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July 6, 2015 / 19 Tammuz, 5775
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Those Darn Cell Phones

(Names changed as requested)





Whenever I have a speaking engagement, I always ask people to turn on their cell phones. Most of the people I speak to are well spouses who often need to be contacted immediately should an emergency arise. Many are also parents who may have an emergency with their children or a baby-sitter at home who might need to speak to them. In these cases a cell phone can literally be a life-line. I do ask my audience, however, to put their phones on vibrate so as not to disturb others. I also ask people that should their phones begin to vibrate, they should excuse themselves and exit the room, out of hearing range, as a courtesy to others.


All of us, myself included, have put music on our phones as the ringer. The music ranges from silly little medleys from our past, to the 1912 Overture (including cannons). I even heard one phone that simply yelled repeatedly, “Mr. Goldberg, you have a call! Mr. Goldberg, you have a call.” Most often these little tunes and sayings bring a smile to our faces. I particularly enjoy watching a group of women, who have the same tune for their ringers, put their purses to their ears to check if it is their phone that is singing. But there are times when hearing a cacophony of these medleys are very inappropriate.


One such time is when making a “shiva” call. In truth, I had never thought about closing or silencing my own cell phone when visiting mourners until I was sitting shiva myself. I was surprised how disturbing I found those tunes and how irritating and invasive of my mood they were. The repetition of jolly ditties in a room of mourners, though part of normalcy to us all in our daily lives is at best, annoying and I found myself getting angry at the constantly misplaced music. When I discussed cell phones with other well spouses, they relayed the following stories.


Nechama’shusband had been chronically ill for ten years before he died. During shiva she suffered the emotional roller coaster that is common among well spouses; the mixture of an end to one kind of life and a fear of looking at a new one. She truly appreciated the number of people who came to her home with fond memories of her husband. She found the quiet and stillness of the shiva house strangely comforting. She appreciated the soft voices people used when speaking in separate conversations or to her directly. She was quietly sharing wonderful memories of her husband with a relative when someone’s phone began to loudly sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”


Nechama had unsuccessfully tried to tune out the music of the cell phones all week, but what disturbed her more, was the loud chit-chat of idle conversation that proceeded to go on over the cell phone, not four feet from where she was quietly sitting and reminiscing.


Harold’s disability made it hard for him to get around. Nevertheless he was determined to be at the bris of his first grandson. He hired an orderly to accompany him and spent a long time arranging for his air and ground transportation. He was determined to speak at the bris and wanted his talk to be meaningful to his children. Just as he began his talk, someone’s cell phone rang. The phone was answered and the person made no attempt to leave the room. She didn’t bother to even leave her seat but began a loud and long conversation, making it difficult for others to hear what Harold was saying. What was even more surprising was that other cell phones began to ring. No one seemed to realize how rude and disturbing the ringing of the phones was to anyone trying to listen. You would think the first ring, the first conversation in competition with the grandfather, would be signal enough for everyone to silence their ringers.


Most of us carry cell phones. Most of us forget they are in our purses or pockets, and so we forget to turn them off where appropriate. But hearing that first ring from someone else’s phone, in a place where it is disturbing, should remind us to silence ours. Perhaps it is also time to remember that having conversations anytime our phone rings is not always suitable. Think where you are, who is around and whom you are disturbing before picking up your phone. You might just choose to silence your phone instead of answering it.


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When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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