While attending last year’s writing workshop sponsored by The Sun magazine I made a commitment to myself: from that day on, I would submit a piece of writing each month, to a section entitled “Readers Write”, where the magazine’s loyal followers or someone like me who’s recently new to the venue, share a bit of their own writing. When I saw the prompt for this next month, my heart sank: The Internet.
With any small amount of pondering over this one word, this mostly incomprehensible concept, with all its power to connect, to announce, to shame or defame, to make trash into glory, to tell stories of intimacy or revolution, for me when I let myself wander in the word, I still come up with death: the death of my brother and his younger daughter. The almighty Internet was the obedient messenger that carried a small electronic envelope holding a brief collection of letters, words and punctuation, and when the stark symbols were slowly strung together and my brain would enable the words to take on meaning, it would lead me to learn of their deaths.
I did not receive a phone call, which is probably still a more common, albeit equally excruciating way, to learn of a tragedy. The actual day of their death came and went like always, for I knew nothing. Yet. The following day, Saturday, was lovely at its onset: a glorious summer day with sunshine – not something to be assumed in the Pacific Northwest. My Saturdays almost always began with a very local yoga class taught by our gifted and sometimes hilariously funny yoga teacher, a visit to probably more than one farmer’s market, because that is my most favorite social activity, and then finally I ended up at work. I know that sounds like a strange way to spend a lovely, sunny Saturday but I had my reasons. At the time I did not own a computer. Sometimes on the weekend I would go into the funky, round yurt that housed the herbal medicine business where I worked, pull up a chair in the office – a space that has no exterior windows so it is a bit like a cave, and find a space in my heart and soul to write. Newly processed medicinal herbs transitioning from fresh plants to herbal medicine infuse the air with a layered aroma that speaks of medicine, yes, but also fresh cut oats, and mints and best of all, mountains of handpicked rose petals – their fragrances all woven into the countertops and walls; into the air itself. For me it was a comfort smell, a calming smell and I could settle in and write.
There I was in my Saturday reverie. I sat down, signed on and began to write. La-la-la, still in my reverie. As sunshine streamed into the main space of the large, circular, semi-permanent structure, I could hear a gentle breeze combing through the tall cedars. Now and then the eerie cries of a red tailed hawk would be directly followed by krak-krakk-krakkkk! screaming out of the ravens as they chased the intruding hawk out of their airspace. After a while, I decided to check my email.
Here is what I saw in my inbox:
URGENT: PLEASE CALL ASAP
The email was from the older of my two nieces. Something was terribly wrong. I could not see myself, but I knew the color had drained out of my face. My entire body was quaking at an almost imperceptible, but very high frequency; to an observer I probably would have appeared calm. I was anything but that.
I stared at the subject line of the email. I wanted to know, didn’t want to know, wanted to know, didn’t want to know – couldn’t’ find the courage to open the email. Something made me press the key that opened me to a world I never thought I would enter.
“There has been a very tragic accident and I need you to call our house.” My eyes found these words and again: The World stopped. The email was signed by my sister-in-law and my older niece. Only the two of them. There were two other members of their family, of my family, but their names were not on the email. MY BROTHER AND HIS YOUNGER DAUGHTER. Why were their names so achingly absent?
What happened? WHAT HAPPENED? I called their number and the trembling increased. A young man’s voice answered the phone with the kind of tone that happens when you’re barely breathing – when it feels like letting any but the smallest amount of breath escape would cause a total and utter collapse. And it would.
I did not yet know what had happened but with this short message that the mighty Internet had carried from Maryland to Washington State, my life was about to both implode and explode, with the utterance of a few brief sentences that were somberly forced out of the mouth of my older niece’s sweetheart.
But why didn’t they call me? Why would an email be the way to communicate such a dire emergency? As I listened to his unimaginable words, these questions were overshadowed by the shattering of the very ground that my life was rooted in, and remained unanswered for days, in the face of unspeakable tragedy.
There was an accident, a car accident. Hearing this, I knew we were approaching a subject I did not want to hear about and most of me shouted to run, sprint, as far away from these words as I possibly could. I did not move, did not utter a sound. They were passing a semi-truck and something went terribly wrong. They didn’t know too many details yet. They were both killed instantly. Don’t you wonder how anyone knows this last detail? It’s what we all want to believe because the alternative to this is too much to bear.
Our conversation was brief. What could either of us say after those few sentences? This very dear, twenty-something young man had become the Gatekeeper for my family. He took all the calls, and continued to speak in the shallow-toned voice of someone who is attempting and mostly able to just barely hold tragedy at bay. Bless him. What a weight he carried and in some ways, continues to carry to this day.
What I learned in the weeks that I spent back east with my family, all of us walking in a place that is between life and death, is about the things that we never think about. I am not speaking here of the big things, that one of your siblings or your father or your beloved is going to disappear in one brief moment of everything going wrong, or insanely that two will die together, but the little things. Like for example, that my brother who was so enamored with the power of the Internet, spelled Google, and of computers, spelled Macintosh, lived in a universe where he had all of my sister’s and my contact information stored on his laptop, and only on his laptop, nowhere else: not in some raggedy-edged address book or on an outdated address list, or as a collection of words and numbers scribbled in his classically illegible left-handed scrawl, on a piece of paper that miraculously remained in one corner of his desk blotter that he always meant to put in a more permanent location. “N o P r o b l e m ,” is what my brother would always say in a characteristically slow, sing-song kind of way about all manner of questions or concerns, but specifically here aimed at his particular method of perceiving the mundane world, categorizing that world, explaining it, and storing the trivial bits of information that it is comprised of in only one, insanely fragile place. This does not seem like anything to be concerned about, UNLESS you are trying to reach the sisters of this brilliant, charismatic and larger than life genius of a man, and unless you need to tell them that he and his younger daughter have just been killed in a car accident. Then it is a problem, and a big one, if that computer is inside the car that has just been all but run over by a semi-truck.
Now here’s the rub: eventually “they” were able to track down my sister’s phone number using all the usual methods available for sleuthing down we, unsuspecting subjects of the kingdom of zeroes and ones, whose entire personal stories can be so readily available on the Internet these days. But not me: “they” were able to locate the small town (pop. 3500) that I lived in AND my post office box number in that small town post office, BUT THEY COULD NOT FIND MY PHONE NUMBER. Isn’t that remarkable? Unthinkable? Being that both my brother and sister-in-law lived and worked just outside of Washington DC, they knew all sorts of people that either were directly connected to the far-reaching tentacles of our behemoth government, or knew people who knew people who were: people whose job it was to FIND people.
And they could not find my phone number. This I did not learn until the day of the “viewing” at the funeral home. After we’d been receiving hundreds and hundreds of heartbroken visitors all afternoon, held their hands or their entire broken selves as they wept and wailed, when the crowd had thinned out and there were, more or less, only family and very close friends remaining, one gentleman gingerly approached me inquiring if I was indeed the elder of my brother’s two sisters. Nodding yes, he looked at me with his head slightly tilted and then, shaking his head said simply, “How’d ya do it?” “Do what?” He was the person who tried to track me down. To me it seemed simple…obvious: I’d had an unpublished/unlisted phone number for a very long time, but again he shook his head. All these years I thought that made me invisible. Nope. If certain kinds of people with certain kinds of access want to find some regular, slightly cynical, maybe a bit paranoid person like me, those flimsy phone company protections don’t stand a chance, they’re almost, but not quite…worthless: except for this one time, for some completely inconceivable reason. They could not, with all their new fangled, fancy, high-tech, spy vs. spy, code-breaking software, find a “normal” person like me, even in the face of a family tragedy.
By this time we were both shaking our heads and I felt, in some tiny, aching way, triumphant: over the Internet, over the insane and enormous lack of privacy that we 21st century global citizens are increasingly exposed to. This triumph was a kind of miniscule but not completely unimportant little gift that this man placed in my outstretched and trembling hands, the same hands that had been clasped and held and tenderly patted for all those long hours as the newly informed mourners came to share their shock and grief over this tragedy that we had been carrying now for seven long and nightmarish days. Just a little gift, no bigger than a robin’s egg, he placed in my hands and every now and then I savor it because some days it feels like that’s all I have.