Published May 12, 2019

Spring 1970

I could barely squeeze my swollen feet into my unlaced sneakers.
After a two-day bus ride from Los Angeles, we reached St. Louis. I
walked stiffly to a telephone booth in the terminal. I plopped onto the
seat and closed the door. My heart pounded so hard that my ears
throbbed. I felt the beginnings of a tension headache.

In all the time I had been gone, I never forgot the number:
NE6–5512. It was Nana’s phone number. I learned my grandmother’s
phone number when I was a child in New Rochelle, New York. Her
phone number had been my only safety line. Whenever I thought I
might be completely lost from my family, I remembered that number.
The last time Nana saw me or heard my voice was January 1967.

“William Lloyd, is it you?” she cried, not quite wanting to let herself
believe it. “Where are you? Are you all right?”
“Yes, Nana,” I said. I heard my voice break and tasted my tears.
“I’m okay. I’m at a bus station in St. Louis, but I’m on my way back
to Camp Lejeune to turn myself in.”

I could hear the muffled sound of the loudspeaker, announcing
boarding times in the background, so I rushed my story. I heard
myself say I would be all right. I told her that I had grown up, and I
was turning myself in for the punishment I deserved. I said I was
sorry I deserted everyone, and that at this point, there was nothing I
could do except ask for forgiveness. It was time to put this episode
behind me. I couldn’t talk too long, because the bus would be leaving
soon. Yet, I had one more call to make before turning myself in.
I asked grandma for the other phone number I needed.

 The number Nana gave me was unfamiliar. She knew my mother’s
latest phone number, because she helped get the service restored after
ma missed a payment. The phone rang once, and before the second
ring, the receiver was snatched from its cradle. I heard a familiar
voice say, “Hello, Mary Rose speaking.”

Her greeting threw me for a second. With all the kids around, it
seemed unlikely that ma would answer the phone herself. “Hi, ma,
it’s William,” I said with a shaky voice. At first, there was total
silence; and then, screaming. She was shrieking like only a mother,
whose child had been missing for more than three years, could make.

As we spoke, her tears flowed freely. I knew they were tears of
joy. (Only she knew the bittersweet taste of those tears.) Her prodigal
son had returned, at last. I spoke to this woman through my own tears.
I grasped how much we were alike, how much she was a part of me.
Over the past three years, through prayer and greater understanding,
I learned to love her. In the future, I planned to love her with the calm
and patient love she never had—from any man—in her life.