Dr. Heck called me six times before he died. The first time I was sitting in my office bored, falling asleep over my keyboard when the phone rang and I saw his name pop up on the small window of my old blackberry. We weren’t that close, but for some reason he would visit me once in a while or take me to lunch, just to chat. He had authored numerous books and Riyadh wasn’t full of intellectuals, especially kind ones, so I was always happy when he appeared.
–“Ray!” He said. “Where are you?”
–“Hi doc,” I replied, delighted to hear his voice. “I’m in the office. Good to hear from you,” I said, already starting to sit up in my chair.”
–“Wait, which Ray is this?” He asked.
–“It’s me, Ray, at SAGIA.”
–“Oh, hi Ray,” he replied. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to find my assistant Ray. I must have dialed the wrong. Sorry about that.”
–“Ok, no worries,” I said, listening as the line went silent. Just about everyone who lived in Saudi had a Filipino assistant, and so I wasn’t surprised that he did too. I started thinking about the last time we had met, for lunch at Al-Faisalia, and all I could recall from the few hour meeting was just how much larger be had become since the last time I had seen him. So stuffed had he become with his own body it seemed he could hardly breathe. Each word came out in a wheeze between bites of food, with crumbs often plummeting down his chin like pebbles onto his already dusty jacket. I’m used to intellectuals who’ve forgotten their brains are attached to vital organs, but even this was a little more body denial than I was used to.
He called me again the very next day. “Ray!” he said, “Is that you?”
–“Hey doc. It’s Ray at SAGIA. How are you?”
–“Oh, shoot, sorry Ray. Damn this phone,” he said, obviously flustered. “I’m looking for Ray.”
–“Sure no problem,” I said, “talk later.” And this time I hung up, thinking a little more about Dr. Heck. Behind me were a few of his books, “Building Prosperity: Why Ronald Reagan and the Founding Fathers Were Right on the Economy,” and under that, “When Worlds Collide: Exploring the Ideological and Political Foundations of the Clash of Civilizations.” I grabbed the top book and held it in my hand, thinking about Dr. Heck and wondering. I remembered that he spoke fluent Arabic, and the first time I heard him using it while sitting together at the King Faisal International Awards. We were right near the front, and when Crown Prince Sultan came up to the stage to announce the awards, he walked right past us. I could have reached out and touched him.
Dr. Heck called me again the very next day, at about the same time as the other calls. “Ray!” He said, seemingly short of breath. “Where are you?”
–“Hi, doc,” I replied, “still sitting here in my office like last time.”
–“Damn, did I do it again? I’m sorry Ray. I keep dialing the wrong number.”
–“No, it’s ok doc, but maybe we should think about this. Maybe it’s not an mistake. Maybe there’s a reason you’re calling me and we should try and figure out what it is.” I was pretty sure I knew what it was, the image of the last time we ate together still fresh in my mind. His almost inability to breathe, to talk, and the amount of food he ate and the amount of residual debris accumulating on the disheveled lapels, while the napkin lay in a heap on the floor at his feet. Something wasn’t right.
–“Never mind, Ray. It’s ok, I’m sorry. I need to find Ray. I can’t get my computer working.”
–“Up to you doc, but I think it’s worth thinking about.”
He called me again later that evening, “Ray!” He said.
But this time I was ready. “Doc, look. Don’t you see? This isn’t a mistake. There’s something wrong. There’s a reason you’re calling me and I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
–“Aw, damn this phone,” he said, as flustered as the other times, but in the same kind voice I was used to. “Where’s that Ray?” And he hung up.
He would call me two more times before he died, and each time I would try to convince him that these calls were not mistakes, and that we should at least talk about why it may be happening. After all, we were living in the land of poets and mystics, and for people who are used to greeting angels on their shoulders 5 times a day, what I was going to propose shouldn’t have seemed so impossible.
What I would have said had I been given the chance, was that I was concerned about his health and that these calls were his subconscious trying to make contact with someone on the ‘outside’ who it knew would understand. Someone who believed in at least two things we aren’t used to acknowledging. One is the part we’ve overwritten with so many intellectual untruths and deliberate mysteries that we don’t hear it speaking to us until it’s too late, and the body takes over with the language of sickness. The other is that this same being, call it what you will, resides outside of the rational-linear time we are used to experiencing, a time that goes from the past to the future. This other part of us has access to all moments of our lives, including moments yet to be, and if we open to this possibility we might never doubt that a call made in mistake, is a call we shouldn’t forsake.