The Call You Never Want to Receive


Awakening before sunrise, the darkness and quiet surrounding me, no sound other than the slow and steady breathing of my wife, sleeping beside me. Quietly I tiptoe into the bathroom, carefully closing the door so you can’t hear so much as the sound of the latch. There is a chill in the air, raising goosebumps on my skin, which are immediately soothed by the comfort of a hot shower. Then, making my way to the closet, I put on my most comfortable jeans and a dress shirt, then sneak out to the kitchen, brew my coffee, grab my suitcase as it rolls behind me to the car, and then again to the airport shuttle bus, through security, and on to the gate.

The Smell of Jet Fuel

My much anticipated break from business travel is over, and as I stand on the jet bridge behind others, I smell the jet fuel and hear the sounds of an airport. Making my way to my seat, I notice no one looks anyone in the eye. They are each in their own world, off to their next adventure.

I’ll Answer Later

My adventure led me last week to San Francisco, to do some prep work for our upcoming artist convention in April. Just as I started the engine of my rental car in the parking garage, my vibrating phone got my attention. If I answer now, I’ll be off schedule, I’m thinking, so I’ll call later. But a premonition I’d had about my mother while I was on the airplane made me glance at the phone, and the word “Mom” was on the screen. So I turned the car off to answer.

My brother is on the phone, sounding panicked — something’s wrong with Mom, she’s fumbling and appears disoriented. “Hang up and call 911 right now.” Click.

Call 911 Now!

The story sounded too familiar. Two years ago my wife had noticed the same fumbling and disorientation in a family friend she was visiting, and her instantly calling 911 ended up saving the woman’s life. A brain tumor was discovered and immediate surgery was needed. And after losing my friend Sean to a stroke, my mind was reeling. After waiting a few minutes to give my brother time to call, I tried and tried to get through but got only a busy signal. That went on for a few hours. All I could think was that 911 told him not to hang up the phone and he left it off the hook.

Feeling Helpless

Panicked, I phoned family members in the area, not entirely sure 911 had been called, and needing feet on the ground immediately to step in and help. Feeling helpless — there was no one else I could call, no information coming in, and yet I had to drive to meetings in San Francisco and try to keep my cool.

Unable to Concentrate

Arriving at the De Young Museum to explore some possibilities and painting locations, I see my colleagues Tom and Ali and a traffic/parking consultant who is helping us determine the best times to visit our chosen locations. I alert them to the fact we might be interrupted at any time, and we go about our business. But my mind isn’t on work, which suddenly seems meaningless. I can’t focus, I can’t concentrate, and I’m wondering how I’m going to get from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale in a split second.

Hiding Tears

Of course, my mind is thinking the worst. It’s not going to be good news, knowing my wonderful mom is 92, frail, and dealing with some other health issues. If it’s a stroke, this could be the end. Tears well up in my eyes, and I turn around to wipe them, trying not to let others notice I’m tearing up.

My Worst Fears Confirmed

While we’re discussing parking, my phone rings in mid-sentence. It’s my brother, saying Mom has had a stroke, the MRI shows a giant clot in her brain, and she is in surgery now. “Say your prayers,” he says, and I utter them quietly after he hangs up.

Now that my fears are confirmed, I flash back to New Year’s week, when we were together. Every goodbye brings the thought that maybe this is the last time we see one another. Perhaps this time it may be true. I keep praying quietly to myself while trying to stay engaged in the meeting.

Beauty and Fear at the Same Moment

We drive through Lands End, right by the Legion of Honor art museum, where the giant cedar trees line a view of the ocean, with a distant view of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of the most beautiful spots I could ever imagine painting in my life, and I painted there many times when I lived in San Francisco. Here I am again, trying to enjoy the view and determine if it’s a painting spot for the convention. Again, the phone rings.

An Unexpected Surprise

My brother tells me Mom is out of surgery, that they went in through her veins and pulled the clot out, and he hands the phone to Mom. And though she’s groggy, she starts talking to me as if nothing happened. She doesn’t remember a thing, and, typical grandma fashion, she is asking me about my son, who had just had a minor surgery. We talk, we hang up. All is well.

Act Fast, Don’t Wait

As it turns out, there is about a two-hour window for stroke victims, and, thanks to my brother being there at the right time, taking swift action, and EMS getting her to the right hospital when the surgeon who does this procedure happened to be there (he lives 30 minutes away), they got the clot out before it had done any noticeable damage.

My mom had just experienced a miracle. Miracle of medicine, miracle of timing, miracle of the right hospital that happens to do this procedure, and miracle of prayer.

It’s amazing to me how in a single instant, the mind compresses to focus on what’s important, and pushes out all the little things that don’t matter.

Annoying Parents

As a parent, my kids roll their eyes at me, sometimes think I’m stupid, give me grief for things that bother them, and there are moments when I can feel their disgust. And I have to admit that as an adult child of aging parents, I’m often frustrated by their decisions, and it’s easy to be critical, to get upset, and to be bothered or annoyed.

Yet a single phone call in a split second pushed all of that aside and distilled what is truly important.

Estrangement Why?

I can understand estrangement in some cases because parents or family members have done horrific things, making avoidance the best policy. Yet estrangement because of differing opinions, anger over the way you were raised, anger over little things that become amplified and become big things over years of repetition is hard for me to understand.

Doing the Best We Can

As a parent, I do what I know and I try to do the best that I can. Yet I tell my kids to save their money for therapy, because I’m sure something will bug them when they are adults. The fact that I dragged them to art museums, or made them do their homework, or made them get jobs when their friends didn’t have to work.

Instant Clarity

And in spite of all the things my brothers and I could find wrong with our own parents and their decisions at the time they were raising us, all those rolled eyes and moments of annoyance disappear when that phone call comes in. I know in my heart they did the best they knew how to do, and though we all may think other families are perfect, my guess is that few are.

Move On

I suppose my point in all of this is to just say that I’m grateful I could talk to my mom one more time when I thought I never would, and that I don’t know how many more hours, days, weeks, years, or decades I’ll have my parents and my family members. I need to move on beyond the wounds, be forgiving, accept them for who they are, and give them as much time and attention as I can. Whatever the issues: Move on, get over it.

The Last Thing I See

When I’m on my own deathbed, I don’t need my big screen TV or my favorite painting or some physical object. I need the hands of my family touching my hands, and I want their faces to be the last thing I see before seeing the face of God.

My friend Skip once told me, “I’d give up my entire bank account, my home, my car, and everything I own just to have one more half hour with my mom or dad. You’re lucky to have them. Make sure you spend time with them while you can.”

I Wish…

I’ve been to too many funerals where sobbing family members have uttered the words “I wish I’d … spent more time, talked to them more, listened more, visited more.”

Today is the day to reach out … touch base … visit … hug … listen … because tomorrow you may get a call.

Get It Done Today

It’s also a reminder to us all that we may, in an unexpected instant, become the victim of a health problem. Not only do we need to connect with those we love, we need to boldly not allow anything to get in the way of our joy, and do the things we want to do, even if there is some fear attached. Someday may never come, so do those things today. Take some risks to enrich your life, and don’t let anything get in the way. Tomorrow may not come.

Eric Rhoads

PS: My friend Tony Bennett made a San Francisco song famous, and, though the city is getting some negative publicity and facing some challenges — some of which I saw — it remains a magical place. I left my heart there, too. I lived there for 10 years, and visiting recently filled my heart with memories of why I love that place so much. It may be one of the most amazing places an artist can visit, and I’d live there again, even now. I’ll return in April for our Plein Air Convention and am excited to do so, because it will be a magical event in a magical place. By the way, the De Young Museum will have a Monet: The Late Years exhibition while we are there, and it’s sure to sell out. So if you’re going, and want to see it, as I do, order your tickets early.


  1. Ruth Weiss January 27, 2019 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Dear Eric,

    So very glad your mom is OK. I wish her many more years of family loving and joy, the same to you and Lorrie.


  2. Marianne January 27, 2019 at 7:20 am - Reply

    Dear Eric,
    A healthy reminder of family and appreciation of 911 staff at the ready. A few years ago I was visiting grandchildren in Pennsylvania, leaving my husband in Florida. Seemingly healthy, leaving house keys with neighbors “just in case” and as luck would have it, calls went unanswered. (One neighbor unavailable due to emergency hip op. Other neighbor had full voicemail!) In the end I called 911 from PA, who patched me to FL. Unbelievable! 11 days in icu lots of therapy and now a new normal. Your story brought it back as a healthy reminder to treasure our days with loved ones.

  3. Carol Livingston January 27, 2019 at 7:36 am - Reply

    Eric, Thanks so much for sharing your family experience…..we all need to be reminded from time to time what is important in life!

  4. Ralph Papa January 27, 2019 at 7:46 am - Reply

    Thank you Eric. Your story this morning puts everything in perspective and tells how precious family and friends are to us. So glad your Mom is okay!

  5. Michael January 27, 2019 at 9:18 am - Reply

    Eric, God loves you. God loves your Mom. It was not time for her to return home with him. Your words here are the key to His message through out all time and eternity. Family is priority and we all must remember that. Only God knows how much time we have on this earth to do what we chose to do. We all must chose to do what is really important. Thanks for all these words, because I needed these this morning. Thanks.

  6. Pat Terry January 27, 2019 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I enjoyed this story that spoke of conflicted hearts from years in childhood and adulthood with parents, siblings and then, comparisons of how you rear your own. After much thought, i concluded, we are all the same. Those that had it perfect or are in a state of perfection, now….simply aren’t truthful people. Five parents have been buried by my husband and myself along with siblings and friends. It is impossible to look back without pain. It took some time to forgive. That was a battle within my own self willed space of memories. One day, i realized that the forgiveness i needed could only come from God to forgive myself. It was life changing. Today my joy is in prayer for my own children and grandchildren along with whatever art that can be applied to family or friends. Art heals as God speaks and somehow, the two meet deep inside your heart for hope.
    I enjoy Sunday Coffee. Thank you for sharing little pieces of your life. It is meaningful to those that hold out in hope. Still…..i wish for that shiney, gold bicycle you received. My shiney gold bicycle lies in the completion of good art. Will it come in the form of recognition some day? Winning a prize? Or, seeing the joy on one’s face as i give them their portrait? Only God knows and i shall continue in that hope of courage to paint in prayer for the rest of my life. I will do this for the love of family, friends and my Savour.
    Happy for your words of healing and remembrance. Happy for your Mom. May your journey continue in hope.

  7. Jeanne Urban January 27, 2019 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Since discovering FASO, and you, by extension, I have looked forward to your Sunday blogs. They always touch my heart in some way and so there will be an extra call this week to my 85 year old mom who lives across the country from me. It’s 30 years now since we lost dad and yes, I wish I had known him better and shown my love for him better.

    You inspire me to always work to improve my skills and to not forget what is really important.

    Thank you

  8. Susan Nicholas Nicholas Gephart January 27, 2019 at 10:57 am - Reply

    So glad your mother is okay Eric! Blessing and prayers for her healing progress.

  9. Kay Hale January 27, 2019 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Such a great article today. I lost my Mom 2 yrs. ago this month and Dad 12 yrs. ago. I was honored to be with Mom when she took her last breath. But I was home 2000 miles away when my sister had to call me about my Dad. The hardest call she says she ever made and by far the hardest call I ever received. I was blessed with “near” perfect parents. They were my Best friends, my confidants, my mentors.
    This past May I lost my husband of 39 yrs. I was with him when he died suddenly. The biggest thing I think about now is the disconnect about past stories. You know how you talk to each other about the past memories and each of us filled in and it was family stories. Now I have no one to fill in the gaps.
    So love them while you have them! Talk to them often. Just be with them, because inevitably they will be gone. Love to you and your Mom.

  10. Schlesier Grace January 27, 2019 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    When we sat down to read SUNDAY COFFEE as we do each Sunday, our thoughts were “Oh No, what happened?” As we continued to read tears welled up and with a catch in my breath, you described an experience we’ve experienced all too often.
    Continuing on to a blessed ending, we happily experienced your joy. I see it as a miracle. Everything happened at the right moment and your Mom will go on living a blessed life.
    We all learn so much from these difficult times.
    Blessings to you Eric and to your family.
    Warmest Regards
    Grace and Bob

  11. Letitia Du Vall Chapman January 27, 2019 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    Your Sunday Morning was wonderful, I hope many will heed your words, do these things now, not tomorrow. Thank you Eric.

  12. Karen March January 27, 2019 at 5:28 pm - Reply


  13. Frances Pampeyan January 27, 2019 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    Oh, Eric, I’m so glad your mom’s surgery was successful! Praise God! I was the main caregiver for both of my parents, and it was heartbreaking so many times when they got sick. But the Lord knows the exact number of our days, and we must trust His timing.
    Thanks for sharing your heart with us. See you at PACE.

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