He had taught me how to read, how to swim the backstroke, how to throw a jab and a right hook. Even in the ICU where he died with a nose and throat full of tubes, he wanted to hear about me, solve one final batch of my problems. That had been the cornerstone of our relationship. He’d once told me that I liked to screw up my life in exactly the same ways he’d always done. “Watching you struggle is like reading my own high school diary,” he said cheerfully. “Which is good, because I already know how my high school diary ends.”
Then he died. Suddenly my high school diary problems were replaced with the more pressing concerns of paperwork, phone calls to banks, arrangements for organ donation. And those problems gave way to an even more taxing cluster of problems—fielding emails and sympathy cards, accepting casseroles with some modicum of grace, returning to work. All the while I kept hearing my father’s gentle voice in my head, offering guidance. But now I couldn’t make out the words. I couldn’t imagine what he’d tell me to do. Every time I needed to make more unfamiliar plans, I thought, I’ll ask my dad what to do, and then I remembered.
My own brain wasn’t the only faulty machine that glitched out when presented with the fact of my father’s death. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—they were all grief stimulators, with memory traps spring-loaded into every corner. I’d posted many photos of my dad on Facebook and Instagram, and the two apps’ archive services insisted on reminding me of it at all times. On this day in 2011, your father gave the dog a piece of pumpkin-pie filling. On this day in 2013, he wore that Jersey Shore–branded T-shirt you bought him. On this day in 2014, he watched you graduate. Every day the apps tormented me with evidence of how alive he used to be.
I’d never noticed before that people talk about their fathers all the time on social media. I’d never noticed fathers in general or the existence of Father’s Day, which arrived just a few weeks after my father’s death and during which I turned off my phone and laptop and smoked three disgracefully fat joints and watched Dirty Dancing twice in a row because it had been our favorite movie.
For weeks I avoided checking emails, believing that if I never looked at the many requests from lawyers and creditors, they wouldn’t be real. My father might have approved of my self-imposed digital exile. He had joined the online revolution haltingly and reluctantly. He never quite learned how to type. He couldn’t text. He used only one app with any enthusiasm, and it was the chess app that his friend David had installed on his phone so that they could maintain their decades-long rivalry over long distances. Email was barely on his radar. But one day I opened Gmail and searched my email history for his name anyway, even though I knew I wouldn’t find much. It was the sort of thing I did often in the early days of my father’s death, fracking for his presence in the deepest and most unlikely crevices of my life.
As expected, I found only about 10 emails between us in as many years of Gmail use. The revelation was not in anything I read but in the mere typing of his name—an icy wave of relief splashing me in the face. How good it felt to write his name for no reason, in a place that only I could see, and not on some piece of paperwork related to his death or in response to some well-wisher’s post on Facebook. It was like charging a magical sigil. I’d never been one of those writers who attached fetishistic significance to the physical act of writing (or to books themselves, or paper). But I finally understood how those writers felt. Writing to my father, I realized, was a charmed act. It didn’t summon him, but it raised the friendly shadow of him in the room; that was something.
I began writing him emails. I didn’t send them at first. Typing his email address into the recipient bar was enough to conjure up his listening presence. For months I transcribed the hostile anguish in my head into emails to my father, which I would then seal off with the addition of his email address and save in my drafts folder. It was the high school diary, unfiltered. He would never find out how it ended now; it felt good to “tell” him.
The first time I pressed “send,” it was by accident, and I was horrified. I was worried not that someone would receive and read the email, but that the recipient address would bounce back a message that the account had been deactivated.
I stared at my inbox for a minute, waiting for the inevitable. It never happened. The email address was still active.
So I continued the ritual, except now I sent those long-winded emails out. I wrote to my father anytime I needed him. In my letters I tried to talk myself around to whatever he would have said to me, hoping I could reverse-engineer the advice he might have given me. Then I pressed send, which never stopped being thrilling—I’d sidestepped the finality of death and found a plane where my father could thrive unchallenged. I put disclaimers at the beginning of every email: Hey, if you can somehow read this, please ignore it; hey, I don’t think anyone’s checking this email, but if you are then please just delete without reading; I’m lonely, I’m grieving, I miss my father, nothing to see here. But nobody ever responded.
One day, a year and a half later, someone did respond—not from my father’s email address, thank God, or I likely would have passed out at my desk. Still, it was frightening to see another email address from the same Workplace suite, with the same subject line. I don’t know what I was frightened of, exactly. Only that the stakes felt terribly high. I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of doing anything online, even sending emails to a dead person’s inbox—everything that happens online can be witnessed by an audience.
The response I received is the reason you’re reading this, because I posted it on Twitter and it went viral. “I’m sure you remember me,” my father’s former coworker wrote. “I want you to know that I never read these emails because I can tell they are very personal. But I do see them coming in and I can see that you must still miss your dad terribly.” There was more; I’m self-conscious about typing it all out, because of how generous it was for this person to not only share memories of my father with me, but to interpret them, color them with our shared understanding of what my father and I had been together. Like, for example: “Watching the two of you together wisecracking…it was like watching a Mel Brooks movie.”
Right after he died, all I ever wanted to do was talk about how great my dad was. People never quite related to that urge properly, leaving me feeling frustrated and thwarted at every turn. I was so dialed into my grief that it was unimaginable to me how people could talk to me about anything else. I wanted other people to tell me funny stories that made my father sound as cool and charming as I’d always believed him to be, without my having to ask for it. That was the thing that my dad’s old coworker did for me. I shot the signals of my mourning into space for months, fully expecting them to die unreceived. And when I least expected it, someone sent signals back that said, “You are not the last living witness to the relationship you had with your father.”
Our loved ones take so much history with them when they go. The death itself is never the only loss we’re mourning. The inside jokes we had with them become fragments of a dead language. The objects we shared with them become tchotchkes taking up space on our shelves. We’re loath to use the things we inherit from them, lest those things become ours and not theirs. My father died, and our relationship died with him, no matter how many emails I wrote into the willing void. Where there had once been a father loving his daughter who loved him, and 27 years of the relationship we’d shared, now there was only a grieving woman alone. Sometimes I hold the bag of his ashes in my hand, feeling how pitifully little it weighs. When he was alive, my father was always the biggest, most magnetic man in the room. Now he’s about eight gray pounds of burnt-up nothing. I try not to imagine that our relationship went the same way.
I still listen to that last voicemail he left me, trying to inject that old magic back into his voice, the same way I do whenever I listen to a beloved song too many times until it loses its hold on me. I still smell the one shirt of his that I have, even though it smells like my house now and not his. Every time I confront some physical fact of my father’s former existence, my instinct is to hunt and capture it before it escapes. But the emails I write to my father are different. I’m not hoarding enchanted objects when I write to him, the way I’ve done with the 20 boxes of stuff from his house that I don’t want but refuse to throw away. I’m regenerating him, in the limited, dynamic way that I can. I’m writing my half of a dialogue that I know he would share with me if he could.
I don’t want to overstate the effect of these emails or even of the response to them. This is not a happy ending. I wasn’t ready for my father to die. It stunted me, and I remain stunted. The email didn’t change that. This coworker and I will probably never speak again, which I imagine disappoints anyone who hasn’t formed their own strange, fleeting grief-based alliances with people they barely know. Eventually I’ll begin to move on from my father’s death, and that will be an ache of its own. Writing emails to him will stop feeling meaningful.
At the same time, the email from that coworker let me feel closer to my father than I have in a year and a half. It was so full of grace and life that I could imagine it drawing from my father’s energy, thrumming its remaining vibrations across the earth. Why not? I was in agony; I contacted my father; a form of my father’s memory contacted me back. More implausible things have happened.
Rax King has been published in Catapult, Electric Literature, and Autostraddle. Look out for her monthly column, Store-Bought Is Fine, at Catapult for hot takes about the Food Network, and follow her on Twitter at @raxkingisdead for hot takes about everything else.
“I shot the signals of my mourning into space for months, fully expecting them to die unreceived. And when I least expected it, someone sent signals back.”Description...