I’ve cried frequently in the past couple of months, most recently when my phone ran out of space.
That in itself is nothing surprising — periodically, my phone will begin to lag and I begin the seasonal ritual of purging its SD card, cutting the ties of memories I’ve made over the last couple of years and jettisoning what is no longer necessary, releasing them into the black void of cyberspace. It’s always an exercise of weighing; of reviewing, reminiscing, and deciding what sparks joy and what has outlived its shelf life of usefulness. It’s usually a fairly clinical process — deleting documents I no longer have use for and pictures I’ve already saved elsewhere, or clearing text conversations with people I haven’t spoken to in months. But lately, the latter has given me pause.
With most people that I talk to, texting is transactional, not because we don’t have anything to say but because there are so many more efficient ways of communicating now. If it’s an ongoing conversation, I’ll usually use Messenger, the only feature of Facebook I use on a daily basis and one I feel an inexplicable affection for (perhaps this is partly nostalgia for the simple functionality and monochromatic ’90s kitsch of Gchat), messages to be answered at leisure. My sisters inform me that I am the only one that still uses Messenger, with everyone else having migrated to Instagram DMs or iMessage, but I still like the idea of a thoughtful exchange over a hastily-answered DM, which feels like an afterthought. For longer, more in-depth conversations, I’ll default to video calling, because good news is best shared face-to-face and bad news is best commiserated with in empathetic expressions. For urgencies, I’ll call people. Texting, in which I used to delight when T9 and Motorola Razrs were novel and I was only allowed 250 messages per month, is simply no longer as useful. I’ve found as I age that most of my text conversations are pragmatic or logistical in nature, consisting of things like, “Are you there yet?” or “What time are we meeting?”
But there’s a single text conversation I can’t bring myself to delete, even after the others are long gone, and that’s one from December of last year, one I exchanged with my favorite high school English teacher:
hi ms. moffett! hope you’re doing well. i’m back in california for break and i’ll be back in san diego this weekend…are you around on monday the 23rd? would love to get coffee with you.
I never received a response, because I found out she’d died from cancer just a week prior.
And every time I scroll past that conversation, without fail, a fresh wave of pain floods through me. It’ll happen at unexpected times — when I’m sitting at a coffeeshop reading through email threads, while I’m waiting for a layover flight with no wifi at an airport in El Salvador, when I’m on the train searching through my messages for the name of a restaurant I mentioned in a conversation months earlier. I’ll see that last unanswered text and feel that familiar cheeks warming, throat closing, eyes welling with tears.
It feels stupid to cry over something as small as a text message, because it’s just words and the words are not even inherently sad. But human emotions are tricky things because I’ll see that text and it’s not just a text but a searing reminder of last words I never got to hear and of promises unfulfilled. Her last message to me, on August 26th, was “Thx for vote of confidence 😘” after I’d expressed hope in her autologous transplant, after she’d fawned over the picture of Mia I’d sent, after she’d told me she loved hearing from me and to take care. I’ll see the dates of the texts, the gap between us making plans and executing them, and think that maybe had I texted her a couple of days earlier, I would have reached her (she would tell me that to think in “maybes” is a waste of time). And then I’ll feel guilt, for selfishly thinking of her death in relation to my own feelings. How very human, to take something small like an unanswered text and overanalyze it into a mess of subliminal meaning and moral failure.
The pain is one I’m not always aware of but I feel in small moments of sudden absence, like a phantom limb. It’s only when I’m reminded of what I’m missing. Getting coffee, however infrequent, felt like the comforting warmth of catching up with an old friend with nothing and everything different; the loss of connection, that last link I had to her life, is jarring. I recently found out she was posthumously awarded Teacher of the Year by my former high school, and that its annual Walk for Cancer was dedicated to her, a beautiful gesture with an unexpected sucker punch.
“Memory” is strangely oxymoronic, measured in gigabytes but really a word that stretches beyond the metal veins of a circuit board, an entire wild galaxy of human emotion and experience. My friend argues that people are comprised of memories, that we don’t really exist without them, and that life begins at sentience rather than birth. We are vessels, in which memories take root and bloom like delicate coral polyps on a reef, carried by the swelling tide and nestling tenderly into new homes.
But memories are also malleable, easily twisted and smoothed, fading over time, each echo fainter than the last. The decay theory posits a limited scope of retention leading to eventual forgetting. Hindsight bias rewrites memories. Biopsychology tells us that the brain, like the SIM card of a smartphone, simply lacks the space.
And then what is left of us? Neuroscientist David Eagleman writes in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives of “three deaths”:
The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
In the aftermath, you struggle to grasp at scraps of memory as if they’re disintegrating into ash, memories that, once trivial, are now made precious when illuminated by fire. What the exact timbre of their voice sounded like, if they’d said “goodbye” or “see you next time” as a parting thought. The will to not forget is partly to keep them alive, and partly self-preservation. Because we are hollow without memory.
It makes me think me of my dad, who lost the ability to retain most short-term memories after a burst blood vessel in his brain caused a debilitating stroke. His life was then divided into two parts: pre-stroke and post-stroke, the latter a reconstruction of the self, an exercise in reorientation. My mom always says that my sisters and I never really knew him, because so much of his personality was lost. She communicates with him using Post-Its, on everything from appliances to Tupperwares full of food, each with its own set of instructions, daily reminders of the life he inhabits but does not fully own.
He once explained to us, having retained his pre-stroke medical knowledge, that short-term memory happens in 30-minute increments, then is consolidated into long-term memory. Your mind is filled with short-term memories swimming around in a holding area, either to be converted or lost, smoke trails either reignited or dissipated. Memory is a game of telephone, each message a little less clear than the last, and although some memories may glow brighter than others, eventually they all turn to muted shades woven indistinguishably into the fabric of our lives until it’s all just a big, colorful blur. But it’s worth preserving because even without remembering the precise nuances of their laugh, you remember how it made you feel.
I’ve tried to write this many times, but I just couldn’t find the words. Talk of death is often riddled with clichés, when you have the luxury of distance. But the ugly confrontation of tragic loss has stolen much of what I wanted to say. To know her, vivacious and full of life, and to miss her — gone, just like that, a text message met with ghostly silence — is profoundly tragic. And her dry, incisive wit and curious mind are a great loss. I only hope she knew how many people appreciated the life that she lived so fully and so willingly in service of others.
I wrote a letter to her, full of all of my regrets and my hopes and my dreams. I sometimes read it when I’m feeling brave. So much of what I learned from her changed the way I thought about the world, about myself; all of those tiny colorful threads tucked away in my brain have at least in small part shaped me into the person I am today. And I hope someday we meet again so I can tell her just that.
If you’ve ever felt compelled to support my writing, consider donating to Ms. Moffett’s memorial scholarship fund here.
Originally published at www.jayemsey.com.