Writing Workshop: Bad News Travels Slowly

April 20, 2011

3. Describe a phone call you won’t forget. I’m going to attempt this fiction-style to stretch myself. This is based on real phone conversations. I’m hoping it will be part of a much larger project so names have been changed to protect the innocent and details have been modified.

                Meredith closed her book and checked her alarm clock. 4:30 p.m. meant everyone would be getting back from afternoon classes and getting ready for dinner soon. She stretched before getting up off the futon chair. She folded it up, scooted it across the floor and glanced out the window as she put it back in its usual place. Good. The rain has stopped.

Meredith walked across the room and was about to enter the bathroom when the phone rang. Quick calculations in her head reminded her that Zachary could very well be in port by now and she really hoped it was him. The caller ID gave her pause though. It was a familiar number but not one she expected at this time of day.

“Hello, Meredith, it’s Martin,” came the quiet voice of her future father-in-law.

Her heart skipped a beat. “Hello, sir. How are you?”

“Fine. When do you expect to hear from Zachary?”

“I expect him to call any time in the next 24 hours, sir,” she answered having the calculation fresh in her head. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, please. I need you to tell him that his grandfather Caleb passed away today.”

Meredith sat down in her desk chair as Martin proceeded to tell her the details and how he was headed to Florida to be with his wife. He reminded her to ask Zack to call as soon as possible once more before ending the phone call. In two and half years of dating and being engaged to Zack it was probably one of the longest conversations she had with Martin to date. Or perhaps it just felt that way given the sad news.

“Knock knock,” her suitemate Jane Brooks called as she popped her head through the shared shower area door. “You ready? Mere, what’s wrong?” She came all the way into the room.

Meredith rubbed her forehead before glancing around for her purse. “Um, listen, Zack’s dad just called and wants me to deliver a message.” She found her wallet and opened it with trembling hands. “I have to tell Zack his grandfather died today.”

Jane stared at her. “That sucks.”

“Big time. And because I don’t know exactly when Zack is going to call, I’m kind of stuck by the phone. I can’t miss his call. Here’s a $10. Bring me back my usual and tell everyone sorry for me?”

“Yeah, yeah. Not a problem,” Jane took the bill. “But are you okay?”

Meredith looked over Jane’s shoulder and saw Jane’s roommate and two other friends waiting at the shower room door. “I guess. It just stinks. I have no idea when he’s going to call. I have to give him bad news. I just… yeah, it just stinks but I’m okay. Thanks. Take your time—I’m probably in for a long night of waiting so no rush on dinner, okay?”

“You got it. I’ll be back.” Jane and the others left through the room door. Meredith stared at the closed door. She was the first of their group graduating—she only had eight weeks left while everyone else had another semester to go. She already had her first job lined up. She was the only one of their group also getting married and she was suddenly dealing with her first real married issue—how to deliver bad news to the love of your life. Compound that with the frustrating inability to just pick of the phone and call him… well, that closed door seemed to represent a really big gap as she listened to the other residents either returning home or leaving for dinner while she stayed in limbo.

Please call, Zack. I need you to call.

Sighing, Meredith pulled the futon back out. She searched through her desk drawer for her address book. Her future mother-in-law Aileen had given her family phone numbers before she returned to school so that she could make wedding plans personally. She checked the alarm clock again—6 p.m. would be 4 p.m. Mountain time—and she called Zack’s sister.


“Hi Melaney, its Meredith. I’m so sorry about your grandfather. You doing okay?” she asked the older woman.

“Yes, I guess. Have you been able to get hold of Zack?”

“He’s supposed to call some time soon. I keep staring at the phone, willing it to ring. I have call-waiting so I’m killing time. Are you going to Florida?”

“Can’t. Doctor’s orders. No traveling for the rest of my pregnancy.”

“What about Brady and Kevin?” She twirled the cord in between her fingers.

Melaney launched into her answer—the brothers could not leave their respective schools but she had heard that other family members would be there, including one who was a minister to do the service. It would be a small comfort to her mother but Meredith knew Aileen probably wanted her children around her at this time. She knew she would. It just wasn’t possible. She did not think Zack could or even would ask to be relieved for a week to attend the funeral because it would jeopardize their carefully timed wedding plans.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet him. We were supposed to visit Caleb and Charlotte on our honeymoon. Zack had it all planned out.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet him too. He was a great guy. Zack’s a lot like him.”

A knock sounded at her door and Meredith got up to answer it, trailing the phone cord with her. Jane stood on the other side with the Subway bad, a soda, and loose change in her hands. “Listen, Mel, I’ve got to go. My friends brought me dinner because I don’t want to miss Zack’s call. It was good talking to you. When you talk to your mom tell her I send my love.”

Jane followed Meredith all the way into the room and placed the food on the desk. Meredith hung up the phone and faced her. “Did he call?” She handed the change over. Meredith shook her head. “Okay, well. Eat up and come out onto the hall when you feel like it. Pull the phone into the hall and you won’t miss his call.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that in a little bit.”


                About 7:30 Meredith found herself sitting in the hall lounge with a few friends waiting for the resident meeting to start. Jane’s roommate Leah sat with her, listening quietly. “I mean we’re not even married and I have to deliver this kind of news. I wish his dad could call him and tell him, not me.”

                “He’s at sea, are you supposed to be telling him bad news?”

                Meredith thought it was a good question. “First of all, his dad asked me to. He’s the kind of man who when he says jump, you don’t ask how high first. And I think he should know about getting bad news at sea. I trust him. Plus, Zack’s not in the Navy so he’s not on a mission or in a critical area.”

                “Can’t go against the future father-in-law. But if you had a choice, would you tell him?”

                “I don’t want the news to affect him and cause him to be careless and get hurt. But at the same time, how can I not? Can you imagine telling him when he gets home, ‘Your grandfather died two months ago so we don’t need to stop by on our honeymoon’? That just doesn’t feel right.”

                Meredith heard a phone ring and she turned toward her room where her phone sat in the doorway, propping the door open. Jane was walking past on her way to the meeting and glanced down. She looked up at Meredith and shook her head no. Leah squeezed Meredith’s hand. “You’re going to be jumping at every ring till he calls. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”

                “I don’t want to be in them right now.” Meredith sat through the mundane procedures of the resident meeting, discussing upcoming activities, rules infractions, and plans for a volunteer project taking place in a few weeks. She was grateful for the moments of distraction but went back to her room to wait some more. Ok, God, please, just make him call.


                Meredith was well on her way to racking up quite a phone bill for the month but she knew her parents would cover some of it and so would Zack. She called her own mother to let her know the news. “How do I tell him, Mom?”

                “Gently. It will be okay. I’ve had to tell your father and he’s had to tell me messages like this. Of course when I was pregnant he got a call about my family dog dying and he wouldn’t tell me until after I had the baby two weeks later. Didn’t want to upset me I guess,” she chuckled softly.

                She smiled but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “It’s not like Zack will be home in two weeks, though. If that were the case, I might consider waiting.”

                “You can’t wait. Martin asked you to pass the information along. Is there anything they need us to do?”

                “I’m not sure. None of the children can be there but Martin flew down to be with Aileen. Her sisters and some other relatives will be there. But I’ll let her know you asked when I speak to her tomorrow.” Meredith said her good-byes and hung up.

                She tried studying. She took a walk up and down the hall a few times, always leaving the phone in the doorway. Nothing was on the TV. At 10:30 knowing she really wouldn’t get any sleep she got ready for bed anyway. Jane popped her head through the shower room door, holding her thumb up then turning it down to which Mere shook her head. “Maybe tomorrow.”

                “Get some sleep. He’ll call as soon as he can. He’s pretty reliable that way,” Jane smiled reassuringly.

                Meredith brushed her teeth and washed her face and finally turned out the overhead lights. She carried the phone over to her nightstand and placed it under the lamp. She checked her alarm clock to make sure it was on and would wake her. She stared at the phone.

                Then she got down on her knees and clasped her hands in front of her, resting her elbows on the bed. She bowed her head. Please God, I know you can move the Spirit to touch his spirit, to let him know he needs to call. Let him know deep down that he has to call me tonight. I know that you can do this.

                Meredith climbed into bed and expected to toss and turn but she actually fell asleep quite quickly. It was only about half an hour later that the phone rang. Meredith, a light sleeper, flipped on the light and grabbed the handset. “Hello?”

                “Hey, it’s me.” His voice was soft as if he didn’t want to talk too loudly.

                “Oh Zack! I’ve been waiting for you to call all day!”

                “We just got into port.”

                “I have to tell you something,” she sat up. It all gushed out at once. “I’m so sorry. Your grandfather Caleb passed away today. Your mom went to Florida two days ago when he was admitted and today he found out he had cancer again. I guess he just didn’t want to fight it again. I’m so sorry.”

                The line was silent for a beat or two. “I knew I had to call you tonight and not wait till morning.”

                “That’s what I prayed for, that your spirit would know to call. You okay?”

                “Yeah, I will be. I wish you could have met him. Is my mom okay?”

                “I haven’t talked to her yet. Your dad was leaving for the airport right after he called me. Melaney can’t travel and your parents don’t want the boys leaving school.”

                Zack answered the unasked question, “I just don’t see how I could get there. They’d have to schedule relief and I don’t know what that would do to my schedule or vacation after that.”

                “I’m sorry.”

                “It is what it is. I’m glad he didn’t suffer and went fast. Listen, it’s late and you have early classes on Wednesday right? I’ll call you tomorrow after I check in with my folks in the morning. Get some sleep. I love you.”

                “I love you too. I miss you.”

                Zack told her later that he stayed on deck to look up at the night sky and say his good-byes to his grandfather in his own way. Meredith’s introduction to this part of the sailing life was swift and unfortunately she did not realize it would be far more of an occurrence than she wanted. It was the first but it wouldn’t be the last time she’d have to call with bad news.

Writing Prompts:

1.) Something students these days should know.

2.) If my Mom were a blogger.

3.) Describe a phone call you won’t forget.

4.) A list of 10 Celebrity DON’TS

5.) Write a poem about your favorite place to be.

If you want to know more about Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop, click on that trophy over there….



  1. What a difficult phone call. It’s tough to give the news that someone close has passed away.

    • It was very difficult to do at 21 but it doesn’t get any easier. I have made that phone call 5 more times for his relatives and 1 time for my own grandparent. We all said “enough is enough–you’re coming home” for the last one I had to make the call for.

  2. That just really stinks! What a jump into a marital situation! The stress of a situation like that would drop even the best of us!

  3. […] The delay also gave DH some extra time with his grandfather. I remember not being happy that DH went to see him instead of going to a pumpkin patch with T1 and me. It turns out that it was his last time to see him. I would end up making yet another phone call two months later. (See Writing Workshop: Bad News Travels Slowly.) […]

  4. […] “talk to his child” or that I had a lousy day. I’ve also had to tell him of the passing of seven family members, 6 being […]

  5. […] From that long fall day where I waited anxiously by the phone (I wrote a fictionalized account in Bad News Travels Slowly) In our 17+ years I have had to tell him of the passing of 6 of his own family members, 1 of mine, […]

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