Now we’re e-mailing and tweeting and texting so much, a phone call comes as a fresh surprise. I get text messages on my cell phone all day long, and it warbles to alert me that someone has sent me a message on Facebook or a reply or direct message on Twitter, but it rarely ever rings. Susan Orlean
“Are you still there?”
Audrey asks me this when she’s trying to fall asleep and I’m sitting in the kitchen near her room doing work and drinking a cup of tea each night. She’s afraid of the dark and gets an “uneasy” feeling at night. She thinks about things- serious things, and she feels generally lonely lying there in the dark, well, alone. I confess I’ve sat in her room for years waiting for her to fall asleep because it was so difficult to get her to sleep, so it’s possible that I’ve enabled her. So in the last year I’ve at least moved outside her room into the kitchen. Small steps.
“Yup, I’m still here.”
“OK…just checking,” she says.
Our brief conversation resonates more deeply though on this particular night.
I admit, I’ve been following daily the murder trial of my dear friend, fellow widow, and writer, Helen, who I wrote about here. I think about her every day, and I want to see justice done on her behalf. Reading the court notes from an ocean away doesn’t accomplish very much, but it feels sacred and important to me.
What I often get stuck on when I’m thinking of her, is how I thought she was still alive for so long when she wasn’t. I assumed she was there drinking her PG Tips as I was, (and am right now) writing her book, and ready to offer me encouragement and advice when I got to mine. Only she wasn’t.
“Are you still there?”
One of the last emails she had sent me had the subject of simply: “Just checking.”
There are people in our lives that we take for granted because they are too close, our immediate families, spouses, children. Then there are the people who are far off, the minor characters in our lives I often call them, but no less important. We might rarely see them, but we are comforted just knowing that they’re there.
Helen was one of those people for me, but when I went to reach out to her, she was no longer there. And hadn’t been for some time.
“Are you still there?”
There is a lot I haven’t fleshed out yet in words about how the online world and technology plays into all of these relationships. I met Helen via the Internet and our blogs. She lived in another country, but was only a click away. Facebook and social media have made it easy to have a network of people from your entire life in one place—your first grade crush, your high school teacher, your college friends, parents’ friends, friends’ friends, PTA moms, and on and on. We watch their lives play out online and feel as if we are with them, as if we see them and know them when in reality we haven’t spoken in years.
Perhaps that’s why when they leave us, we try to connect with them in a similar fashion. After my husband died and I was dutifully checking his email and Facebook accounts, I read the messages from close friends and from strangers too who’d read about his death—trying to reach him and connect, saying the final words they didn’t get to say in real life—these strange, phantom messages that are never read by the intended recipient. I did the same and still do every now and again—shoot him a quick email, tell him we miss him and I love him. And I’ve written Helen at least three emails since I found out about her, just to let her know that I’m sad and that I’m praying for justice. In writing, sometimes without our bumbling bodies, our clearest, truest soul-voice speaks. So, I write. But also because there is no other option.
“My dear friend, the world is so different now- just knowing you’re no longer there…I keep thinking about it daily. I know we hadn’t corresponded in some time, but in my mind- you were there…”
“All my love- my witty and wonderful friend…I cannot believe it’s true and I am tearful as I write…what would you say of all of this- I keep thinking that…what would Helen say? You always had the words…”
“thinking of you always- drinking pg tips and eating my digestives…but always. your friend until we meet again.”
“Are you still there?”
I came across a shattering but beautiful piece on This American Life this past fall. It describes how after the tsunami in Japan, people who had lost loved ones who were never found, started coming to an old, non-working phone booth that wound up standing outside someone’s home. They go in the phone booth, pick up the receiver, and speak to their lost loved ones, mostly about very everyday things, “Have you been well?” “Are you eating?” “I’m taking care of the house.” They break down often. If you can take a few moments, and listen to it, you will cry, but you will also hopefully pick up a real telephone and contact someone you love, or someone you just love knowing is there and tell them so.
How about you? Have you ever left a voicemail, or sent an email or message to someone you’ve lost?
Wow, how timely was your message today. I reached out, by text, to a friend just yesterday whom I hadn’t “talked” to in almost a year after she came to town and we were able to visit over dinner. I had recently purchased an item that we had discussed that evening, and was reaching out to her about an aspect of said item. She responded by picking up the phone to call me. I couldn’t answer at that moment (was at work and had just shot off my quick message while on a break). Her voice message said she couldn’t believe it had been a year, either, and that she didn’t want to play text-tag, but “would rather hear my wonderful voice.” And since her voicemail, I’ve dreaded calling her back … you see I prefer texting over phone calls … any.day! I’ve never been one of those girls who was always on the phone with her friends. And then I got the email notification for your blog post today … and you are offering a different way to look at returning her call. I’m now looking forward to getting home this evening and speaking with my sweet friend. Thank you!
I’m so glad you’re able to connect with your friend with a different perspective. Believe me, I am not a phone person either. I think emailing (or letters or packages) as a way to keep in touch is fine- however you’re most comfortable “checking in” for that relationship.
Oh, this hits home on so many levels. My daughter also has trouble falling asleep, and I did the same steps, moving outside of her room. We still have a slightly elaborate routine. As for reaching out to those who are no longer alive, while I haven’t emailed or left a message (my mom didn’t have her own cell phone, her land line was also my father’s), I do speak to her on a regular basis out loud. I can relate to that phone booth. I haven’t listened to that piece yet, but I will.
Yes- the elaborate routine. Same here. 🙂 Thanks for reading as always, Dana. I always look forward to your thoughts.