E-mail, and Other Ways People Live On

Fact: I do not manage my inbox effectively. When I receive an urgent e-mail, something related to work or my children or a health issue, I handle it as soon as I can. Any other message I cannot address right away I keep in the inbox, thinking that its presence will remind me to respond later on.

However, I receive so many e-mails a day that whatever I don’t handle drops out of my range of vision within a few hours, creating an “out of sight, out of mind” problem. Over time the un-handled e-mails build up.

Add to this the fact that I neglect to delete small utilitarian e-mails (“Let’s have a conference call tomorrow,” “Yes my child can have a play date on Thursday,” and so on) and you have a situation. Recently I noticed that my inbox contained over 11,000 e-mails. My Gmail usage had hit 98%. I had to take action, both to free up space as well as to handle requests or questions that have gone unanswered (side note: my apologies to anyone who has been on the non-receiving end of an e-mail to me).

I started at the beginning, with e-mails saved since 2010, and went from there. Over several days I went through probably 2,500 e-mails and permanently deleted over 2,000, although I still have far to go. I was humming along the other day reviewing and deleting until I looked at the date of the e-mail I had gotten to – 6-8-14. All of a sudden I felt my guts turn inside out, like someone had punched me in the stomach. I had to stop, and then I had to close the computer completely. I’m still trying to shake it off.

My brother died on 6-21-14, less than two weeks after the date of the last e-mail I looked at.

I had come upon quite a few old e-mails from Frank as I combed through my inbox. At that time we communicated primarily through e-mail and phone calls. Our communications had become more frequent that spring, as we worked through the details of the 50th anniversary party we were planning to throw for our parents later in the year.

It’s so confusing to read e-mails that are full of life, written by someone who is no longer living.

I don’t quite know what I believe about what happens to soul and energy after someone dies. What I do know is that I have a physical reaction to certain things related to my brother. Emails. Letters. Clothing (a few of his castoffs I kept from when we lived together, because he was always updating the wardrobe, and I love a good hand-me-down). Interestingly, I don’t seem to react in this way to photographs or even to video. I keep photographs all around. Recently, going through some old mini DV tapes, I came upon one that Frank was in. I braced myself, waiting for the shock of seeing him walking around, smiling, talking. Instead, for some reason, I just liked seeing it.

Why is it easier for me to watch a video than to go through e-mails from June of 2014? I couldn’t tell you. Everyone is different, I suppose, and for me it’s about the words. Words get under my skin. Words convey ideas, and ideas carry energy, and somehow the energy is still there, imprinting on my brain whenever I read the words. The e-mails came from a living person through a machine, and within the machine they crackle with life still, generating thoughts, response, feelings, sensations. How can their writer not be alive?

The avatar Frank used doesn’t ease my confusion. It pops up with every e-mail of his, a photo of him standing to one side wearing a pale yellow button-down shirt and a friendly smile.

Emails, texts, photographs, video, Facebook, Instagram, websites. They keep people with us. I have texts on my phone from two different friends who died last year. I cannot delete them. I am sure there is a way to download and save them or do a screen shot or something. But for now I just want them on my phone. In them, as in Frank’s e-mails, I find something I need.

A previous version of this post was originally published at Life Without Judgment by Sarah Lyman Kravits at www.lifewithoutjudgment.com.

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