The Dead Among My Phone Contacts
Guest column by Mitch Abidor
My phone is filling up with the dead.
My friend Michael died last week, barely two months after being diagnosed with cancer. To him, as to my other dead, I owe a debt of memory. Part of this debt is that it is utterly inconceivable for me ever to delete him from the contacts on my cell. I could never add the indignity of deletion to the greater one of death. Practically speaking, it’s utterly meaningless to keep Michael, to keep Carl, to keep my sister Stephanie or my other friend Michael among the numbers I might need to call one day. But hitting “delete” next to their names would be too stark a reminder that they’re gone forever. Their true existence, their only existence, is now in memory. Even so, erasing them from my phone is a step too far.
There is another category, though: those who, while living, are dead to me. We all have names among our contacts that are of no use to us any longer — an awning installer, the guy who cleared blocked pipes . . . But what of those who were once close to us, even dear to us, with whom we had a falling out, or lost touch, or for whatever reason we’ll unlikely ever see or speak to again? Do we sentence them to death by deletion? Do we consign them to a place perhaps worse than that of those who have actually died?
As I went through my contacts last week, some names were easy to disappear: fellow students in the Latin class I took a few years ago, for example. For purely egotistical reasons I couldn’t delete a Brazilian filmmaker who’d been nominated for an Oscar with whom I’d once had lunch. How many people I know have Academy Award nominees among their contacts? So Petra stayed. But what of the friends who turned their backs on me when I wrote an article that they considered a betrayal of friendship when I attacked a book one of them had written? I’ll never call them and they’ll never call me. When we pass each other at events, we turn our heads from each other. Am I ready to draw a line under their existences? It’s a tough call, but my former affection prohibits me from wiping them out. That day will come, but it hasn’t come yet.
For those literally dead and those figuratively so, it is as if our memory of them were inextricably linked to the sight of their names, marking them as people we can speak to whenever we have the urge. We can almost free ourselves of their memory, and of our disappointment in them, by deleting them from our contacts; doing so is a concrete act that expresses this. Not deleting the dead, though, is part of our battle to hold on to those we once loved.
Jorge Luis Borges’s most beautiful work — in fact, the single most beautiful work on death ever written — is a short story just three paragraphs long: “The Witness.” It begins with the image of an old man dying alone, an old man who, it turns out, was the person to have witnessed pagan rituals in England. It is a story about the fate of the memories that only we possess. Borges write: “Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder — and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”
This is why we must hold onto our dead: we are their immortality. As long as I’m alive, the time I spent with my dead survives, so my dead survive. As people live longer and longer, this is no longer absolutely true: Many people far outlive their memory, and the dead no longer survive, but die a second time within the memory-less living. My memory has not yet been murdered, so my love for those who are gone, most recently Michael, Lardner my loyal friend, imposes on me the joyful obligation, the privilege of ensuring their survival. They will forever be people with whom I am in contact.
Mitch Abidor has published over a dozen books. His translation of Jean Jaurès's A Socialist History of the French Revolution has just been reissued in paperback.