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Monday, April 18, 2011

Deleting the Dead

The electronic lady who prompts me from our voice mail system told me yesterday that I was about to run out of message space, and she strongly encouraged me to delete some of the Forty! Seven! old messages that I had been too lazy to review over the past several months.

This, of course, required me to listen to all of the Forty! Seven! messages, or at least the beginning of them. I ended up deleting all but three of them. The ones I kept were from people who are dead.

I don’t know why I can’t bring myself erase them. The messages were from good friends, and one of them died just months ago. Maybe it seems like some final act of betrayal to delete them to make room for messages from the living, most of whom are strangers since it was my work voice mailbox. Yet, I can’t press that number 3 button on the phone, knowing I’ll be unable to hear their voices again. I find it odd, and just a little bit macabre, because I don’t intentionally go back and play their old messages to hear them speak again. That is, until the electronic lady tells me it’s time. And then it's surprising, because I have forgotten I've intentionally not deleted them.

Many years ago, in an early version of Microsoft Windows, there was an applet called Cardfile, which was nothing but a digital version of a Rolodex. Instead of flipping through tiny pages of real Rolodex cards, you would click your way through virtual pages to find the contact information of anyone you put in there.

It was during this timeframe that my beloved Aunt Dorothy died. She lived to be 95, and whenever I went to visit her she would always make a cheese ball, nut rolls and her famous calico beans. Because I have never been a very good file clerk, her name was alphabetized under “Aunt” instead of “Dorothy”, and hers was the first “card” that appeared whenever I opened the Cardfile program. Seeing it after she died would always make me a little sad (and hungry), so one day I decided to get rid of the virtual card. I clicked the button on the screen, and a dialog box appeared that read: “Delete Aunt Dorothy?” with Yes and No buttons underneath the question.

Microsoft no longer includes Cardfile in its operating system, and frankly I’m glad. I felt resentful that some computer was throwing salt on my wound. Well, no! I thought, I don’t want to delete Aunt Dorothy! Why is that left up to me to make that decision? I pondered a couple of things: If I deleted her, I thought, I would soon forget about her jovial cackle and hard Pittsburgh accent. And of course, the cheese ball, nut rolls and calico beans as well. If I didn’t delete her, would that bring her back? In the end, I kept Aunt Dorothy, although I cloaked it under a card with merely the letter “A” on it, so she wasn’t the first one to appear. That was stupid, because every time I saw the “A” I knew what it stood for, and what it was covering up.

Today, with a Contacts section in every e-mail program, when you delete a contact, it just goes away without a requesting a confirmation. That’s the way it should be. This does not mean that computer programmers are becoming kinder and gentler, otherwise why would they have created autocomplete?

Just about any e-mail application now has autocomplete enabled to reduce your keyboard strokes. For example, in composing a message to Other Bill, I just have to type a “B” in the “To:” box, and his complete e-mail address pops up for me to select. I just hit the Tab key, and the software fills his in his address automatically, saving me sixteen keystrokes.

But dead people show up in the autocomplete list when you begin to type in something that looks like their e-mail address. They are easily deleted without any sass from the computer, but most people don’t know how, and the dead remain as reminders. I recently deleted from that list someone I never talk to anymore (a CPA who used to do my taxes for me—badly!) She disappeared completely after I highlighted her name and hit the delete key. The computer didn’t ask me, “Are you sure you want to delete That Lousy CPA?”

These little unthoughtful computer annoyances are nothing compared to physically cleaning up after the dead. In my 54 years I have never had to clean out the belongings of anyone who died. My mother took care of my dad’s clothes and other possessions. Later on, my sister handled my mother’s affairs. Other relatives and friends who have died, naturally, had their spouses or children take on that depressing deed. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to throw out Other Bill’s “Tuff Guy” t-shirt that was given to him by a friend who died years ago. How do you go through someone’s belongings that evoke so many memories when you’re already suffering such crippling pain? I’d have to hire someone to do it, but someone who would do a lousy, incomplete job so it wouldn’t look like anything was missing. The only person who could half-ass that task would be Other Bill, but he’d be deleted. Maybe That Lousy CPA would offer to botch that chore, just as she had my income taxes.

As I age, the impact that death has on me has diminished. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve sat through scores of funerals since the 1980’s, or if the Prozac just works well. I still hate being the one who has to click the mouse or erase the voice of a close friend. Maybe funeral homes could recognize significant revenue by offering a digital deleting service. For a stiff fee, they could delete every recording and every computer account and all of the family’s autocomplete entries.
Before I die, I want to turn over my passwords to a trusted friend who could freak people out by sending humorous musings from me on what it’s like being dead via e-mail and Facebook. I would write several years’ worth in advance. My Facebook status could be changed periodically.

For example:
  • Bill Wiley is dead, but really, it’s not that bad. A little dark. I could do with a flashlight.
  • Bill Wiley is just visiting hell. Honestly, it’s no worse than Orlando in August. In fact, it’s better. People here are so much more interesting than your typical Disney tourist, with the exception of Mom. She is still complaining and criticizing. I sure am glad I brought that Get Out of Hell free card. There are a lot of people just walking around trying to find their lost car keys and glasses.
  • Bill Wiley just found his first Siamese cat, Mr. Ling, playing Deathville.
  • Bill Wiley got his first look at God today. She looks a lot like Moms Mabley. That explains a lot.
And then an alert reader could collect them and publish them in a bestseller. They could call it Heaven is for Real.

Oh, that’s been done, you say? Damn. I am always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to becoming another Jacqueline Susann.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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  1. Wah! I know this is funny but it made me tear up just thinking about you or other Bill dying or me dying. Don't you dare have anyone send me a 'message from you from hell'.

  2. Excellent as always Bill- you should get off your duff and blog more often. Some day let me tell you the story of getting beloved deceased Great Aunt Gin dressed....yes, I have outfitted a dead body and it wasn't easy. I wish I had a voicemail from her and I wouldn't delete it either if I did.