The Ghost In My Machines

My brother died eight years ago. Here is an audit of his digital footprint.

The author and her brother, from high school in the 90s

Every so often, I log into an old email account. It’s a Yahoo, and I created it in 2001. I became a late-adopter Gmail person in 2009, but kept the other one because when the grief washes over you, it can be nice to read old emails.

Over the course of a decade, my big brother and I traded astonishingly boring notes. Most were very short, tapped into our Blackberries, because this was when people wrote emails, not texts, to stay connected. There are emails scheduling phone calls or planning visits. There’s the one from him containing only lyrics to a DMX banger (subject line: Poetry). There are inside jokes, more than I can count, some with his best friend copied, some, later, with his wife and her sister. They still make me laugh, even though I sometimes struggle to recall the context.

There are also matter-of-fact updates: about traveling from Toronto to Philadelphia for a clinical trial, about brain stem radiation, and oral chemotherapy agents, and the overwhelming exhaustion wrought by a vicious cancer working its way from his adrenal glands to the rest of his shrinking body.

I have heard people say that digital spelunking can make a dead person feel less dead. I do not feel this way. Instead, I find peace in how real-time it all is — just chatting away as though we would be able to do so forever, even as we knew we would not. It reminds me of a time in my life when the little red light would blink on my Blackberry. I often hoped it would be him, and it often was. He tired of hearing it, but he was my favorite person on the planet. There is comfort in bearing witness to the intimacy of the mundane.

Facebook can also be useful for this. He used Facebook the way some people use Twitter — quick updates that expire quickly, usually in the form of shit-talking professional athletes (When I was a kid, $200 million bought you more than one good starter!) or posting something funny about his identical twin daughters (What to do: B thinks that O is B, and O thinks that B is O. B also thinks that O is O, and O thinks that B is B). His profile picture is an old poster of Kevin Mitchell, the San Francisco Giant, dressed as Batman. Everything with Denis was an inside joke. Being on the inside made you feel special.

And then there are the photos. Photos of him with his friends. Of us at a Yankees game in 2010, where he helped me craft Twitter-flirt tweets to my now-husband. Of his beautiful wife. And of course, there are his girls: the pair of them in their red wagon; sitting in tiny Adirondack chairs wearing matching pink Converse. In another, one of his daughters, still an infant, is fused to his chest, his long skinny body horizontal on the sofa where he died less than three years later.

He posted his last status update 11 days before he died. It was a jab at an NFL quarterback who was being traded from the Broncos to the Jets. I didn’t get it, but his friends did. You can see it right there in the comments.

VP, Editorial @Medium. I write and edit, usually in that order.

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