On Phones and Death

Whenever I see that my dad is calling me my heart immediately speeds up and my chest tightens.

My dad is a softie and wears his emotions out in the open a lot of the time. I am not and I do not. In the past year, my dad is either calling to shoot the shit, or give me bad news.

I can tell what the conversation will be based on his first “Hello.” He is an open book. We all love this about him, but as time marches on, and the owed deaths accumulate, I treat each phone call with a measure of fear.

In the last year, a dear family friend, one of our dogs and now my Great-Grandma Bertha have passed on. Some from old age, some more tragic.

My phone has become an audio gateway into a world winding down, ever so slightly, around me.

I have a complicated relationship with phones

For one, I hate them. I don’t like talking on them, I don’t like making phone calls and I don’t like all the protocols that go with them. If you look at my phone bill, I’ll often have maybe 40 minutes of actual phone usage coupled with sometimes 10 gigabytes of data.

My office phone is hidden behind my monitors. Only one person ever uses that phone, so I don’t even bother saying “Hello, this is Ethan.” I just say “Hi Jenny.”

But while I hate the act of talking on a phone, phones have played an important part of my life since I was a kid. My grandparents were successful, early entrepreneurs in the cellular phone industry in the 80’s and 90’s. We were the family who had cell phones before they were a thing, and all our cars that phones in them. I had a cell phone in High School before there were even rules against them.

The height of cool for me in Jr. High was that I had my own phone line. Sure, it was more for my modem since my mom hated me yelling every time she picked up the phone to hear a screaming noise while I yelled as my MUD session was interrupted, but it was my own phone number. I talked on it all the time.

I can identify periods of my life by my phones area code. I can Google some and find the vestiges of Ethan Kaplans from the past. I have an uncanny memory for phone numbers from my childhood: my best friends, my uncle’s personal line, my first work number…

And I remember phone calls that were important. The first phone call from Amy (I was in the Atlanta airport). When R.E.M. called me on election night in 2000 right before I presented a check to the Athens City Council to pay for a train trestle. I remember bad phone calls, like the one that started my process of leaving Warners. I remember great ones like getting accepted into graduate school.

The phone can unlock emotions like no other device. It is at once personal and impersonal, relegating the party on the other end to a bare approximation of themselves while conveying a seemingly consequence free emotional connection.

I think it is the consequence free part that I dislike. We have no context for a phone call, just a name on a screen. You don’t know what you’ll get when you pick it up. You don’t know how to end conversations. It’s a temporary, fleeting approximation of a human connection, but with it the full weight of consequence for what is said.

The iPhone changed a lot in the world, but for me it pushed the primacy of the phone as an emotional connection behind its utility as a data conveyance. Data is only granted as much significance as you give it through how its represented, and how that which is represented is read. You can close the screen, delete the app, clear your history.

But while I have relegated my phone to this, and trained others to this fact, I inadvertently created a high pass filter that only gated through those which had something to tell me of import. Namely my family and friends. I know people won’t try to call me as a matter of practice because I rarely pick up or return phone calls. I email them back instead, or text. Over time this means that when I’m called it’s for a serious purpose.

And now my phone is at once a gateway to a world which is amazing, suddenly interjected upon by a world which is gradually, but inevitably fading away.

My Great Grandma died this week. She was 99.91, to turn 100 in January. She didn’t quite make it. We joke that since she lied about her age so much (she was 78 for 10 years), she might as well have been 100. We remember her as the grandma who called my sisters boyfriend an asshole in an e-mail, and volunteered to “sock him in the face.” She was 93 when she wrote that.

The last five years saw her memory fade, and her essence fade with it. Her death was peaceful. My dad was at her side.

The thought that each death is punctuated by a phone call scares me. How do we make these? How do we take them? Is this what the phone has become – a semi-detached mechanism for communicating emotionally difficult topics? The very fact that it’s an approximation of only a voice lending the emotion both gravitas and an absence of expectation of emotional reciprocity?

You can’t see someone cry on a phone. And no one FaceTime’s the news of a death.

But you can hear it. You can feel it. And as you get older you come to roll the dice with emotional anticipation whenever you choose to answer.

Grandma Bertha with her Great, Great Grandson Eli Kaplan Bertha Fasack, b. 1913 - d. 2012, with her Great, Great Grandson Eli Kaplan

Rest in peace Grandma Bertha. May your memory be a blessing to those who knew you in such a vibrant and full life.


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