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Making phone calls to the departed

Telephones of the Wind
Telephones of the Wind: Making calls to lost loved ones 05:58

In a corner of the Pacific Northwest, muffled by moss and trees that are centuries-old, sits an out-of-place relic – a rotary phone that's connected to nothing, except the wind.

Every few weeks, Andre and Erin Sylvester and the rest of their young family trudge out to Priest Point Park, outside Olympia, Washington, to use that phone to call Joelle, their four-year-old daughter. Without warning, Joelle died last year from an infection.

But out here, Joelle is somehow there on the other end of the line.

"I, literally … I can hear her," said Andre.

Erin said, "I always feel lighter, ready to go back into the real world of, you know, without my daughter."

The phone mysteriously appeared shortly after Joelle died, put here by photographer and amateur carpenter Corey Dembeck as his way to grieve.

At a park in Washington State, a rotary telephone, not connected to any line, has become a tool for the grieving to connect with lost loved ones - a source of solace for those left behind. CBS News

"I just couldn't imagine if something like that happened to my daughter," Dembeck told correspondent Lee Cowan. "It was just something I had to do."

One of his own daughters was friends with Joelle – she's now five.

"I don't think I got, really got, how many people would really … really needed something like this," he said.

For weeks that phone was there, and few knew, but then word quietly spread. Soon, complete strangers were braving the Northwest rain, making the longest of long-distance calls.

Lori Provoe was one of them: "'When you're grieving, you look for any avenue to try to connect that you can, to make that emotional connection. And that's what the telephone, I thought, would do for me."

Cowan asked, "And did it?"

"It did.

She lost her 27-year-old son Tyler last year. "Of course, it's very emotional," Provoe said. "As soon as you pick up the phone, the tears flow. And I've been out here several times, and it's been the same experience every time. I have Kleenex in my pocket. You can't explain why the emotions are flowing as soon as you pick up that phone, but they do."

The desire to connect with lost loved ones is universal, especially when the end comes so quickly. In 2011, in the wake of Japan's devastating tsunami, survivors started flocking to a small phone booth high on a hill, put there months earlier by a man who just wanted to talk to his cousin who had died of cancer. For all the lost souls who the sea never returned, that "Telephone of the Wind" became one of the few places to offer a kind of inexplicable solace.

The "Telephone of the Wind" in Japan.  NHK

That idea had blown across the Pacific. Corey Dembeck heard about it, and it stuck for reasons he still doesn't know. "I just thought it would be perfect for now, and as far as I know, at the time, there wasn't one that I knew of in the United States," he said.

Much to his surprise, that old phone helped Dembeck, too: "When my mom passed away, I never really, like, dealt with it, I guess."

The impulse to call her, he says, just came out of nowhere.

"Hey, Mom, it's me … I miss you …. and I guess I'll talk to you later. Bye. Love you."

The Sylvester family makes a call to the daughter they lost.  CBS News

It makes no logical sense, to dial a phone connected to nothing, and yet for the Sylvesters and countless others, speaking their grief to the wind seems to offer a certain kind of connection that heals.

Erin Sylvester said, "I think one of the most dangerous things that you can do to yourself is to keep your feelings, whatever they are, locked up inside. Something so simple, an old rotary phone on a tree, it's just crazy how much impact that that has."

Whispers in the wind … you might not hear them, unless you listen.

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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Remington Korper. 

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