, if not insignificant. All through my childhood, that was all I felt. But this generous man, tasked with a burden so great and unimaginable to me, suddenly paused in his day to leave a small message for some little girl halfway across the world and offer a simple blessing of happiness.

To someone out there, I was everything but insignificant. Maybe God just needed to place a phone call to drill that into my head.

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