Ghost in the Machine

As we round the corner on three years since my dad died, I’m amazed at the triggers and raw places that still remain — and the coping mechanisms and crutches I’ve developed in response.

Naturally, the looming birth of my second child is an emotional land mine. I’m balancing this excitement about a new life with the pain of knowing my father will never meet his second grandson, never hold him. There won’t be any photos of them together. No memories. It’s brutal.

However brief, there was at least a time that Teddy (my first son) and my dad existed in this world together. I’ve managed to keep my father’s memory alive for Teddy through photos and videos. He can see pictures of baby Teddy being held by his Gogo. He can watch videos and see the sparkling eyes with those flecks of gold that he inherited from my dad. Even still, his grandfather has more in kind with Santa Clause than a real person. He’s become a legend, an idea, a favorite bedtime story.

It feels so good when Teddy recalls something about his Gogo or acknowledges that “Gogo loved Minions just like I do!” But the heartbreak is almost unbearable when he asks why we can’t go see him.

Maybe that’s why the photos and videos of him have become such prized possessions. They are precious windows into the past, a way to keep the connection alive. Yet, I’ve noticed a troubling new magpie instinct in myself … I seem to want to hold on to every digital breadcrumb my loved ones leave behind.

A hundred years ago, I would have only my memories, some letters and memorabilia, and maybe a photo to remember him by. Now, I can still see his face and hear his voice … but it is a blessing and a curse.

This became incredibly evident to me when I recently got a new phone and began the task of moving over my data from the old one to the new. In an absolutely gut wrenching moment of fear, I noticed all my saved voicemails had disappeared from my old phone without me moving them.

You see, I had been holding on to three old messages from my dad — nothing special — just updates about when he’d be coming in town to visit. All combined, they made up just over a minute and a half of my dad talking, but lord how precious they were to me.

My husband was in the room as witness to the panic, then tears, and finally relief that flooded over me as I searched for the old voicemails and eventually found them safe and sound on my new phone. It all turned out okay, but I can’t adequately describe the physical jolt of pain that went through me when I thought I had lost them.

As I then began cataloging all the photos and videos I still needed to move over, I realized that the amount of media I had saved was significant … and maybe a bit excessive.

Am I really that different than most modern day moms with phones full of pictures of their kids? Probably not. But I worry that my new fear of losing people (and more honestly, of forgetting them) has put me close to crossing a threshold between just documenting precious memories and actually missing the heart of these moments because of the technology.

It is a double edged sword, and ultimately I am grateful to have this very first-world, modern-day problem to face. We can only practice vigilance I suppose — and remind ourselves that the people in front of us are so much more than a collection of pixels.

The memories of the time I spent with my dad may not be as vivid or potent as a picture or video, but ultimately they provide a better salve for my hurt and my heart, and they can’t ever be erased or accidentally deleted. And in 20 years, when the chubby cheeks of my toddler are all grown up into a man’s stubble, I hope I spent more time kissing and snuggling that face in the flesh than merely capturing its image.

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