Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fare thee well, digital shadow

Funny thing, our post-modern lives. All that is now attached to us: financial records, credit ratings, email, facebook, iTunes accounts, and the many databases containing our names. In the weeks after Amy died I scrambled to get some of these databases updated. Ones that are used by life insurance companies, the Social Security Administration, and the state Motor Vehicle Administration, to name a few.

Re-titling a car.  How emotional is that? Very, it turns out. There it was, a piece of paper with her name on it. Testimonial to her existence. Or her existence in an electronic file somewhere. And I had to exchange that piece of paper for another piece of paper that showed her name removed. I was now an active player in her administrative and electronic disappearance.

Yes. For real.
I still get mail with her name on it. Items addressed to her, or to both of us. A reminder that she is gone, but that she was here. That she was real and still remains a digital memory. Many years ago we joined the Sierra Club, separately, before we knew each other. After we moved in together and married we were getting two of everything from them. I called them and went through the machinations to get us consolidated into one account. One record in their mailing database. Thus today I receive email and magazines and petitions addressed to John Robinette and Amy Polk from the Sierra Club. I imagine someday I’ll call them up and tell them … Tell them what? Tell them Amy is dead? Please take off her name of our database record?

The electric bill, water bill, catalogs, still come in her name. Just the other day Amy received mail offering to refinance her mortgage. Hmmm.

And phone calls. Occasionally I get calls asking for Amy. Two and a half years later it’s certainly a solicitation; old-school spam. But now that we are in the high drama of an election cycle the frequency has ticked up. Amy was an active member of the electorate. She volunteered for the League of Women Voter’s as a polling monitor and donated to several causes.  I’m sure she is in more than a few of their databases. I try to be polite when they call but I’m mostly just curt when I ask them to remove Amy from their call list. Why? Well, because she’s been dead for over two years, I say. I can hear the wincing on the other end as I hang-up. But they must get this from time to time, so I don’t worry about it too much anymore. But I'm also aware that her name is removed from one more list.

Email. I still get email for her. Right after she died, to manage her affairs and deal with a few things, it was easiest to start with her email. Credit cards, a bank account, paypal. Simple things like the credit card she used to auto-fund the kids' school lunch account, and the credit card attached to our EZPass. That was a while ago. The accounts are long closed, the kids' school lunches are paid for by a different card. Bnd she was on a number of listservs. And there is always some spam. So still email to Amy comes. Or at least it did. I had no reason to keep her account. Well, there was a reason. Somehow getting Amy’s junk email kept her alive in some strange way. She was still known in a few corners of the digital world. She was still known to a few social and political causes she supported.  She was still eligible for large sums of money from West Africans who died with no heirs. I actually would read some of that spam. It offered a strange comfort. But that was a while ago and no longer did I read them and every so often I’d just delete them all.

A few months ago I went to the email provider's website to see how to delete her account.  All I could find was info on how to add an account, so I gave up.  Then the other day something got out of synch. I had to re-enter her password. Not a big deal but I thought again, maybe I should just delete her account.  I looked at the online help again and found no help so I sent an email to customer service asking “how to delete an email account.”

I received this:

Hello John,

Thank you for contacting RCN's Email Support Team.

I have deleted the email address for you. If you have any questions, please call us at 1-800-RING-RCN (746-4726). An agent will be glad to help you. Agents are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thank you for being a valued RCN Customer.


First, let me say that I really like RCN. Really. This prompt attention to a problem from their customer service was typically. But that was too prompt! Though I told them I wanted to delete the account I really only wanted to know how. So I could do it. Later. When I was ready. I wanted to take a baby step. Slowly pull the Band-Aid. But they ripped it off for me. And after the initial shock and sting, well, I saw that it was okay.

It’s a curious thing about when someone dies these days: how long it really takes. How much lingers in the digital world. A friend of mine told me there is saying that when we die, we die three deaths: Once when our body dies, once when we are lowered into the ground, and once when our name is last spoken. As the jagged edge of heavy grief is gradually replaced by subtler emotions I’m aware of all the ways I, and others, keep Amy alive. Pictures, a scholarship in her name at her alma mater, University of Michigan, stories we tell, honoring her birthday by letting go of balloons, and so on. But to think she also lives on in facebook, spam, catalogs for women’s clothes, and political donation solicitations is an odd thought. But this is how it is now with each of our post-modern, digital, social-media personae. When we are alive, it's a way for people to know we are, in fact, alive. Participating in this world and that we matter. And perhaps it's also an opportunity to remind others, after we die, that we were here in the first place. That we were here. Even if it is through a piece of third class bulk mail.

Regardless, for me, it's an opportunity to speak her name.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting timing. Last week I had to search my email archives at work and there were several emails from Amy responding to requests on the old UUCSS babysitting coop. I to take a break to take that in.