If you know me, you know I’m a bit of a podcast junkie. All Songs Considered. This American Life. Serial. Car Talk. Song Exploder. They get me every time.
And a few months ago, I stumbled on one called The Moth—a captivating collection of true stories told to a live audience. Below’s a transcription of one such story, called “A Phone Call,” by Auburn Sandstrom—a senior lecturer in College Writing at The University of Akron and past winner of the Ohio Arts Council Award for fiction.
I’m not at all ashamed to admit I found myself crying while listening to this story of how one’s mere presence can help transform a life. I’ve had those moments where friends just sat. Didn’t speak. Didn’t save. Just sat and listened. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience? May you too will find hope in the pinhole of light we can be for—and we can see from—others.
Enjoy. (Go here to listen instead of read the story.)
The year was 1992…Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’m curled up in a fetal position on a filthy carpet in a very cluttered apartment. And I’m in horrible withdrawal from a drug that I’ve been addicted to for several years now. In my hand I have a little dilapidated piece of paper. I’ve been folding it and unfolding it. There’s a phone number on it.
And if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack, that’s what this felt like. I’d been having like a non-stop anxiety attack for the last five years. And I’d never been in a more dark or desperate place as that night. And I would’ve just gone screaming out of there. My husband was out running the streets trying to get ahold of some of that…ugh, some of that stuff that we needed, and I knew if he succeeded he was not going to share. And if I could, I would’ve jumped out of my own skin and run into the streets. But right behind me in the room sleeping was my baby boy.
Now I wasn’t going to get Mother of the Year Award in 1992. In fact, at the age of 29, I was failing at a lot of things. It had started out fairly auspiciously. I was raised in comfort and privilege. I was that girl who had the opera lessons, who spoke fluent French, who had her expensive undergraduate college paid for. I was that person who, when my checking account would run now, I would say something to my parents and $200 would magically appear. (I know, when the revolution comes kill me first, right?) I had the year abroad. I had a master’s degree. I was, you know, pedigreed. But as you get to your 20s, someone like me, I ended up in Ann Arbor, and I started noticing things like poverty and injustice and racism. It was a huge revelation to me. And I came into the faulty conclusion that the thing I needed to do with my privilege and all the comfort that I’d had all my life was to destroy it, rip it in half, spit on it, and set it on fire.
You know every time I’ve made a major, faulty conclusion, the man comes right after that will help me live it out. This was no different. Man, he was beautiful, 40-years-old, and a radical revolutionary, fine-ass poet from Detroit. I’m 24…he’s 40…and I was smitten in love. It was so exciting—who he was, how he talked, the way he looked at the world. And it was beautiful for a while, until he introduced me to one of his old activist friends, who introduced us to the drug I was now addicted to.
And so I had tried to transform myself. I wanted to shed my class. If I could’ve, I would’ve shed my race. Instead of transformation, you have me in Ann Arbor in 1992 going 90 miles an hour down I-94 with my poet, with a car full of alcohol, illegal drugs, paraphernalia. The baby’s in a carseat. Ugh, it’s probably not a regulation carseat. He’s covered in candy and chocolate, because you have to keep the baby entertained while you’re taking care your business—getting yourself some relief.
This particular night…it was bad. Because if we would’ve been pulled over one of those many times that we were going down that highway, I was on parole. He was on probation. We would’ve both been locked up, and our child would’ve been taken from us. So underneath my withdrawal and terrible anxiety was a sure knowledge that I was leading the life that was going to lead to me losing the most precious thing I’d ever had in my life.
I was so desperate at that moment that I became willing to punch the numbers into the phone. And the phone number was something my mother had sent me. Now mind you, I hadn’t been speaking to my parents or anybody else for three, four, five years. But she’d managed to get this number to me in the mail. And she said, “Look, this is a Christian counselor, and since you can’t talk to anybody else, maybe sometime you could call this person.”
I’m not trying to hang with any particular religion at this point, but I’m so desperate and I’m so anxious and I’m in such a desperate state. I was emaciated, covered in bruises. I punched in the numbers.
I hear the phone pick up. I hear a man say, “Hello.” And I say “Hi. I got this number from my mother. Do you think you could maybe talk to me?”
And I heard him shuffling around in the bed, like, you know, you could tell he was pulling some sheets around and sitting up. And I heard a little radio in the background, and he snapped it off. He just became very present and he said, “Yes, yes, yes…what’s going on?”
And I hadn’t told anybody—including myself—the truth for a long, long time. And I told him I wasn’t feeling so good, and that I was scared, and that things had gotten pretty bad in my marriage. And, you know before long, I started telling him other truths, like “I might have a drug problem.” And, “I really, really love my husband—and I wouldn’t want you to say anything bad about him—but he has hit me a few times. And there was a time when he pushed my child and me out into the cold and slammed the door behind us. And then there was a time when we were going 60 miles an hour down the highway, and he tried to push us out of a moving vehicle. But I love him, and don’t say anything bad about him.” I started telling those truths.
And this man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me…and was present…and listened…and had such a kindness…and such a gentleness. “Tell me more. Oh that must hurt.” And you know, I made that call probably two in the morning and he stayed with me the whole night until the sun rose. And I was feeling calm. I was feeling okay. I was feeling, you know, I can splash my face with water today and I can probably do this day.
I wouldn’t have cared if the guy was like a Hare Krishna or a Buddhist. It didn’t matter to me what his faith was. I was very grateful to him. And so I said, “Hey you know, I really, really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something? Because, you know, that’d be cool. I’ll do it.” And he laughed and said, “I’m glad this was helpful to you.” And we talked some more. And I brought it around again, and I said, “No really. You’re very, very good at this. I need to tell you how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?” And he said, “Okay Auburn, I’ve been trying to avoid this subject. I need you right now not to hang up. That number you called? Wrong number.”
I didn’t hang up on him. I never learned his name. Never talked to him again. I don’t think I took any of his advice. But I need to tell you that the next day I experienced something that I’ve heard called, “peace that passes understanding.” Because I had experienced that there was random love in the universe and that some of it was unconditional. And that some of it was for me.
And I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day, but it became possible. And it also became possible for me to take that sticky, chocolate-covered baby boy and raise him up into a young honor scholar-athlete who graduated from Princeton University in 2013 with honors.
This is what I know: In the deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.