Her voice is scratchy, each word an effort. “And make sure you buy hamburgers.” I remember putting my phone on speaker at that point as I rolled my eyes at my brother. My mom always said hamburgers instead of burgers. It was an annoyingly anachronistic affectation, something we’d tease her about all the time. Except on this message there was none of the I know you think I’m annoying, and that’s why I’m saying it anyway subtext. Each word was an effort and my heart squeezed that even now, she’d bothered with an extra syllable. “Also some chips. Garbage bags.” Her voice trailed off. “And anything else you want.” It’s a grocery list, one for my brother and I to follow on one of her few days home from the hospital in November 2010. There was no I love you, no take care of yourself — nothing to differentiate it from the thousands of other similar messages she must have left in her lifetime — and yet I listen to it a lot. It’s my only recording of her voice, a voice that didn't even sound like the one I had listened to for the previous 27 years of my life. My mother's lymphoma had caused so much swelling in her chest that breathing and speaking had become difficult for her. Despite that, despite the fact that she had spent the last three months in the hospital more often than not, I never fully realized that she was dying. A week after that message, she was admitted to ICU and given a tracheotomy to help her breathe. The tracheotomy made it impossible for her to speak; we communicated by her writing brief responses on a pad of paper. Two weeks after that, she died. But that voice message — that throwaway, nothing grocery list that my brother and I hadn’t even fully followed (we’d forgotten the garbage bags, and even the burgers, ordering a pizza that night instead) has become my last link to her.
The message is saved on an old iPhone 4, one that I’ve carried around with me for the past six years. I'm always anxious whether it will charge. It has followed me through four jobs, a seven-month backpacking adventure, 15 apartment sublets and the birth of my daughter. I know it would be easy enough to back up the voice mail to my iTunes, but I haven’t yet taken that step. Part of listening to the message is holding the boxy iPhone 4 in my hand. It’s closing my eyes and imagining that I’m back in 2010, that I’m just running an errand for my mom at the grocery store, that she won’t die. It’s as if the phone itself is a time machine that allows me to step into the past — if only for the 22 seconds of the recorded message. Here’s something even weirder, something I haven’t told anyone: Sometimes, when I’m having a hard day or need advice, I pretend to call my mom. I have a complete one-sided conversation. Sometimes even in public. I learned this technique years ago at an acting class — I can’t remember why having an imaginary phone conversation was supposed to make you more believable onstage, but I do remember practicing it for a good week or two. When my mom died, I picked up the habit again. I was one of those people who had spoken to my mother for at least an hour a day. In the hazy days between her death and the funeral, I had tried to see the bright side: Without the calls, I’d have an extra hour in the day. I knew my logic was insane, but I needed insane logic to carry me through those first days, months, and even years without my mom.
I remember in the hazy days between her death and the funeral, I had tried to see the bright side: Without the calls, I’d have an extra hour in the day.
But I didn’t have an extra hour. For whatever reason, time seemed to speed up when my mom died. I wasn’t able to keep on task or finish projects as quickly without her there. Before, she had always been able to stop my spiraling procrastination, telling me to work for half an hour, then turn off my computer and go to bed. Without someone to give me that guidance, I felt lost. And so I began making imaginary phone calls. If I had a bad day at work, I’d take out my phone and tell my mom exactly what had happened. Walking on busy sidewalks, I sounded like any other twentysomething leaning on her mom. No one else knew there was nothing but silence on the other end of the line. Here’s the weirdest thing: The more I talked, the more I began hearing her voice — her real voice — in my head. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this was a supernatural connection. Instead, the act of pulling out my phone and organizing my thoughts in a conversation that I would have had with her became a tool to access my memory of her. Dealing with a tough assignment? What I needed was to talk it through, to hear the words pile on top of each other, to be reminded of the best, mom-approved solution: Get it done and go to bed. I’m sure sometime in the near future, technology will exist that will make it possible to have an unlimited stream of recordings from a loved one, and programs will exist that can make it almost seem like you’re talking to them. Having a bad day? Press one for you’ve got this platitudes. Need to complain about your boss? Press two. But I also know, if something like that existed, it wouldn’t be her. The electronic ephemera she left — the voicemail, the emails stacked in my inbox that I still sometimes search through, the fact that LinkedIn still suggests that she and I connect — are only the tiniest glimpses of who she was as a person. Still, I wish there was more. I wish I had the voicemail congratulating me on the day I got my dream job, a happy birthday voicemail, even a shut-your-laptop-and-go-to-sleep voicemail. I wish I had everything she said saved and permanently stored. But I also know that no tech tool, be it now or one in the future, can bring her back. And despite the lack of voicemails, I’ll still always be connected to her. I’ll continue to save that message — probably forever. And I'll also probably keep up the imaginary phone conversations. It turns out, that while the cloud is great, your own memory is sometimes the best way to access a loved one — especially when you need her most.
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.