I almost didn’t take the call. In fact I almost hung up the phone. When my behemoth, construction worker cell phone started to vibrate on my desk in the middle of the day I thought “Who is calling me while I’m at work?” The twelve digit phone number was a question in and of itself. Against my better judgment, I pressed “talk”
“Hello?” I said to silence.
“Hello?” I repeated, waiting a beat to conclude it was a telemarketer. The moment I was about to pull the phone away from my ear to press “end call”, I heard the words that only one person in my life ever says.
“The Great Unwashed”
There is exactly one person in this whole world who loves to say my full name as much as I do.
“Sula!” I half cried and half cheered into the phone. Then my words became a hurried conjoined sentence as my brain tried to right itself from the surprise of hearing that voice, her voice, the one I had been missing for nearly a month; “Imissyousomuch.Icantbelieveyou’recallingme.HowistheArctic?”
“What?” My beloved friend yelled from across the frozen country.
“HowistheArctic?” I repeated.
“You have to talk slower it’s a satellite phone.” She explained, her words staccato stripes through the crackly connection.
“How is the Arctic?” I repeated slower this time, my brain which was slowly catching up to the situation was able to process instructions and the limitations of incredible, new technology which allowed me to hear my friend’s voice over a distance of thousands of uninhabited desolate kilometers.
“It’s cold.” Sula laughed, “It snowed today.”
Knowing how badly that would affect her work and research, I apologized, then my brain finally recognized that I was talking to my cherished friend who was in THE ARCTIC, and blurted out another rushed sentence; Areyousafe? Isthecrewsafe?
“Orry?” Her voice, went in and out over the tenuous connection.
“Are you safe?” I enunciated loudly.
“Yes, I’m safe.” She replied.
“Is the crew safe?” I asked more tentatively, not wanting to hope too hard that she and thus we could possibly be that fortunate.
“Yes, we’re all fine and getting along.” She laughed in the way that only someone who understands how to foster easy camaraderie in the most terrible of conditions can.
A small lump formed in my throat from relief and joy at these last two statements, but then I remembered the sight of my friend’s hands when she returned from our true Great North last summer. The rippling scars that crisscrossed her skin, from small cuts received in the field, which in the cold climate that prevented adequate circulation, were unable to heal. “How are your hands and feet?” I asked worriedly.
“They’re fine.” She assured me.
Next she inquired about my medical condition. Last year, when life was hard, but truly just its run of the mill self, I didn’t warrant such luxuries as the sound of Sula’s voice from the middle of the tundra. Especially in the midst of antenna problems, this made already tenuous connections nearly impossible to keep. This year, an improved antenna bought me just under ten minutes of short shouted statements. I was elated.
I stayed late at work that night, and puttered about at home for an hour or so before I realized- I hadn’t called Sula’s mom, Mrs. Jackson. I rushed to the outlet where my cell phone was charging, the effort of holding the connection with the satellite phone having exhausted the battery.
“I talked to her today, she’s safe.” The words tumbled out of my mouth, I was so eager for Mrs. Jackson to feel my relief. While she’s in the Arctic, Sula and her crew are busy and although occasional calls home are permitted, they’re expensive – think 1960’s trans-Atlantic phone rates but adjusted for inflation. I had received one of her two monthly calls, thus it was my job to share the good news with everyone important in her life; for today Sula is safe, and her crew is safe.
Sula loves her work and is successful. Thus being her biggest fan (next to her Mom of course) I love and support her work too. That being said, sometimes being the person who is left, the one who can only worry about cold and polar bear visits and all of the other dangers that are inherent to the Arctic and thus Sula’s work, is hard at times, which is why short conversations, the knowledge that for the moment she is safe, are reassuring. Sula, ever the adventurer counts down until she leaves for the Arctic, the rest of us count the days until she returns. Safe travels my friend, 44 day until you are home once again.