The call comes at midnight. I had turned off the light in the study and was yawning, looking forward to going to bed. My husband has been asleep for an hour already. I hurry into the kitchen and peer at the caller ID information illuminated on the telephone. A New Jersey number — my parents calling.
“Yes” I say, trying not to sound irritated, as if I was cheerfully waiting for a call at midnight.
There is a note of resignation in my mother’s voice. “It’s your father; he has a computer problem.”
I sigh, cradling the telephone by my ear, and turn the light back on in the study. This may be a long and draining conversation. I slump back into the black rolling office chair, rest my head on the back, and with a slightly edgy cheerfulness loudly greet my deaf 92-year-old father. As I wait to hear his question, I begin scanning a folder from the pile that hides my desktop and thumb through it. I silently remind myself to add the folder to my briefcase before I go to bed.
“I don’t know how to turn the computer off.”
The computer is his lifeline to the world. My tiredness vanishes. The folder loses its claim on me. I sit up and grip the phone to my ear. My father’s memory is failing, but this statement is like watching him fall off a cliff. A Chinese engineer and scholar who sailed halfway round the world to complete a PhD in England for four lonely years until my mother and his twin daughters could join him from Taiwan, my father knew more of English language structure than I learned in years at an English high school. He taught me mathematics and thought an 8-year-old should be able to learn calculus because it was so logical and simple. His own mental arithmetic was so solid that even as his memory slipped, he still appeared only mildly impaired on neurological tests. His deafness has created a further barrier as his Chinese ear tries to understand my British accent.
I control the anxiety in my voice even as I hear the panic in his. I can picture him, his thin frame bent over the phone, his gray hair disheveled, peering at the large computer screen while his eyeglasses hang from a cord around his neck, pressing anxiously at the keys with a tremulous finger.
“Have you tried holding down the power button?”
I sigh and speak louder, then recall that a deaf ear distinguishes sounds of a lower register more clearly. My irritated soprano voice slides down to a calm alto range, as I try to sort out what he has tried. I review the keys and buttons on my MacBook Air, hoping his Powerbook is similar. Our conversation reaches a loud and perilously high-pitched crescendo as I try to dissect the computer problems. Overcoming deafness and language barriers, I finally realize that his laptop has not been plugged in, so the battery has run down.
My father’s voice loses its anxiety. “I will plug it in and go to bed now.” He cheerfully bids me good night as he hangs up the phone.
My face in the darkened study window looks back at me and I wonder whether I can go to sleep so easily.
Ouyang is a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Cardiovascular Health Center.