On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I was twenty-seven and riding my bicycle coast to coast across the United States. Along the way I was trying to live simply and “make the journey the destination.”
I’d taken a three-day break at a hostel in Missoula, Montana, when I met Dan, who pulled in on a beautiful light-green Bianchi, not a scratch on it. He was riding cross-country as well. Our personalities clicked, and we decided to ride together, despite the fact that we had different approaches to travel: I’d brought a cheap tent, a couple of pairs of riding shorts, a change of clothes, and little else. Dan had bright spandex outfits, shades with interchangeable lenses for varying degrees of sunlight, and a specially engineered rack to tow all of his belongings. He also had a cellular phone — an expensive rarity in 1997. For fun we used it to order pizza from a campground.
After a few weeks of riding, we pulled into Iowa City. Dan said he needed to check his “electronic mail.” I followed him into the University of Iowa computer lab, and he explained how he’d set up a mail account on the Internet and could now send and receive messages from any online computer. I could do it too. For free.
I was skeptical.
“Don’t live in the Dark Ages!” Dan joked.
I followed his instructions to get my own account, then prepared to send a test message to his address. Dan showed me where to type the subject and the body of the message, then leaned over my shoulder. “OK, now watch this,” he said, fingers poised to click SEND. “This is going to change your life.”
The Internet is my omnipresent conduit to infinite distraction. It is the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night. In between, my smartphone ensures that I am never very far from my next Google-Facebook-YouTube-Craigslist-Amazon fix. I have been in rooms full of people, each glued to a hand-held device and completely oblivious to the others.
What began for me as a thing of wonder is now merely my drug of choice. I miss my friends — the very ones whose hourly Facebook posts keep me up to date on their every move. I miss sitting on the front porch of my row house on a warm summer evening and talking to the neighbors who walk by. My nervous system spent the past two hundred thousand years evolving in an environment of human interaction, and now that’s disappeared almost overnight.
Grass Valley, California
Dear Dave, or whatever your name really is,
Yes, I knew you were married when I chatted with you on that dating site. You dropped lots of clues: You were skittish. You cut off conversations quickly (as if someone had walked into the room). You gave a lame excuse for not posting a photo of yourself.
So why did I agree to meet you? Did I really think so little of myself that I was willing to meet a married man at Starbucks?
I told myself that I understood why a man would cheat on his wife. I remembered how unhappy my own marriage had been, and how alone I’d felt. I thought that connecting with someone else even for a few hours would feel so good. And I was really attracted to you.
When we met, I told you that I’m more shy in person than I am online. You said the same. But neither of us was shy when we were kissing in my car. We went to my apartment. You kissed my lips, my face, my neck, my breasts. Then you took a deep breath and said you were sorry, but that was as far as you could go that day.
“You’re married,” I said, and you said yes, but that you hadn’t been intimate with your wife in a long time.
I told you I was disappointed, but that I didn’t want you to do something you’d regret. You said you would regret leaving. It took you ten minutes to finally go.
I remember how you stroked my face and looked at me as if I were the most important person in the world. Has anyone else ever looked at me that way? Did my ex-husband ever look at me that way? Do you look at your wife that way? Did you ever?
Don’t you think it’s sad that kissing, the simplest form of affection, is one of the first things to go in a marriage? Couples on dates spend hours making out, but after they’re married, most get by with a quick peck on their way out the door. Finding time for intimacy becomes a chore, an obligation.
Thank you for making me feel like the center of your world for a little while.
A colleague of mine asked if I’d ever googled myself. “You should try it,” he said. “You may be surprised.” So later that day I did. I found a couple of references to a textbook I’d coauthored some years before and, to my surprise, two etchings of mine that had been included in local exhibits.
Years later, when I’d moved on to another city and another career, I googled myself again. The textbook was still there at used-book sellers. The etchings were gone. But now I found my name in an angry letter to Pope Benedict from a group of Catholic women upset that I’d preached at a radical church in my new hometown. They demanded that the church be censured and I be condemned. That, too, was a surprise.
One day last summer I googled not myself but my older half brother, and I came face to face with his mug shot. He had been arrested for murder. I hadn’t seen him since our mother had died seventeen years earlier. Now there he was: old, pasty, unshaven, and overweight, dressed in a bright-orange jumpsuit — nothing at all like the trim, cruel military man who’d done such harm to me and others for so long. But his eyes were unchanged: full of rage and predation, cold and capable of evoking terror in me still. That was no surprise.
Until thirteen years ago I used a manual typewriter for all my correspondence. Then I was given a very old computer by a business colleague who had upgraded to a new model. All I needed was a compatible printer.
I went to a store in Minneapolis that sold used computers, and I told the clerk, a young man in his twenties, what I was looking for. Afraid he would ask me all sorts of questions about browsers, modems, and gigabytes, I explained that I was very low-tech. In fact, I was what you might call “no-tech”: I used only a manual typewriter, an Underwood.
He cocked his head and looked at me quizzically: “How do you get it to print?”
When I was younger, I joined an online dating service and subsequently went on two dates.
The first man asked me to meet him at a restaurant for lunch. Rather than try to find each other based on descriptions, he suggested I wait just inside the front door. I showed up, dressed my best and nervous as hell, and waited for fifteen minutes. Finally a man approached me from a corner table, where he’d been eating his lunch and staring at me the whole time. You guessed it: my “date.” Creepy. He invited me to join him, and we chatted for a few minutes. Then he wiped his mouth and left. Apparently I hadn’t passed inspection.
On the second date I met an attractive man for coffee. Although I liked him, something didn’t feel right. Ten minutes after I’d arrived home, he called and gushed about how great our date had been. He told me he owned a house in a remote village a few hours north and wanted to take me there sometime.
A couple of nights later he picked me up for a dinner date. As soon as I shut the car door, I could feel that I’d made a mistake. On the way to the restaurant he returned to the subject of taking me to his isolated property. I politely told him I thought we should get to know each other better first.
He floored the accelerator in a thirty-five zone. “What do you think I am, a rapist?” he asked. “Don’t you trust me?”
I was frightened, but when we arrived at the restaurant, he seemed to regain his composure. He opened the door, took my coat, led me to the table, and pulled my chair out. He was congenial and even joked with the waitress as he ordered for both of us.
As soon as the food arrived, however, he went back to the questions: did I actually think he’d take me to his vacation home and try to rape me? The more he interrogated me, the angrier and louder he became. The other customers were staring. The maitre d’ came over and asked me if everything was all right. No, I said, everything was not all right. I stood up, put on my coat, and called a cab.
I was so upset that on the way home I told the cabby what had happened, and he graciously comped my ride. Sweet guys can still be found, sometimes behind the wheel of a taxi. But I won’t be looking for them again on the Internet.
Cerrillos, New Mexico
When I met my venerable and gray-haired friend B. thirty years ago, she had already published fifteen books on the subject of food safety. Since then she has written twenty additional titles and numerous articles, accomplishing all of this without a computer or Internet search engines, relying instead on print resources and an old IBM Selectric typewriter.
Astonishingly her books are not only current but often prescient. In the closets and spare room of her New Hampshire home there are additional IBM Selectrics to be used as backups or for parts. The spare room, bedroom, and large glassed-in porch contain tall metal file cabinets crammed with orderly volumes of reference materials.
She has refused to use computers even when they have been offered as gifts. She finally installed a telephone when she was in her late seventies, pressured by friends who worried about her living alone deep in the woods. The phone, an old rotary wall model, is mounted on the inside of a closet, and B. employs it only for emergencies and discourages incoming calls, except from her editor. She corresponds almost entirely by postal mail. (I live two hours away, and she and I keep in touch by postcard and the occasional letter.)
Six months before B.’s ninetieth birthday, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She rejected chemotherapy and prepared to die within the year, locking up her house and renting an apartment to be closer to emergency medical services. I volunteered to e-mail updates on her condition to her many friends around the country. I would visit B. monthly and then send out a report to a list of more than a hundred addresses. When I returned for my next visit, I would read her the replies.
B. has been living with cancer for three years now and has moved back into her home, where the phone is still in the closet and the spare typewriters still wait to be called into action. She is in some pain, but it’s tolerable. She no longer needs me to handle her correspondence. I relinquished the role gladly, grateful to still have my friend around for a little while longer.
My father held thirty-three jobs before retirement: U.S. Marine, water-plant operator, real-estate agent, restaurant owner and chef, and policeman, to name a few. He was a tough guy on the outside but softhearted on the inside. Part of the Democratic minority in our small town, he would write letters to the editor of our newspaper and get passionate responses from conservatives. He was named Citizen of the Year twice. When asked to be on the school board, he declined. “What do I know about education?” he said. “I once misspelled refrigerator thirty-four times in a report.”
In the mid-1980s, after a stint in the family’s rice-farm business, he rented a one-room office on the opposite end of town. Every day he’d go there to work on his computer. He believed the Internet was the next big thing, and he wanted to be in on it.
Within a few weeks he’d purchased a second computer and was trying to network them. I still remember the day he picked me up at school and said he had something to show me. He drove me to his nearly empty office and sat me down on a metal folding chair in front of one of the computers. “OK,” he said, “get ready.” I watched a green dotted line on the screen. When one computer made contact with the other, a cursor blinked at the end of the dotted line. My father’s eyes went wide, and he gave a boyish laugh.
By the time I was in high school, he had a good-sized office with a small staff and sold custom-built computers. Then he started selling dial-up and became the largest Internet service provider in several counties. I was the first in my circle of friends to get an e-mail address. (There was no one for me to e-mail but my father.) When I went off to college, instead of phone calls, we’d make appointments to meet in a chat room and catch up.
Eventually dial-up was replaced by high-speed, and my father sold his business and retired to pursue his next passion: gold collecting. He’d hold up a gold nugget and say, “Think about how many years the earth worked to make this exact shape.”
Living on a retirement budget, he bought whatever gold he could, hoping it would provide financial security for him in his remaining years, or for his wife if he went first. When he needed extra cash, he’d sell a piece. He kept urging me to invest in gold, but I never had the money.
My father died in 2009. It rained the day he was buried. Our Southern family preacher, whom I hadn’t seen in two decades, talked about my father, who had been to his office twenty-five years earlier to ask him a question about God. The preacher had said, “Never question; just believe.” My father had found it hard to respect him after that.
In 2011 my husband e-mailed me a news article about how gold had exceeded $1,500 an ounce for the first time in history.
“Further proof of your dad’s genius,” my husband wrote.
Dad was right about the Internet. He was right about gold. What’s next? I wish I could ask him.
San Mateo, California
At night, as my daughter falls asleep, I tell her stories about when I was a child: How we lived three miles outside of town and had only a rotary telephone and a black-and-white TV. How in kindergarten I was given four pennies each day by my mother to buy milk, which came in half-pint cardboard cartons that said “Schwenk’s Dairy” and had a picture of a windmill on the side.
Last night my daughter asked me how to spell Schwenk’s Dairy. She wanted to share my milk story at school.
Not sure I could trust my memory, I promised to look it up on the computer. But when I went online, I got distracted by reports about flame retardants in the food supply and the health risks of genetically modified foods and radiation exposure from cellphones. I finally turned the computer off half an hour before midnight. As I got into bed, I sadly looked at the library book on my nightstand. It was due in two days, and I didn’t think I would finish it by then.
In the morning, before school, my daughter asked me to write down the spelling of Schwenk’s Dairy on a piece of paper. I picked up my iPhone. Not only did I find the correct spelling; I also read about Buzz Schwenk, the deceased head of the Long Island dairy: he’d been a Republican and active in politics; he’d preserved the Pine Barrens; he’d had a road named after him; he’d started a chain of convenience stores in Suffolk County. I even saw a handsome picture of him in which he looked more like an athletic coach than a dairy farmer.
I also discovered that somebody in Minnesota was selling vintage glass milk bottles from Schwenk’s Dairy. I thought about buying one and putting it on my windowsill, to remind me of my childhood. Then I thought maybe I didn’t want a constant reminder of my childhood on my windowsill.
Finally I wrote “Schwenk’s Dairy” on a piece of paper and stuck it in my daughter’s backpack. She and my husband were leaving early so they could have a special breakfast at a diner before school. I worried about all the contaminants in the food supply, then remembered a time before the Internet, when I didn’t worry so much.
Soon they were off to joyfully eat genetically modified, nonorganic food sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, and I was back on the computer, reading about Schwenk’s Dairy again — this time a nostalgia piece in a Long Island newspaper. I was skimming the comments on the article when I suddenly wondered how I’d ended up here. I’d been better off just having the memory of the half-pint carton of milk with the windmill on the side.
When my soon-to-be ex-wife told me that there was no hope for reconciliation after twenty years of marriage, I registered with an online dating service.
One woman in particular drew my attention, and I hers. We were both raising daughters. Both of us worked in higher education but dreamed of making a living as artists. Both of us had a streak of liberal religiosity. Both of us read ourselves to sleep every night. We learned all of this before ever laying eyes on each other.
Eventually we began talking by telephone. We discussed how our teenage daughters drove us nuts. She consoled me as my father grew sick and died. She sent me a PDF of a Celtic design that became my first tattoo. We traded pictures via e-mail. And finally, after four months, we met more or less midway between our homes. (I lived near Des Moines, Iowa, and she lived in Chicago.)
We married fifteen months later.
I once asked her what made me stand out online. Was it the poetry I wrote? The causes I supported? My love of art?
A veteran of the online dating scene, she said, entirely seriously, “You could punctuate.”
“To you from me,” my five-year-old daughter printed on the inside cover of My Mother/My Self, a birthday gift to me more than thirty years ago. How simple our world seemed then.
She was a beautiful, brilliant child, but by the time she was a teenager, our relationship had become almost unbearable. Nothing I did was right. If I made no comment about her latest boyfriend, it meant I didn’t like him; if I asked a question about him, I was prying.
When she left school and moved across the continent, I thought distance might improve our relationship. She was lonely at first, and we talked frequently on the phone. But after a while I came to dread our conversations, because I always said something wrong. I thought switching to e-mail might help, because there would be time to think through my replies. I e-mailed frequently, but more often than not she sent only terse responses.
My daughter married, and when we got together, her husband became a buffer between us. After seven years my grandson was born. I went to the West Coast for his baptism, his first Christmas, and his first and second birthdays, but the visits were so fraught with tension that I always returned home exhausted.
A short while ago, quite by accident, I discovered that my daughter has a blog. The entries reveal a person I don’t recognize: always upbeat, always looking on the bright side. She has interests I never could have imagined: Knitting! Sewing! She posts pictures of beautiful watercolors she has painted. She writes about baking her own bread, buying flowers just because it’s Monday. This from my designer-clothes-and-only-the-best-restaurants daughter?
She seems to be an exemplary mother, full of patience and imagination. She writes about teaching my grandson to cook by lining up the ingredients for pesto in small bowls next to the food processor and letting him add them one by one.
Then I come to a blog entry that stops my heart: In it, she remembers me as relaxed and happy and confident in the kitchen. She’s thankful that I fed her homemade mayonnaise and bread and fudge, when her friends had only store-bought. “I was so proud of her,” she writes.
She was proud of me! Maybe I need to give some serious consideration to how much I’ve contributed to our conflicts over the years.
Without the Internet I wouldn’t have seen the faces of any of the women my ex-husband loved when he wasn’t loving me. I found just a few out of the hundreds. Every minute I wasn’t working, I was searching online for whatever facts I could garner about these women: where they lived and with whom; what work they did, if any; who their friends were; whether they’d ever received a traffic ticket. At night I would wake and think of something else I could look up on the Internet — something I believed would bring me closer to the truth about my husband’s secret life.
The constant searching made me feel crazy and sick. I stayed up late and was barely able to concentrate the next day at work. I filled my brain with images of these women who spent more hours with my husband than I did; women who had his complete attention during his long lunches and errands. I was looking for what they had that I didn’t. What was he attracted to? How could I become the sort of woman he desired?
Later he told me that it wouldn’t have mattered if I had been the most beautiful woman in the world. He was a sex addict, and the Internet made his addiction easy to feed. When he couldn’t meet women looking for relationships, escorts were always just a click away: send an e-mail request, settle the details, and within a few hours he’d be with a woman — or two — at a hotel close to his work.
I wonder if I would have discovered his infidelities if the Internet hadn’t been invented. I know I would rather not have had quite so much information at my fingertips.
I used to teach in person, but now I teach online. Instead of striding into a classroom full of glum college students who probably wouldn’t answer if I said, “Good morning,” I walk into my bedroom, sit down at my desk, and open my laptop. Instead of wearing a velvet jacket and slacks to appear authoritative, I wear sweat pants and a T-shirt. Instead of rearranging tables in a circle for better communication, I arrange my cup of Earl Grey tea next to the textbook and click the “Live Chat” link in case a student wants to send me a message.
People always ask how the online classroom works and wonder if my students get a good education. In the real classroom I remember sleeping students, electronic gadgets, whispering in the back of the class, and blank stares after I’d asked a question. With my online students I don’t have to repeat myself over and over or make hundreds of photocopies. My lectures and assignments are posted neatly in weekly folders. My students take responsibility for their own learning — or they don’t. I remember the jokes I would tell that no one would laugh at. I remember looking in the bathroom mirror after a class and seeing the sweat circles under my armpits, the redness in my cheeks, my bloodshot eyes. I remember the student evaluations: “Not a people person.” “She needs to loosen up.” “She has cool shoes!”
I put my feet up, admiring my red toenail polish while typing answers to students’ questions and clicking through the message-board posts to see what they thought of the sample essays. Then it’s time for me to comment on their personal narratives. When I get to the end of one, I am crying, and I tell its author: “I’ve never had a stillborn child, so I can only try to imagine the anguish. Thank you for being brave enough to share this.”
My students and I never meet, but we do post our photos at the end of the quarter. I get to put faces to the stories I’ve read, which are intimate because the writers felt safe in an online setting: There’s the girl whose boyfriend raped and abused her. There’s the boy who lives with his troubled parents and plays video games all day. There’s the mom who’s raising four kids on her own and feels guilty when homework interferes with her time with them.
“Here’s your teacher!” I write when I post my photo. It was taken on a summer day. I am sitting in the grass, staring at the camera straight on with a smile that says I know what I’m talking about. And in an online classroom I almost believe it.
© Robert Graham
I eased out of the creaking bed and slipped quietly from the room where my husband of less than a year was sleeping. The computer was across the hall. I carefully shut the door so the noise of the dial-up modem wouldn’t disturb his slumber. (This was 1995.)
We couldn’t afford this computer, nor the home in which we lived. Both were the result of my husband’s increasing mania, or perhaps balms for his spiraling depression. His illness was still undiagnosed. All I knew was that the sweet, sensitive man I’d wed had become erratic and manipulative. I was twenty-four years old and bound by vows of lifelong fidelity to a person I no longer recognized.
I relished the chiming screech of the modem. Through this portal of technology I had made a new friend: a man who lived in another country. We’d met on an online discussion forum for music fans. He was intelligent, insightful, and witty, and I’d become obsessed with reading his e-mails.
Although my husband was aware of my “pen pal,” I concealed how often we corresponded. It felt wrong, but his messages provided my only moments of laughter and happiness, and I was desperate for them to continue. I began confiding in my e-mail friend about my marriage. It felt safe because he was thousands of miles away, and I assumed he would stop writing back someday.
As it happened, my friend was in a relationship with a woman who suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies. He understood. He empathized. He kept writing back.
As my husband’s mental health deteriorated, the e-mail correspondence intensified. My virtual infidelity horrified me. My therapist said my husband was clinging to me as a life raft, but I was full of holes. The Internet relationship was my own life raft. The very act of checking my e-mail buoyed me. I spent hours imagining my friend and me together, but I could not imagine ending my marriage or explaining my new relationship to skeptical family and friends. Changing your life because of someone you met on the Internet seemed foolhardy, impossible.
Seventeen years later my e-mail friend is my husband, and my ex-husband is my friend on Facebook.
When my husband and I got our first home computer in 1996, we thought it best to put it in the master bedroom, to restrict our young daughter’s access to it. We were mostly concerned about her playing video games before finishing her homework.
From the start I hated the Internet. By the time my daughter was in middle school, I would come home from work to find her chatting online with friends, the door shut. Marching into the bedroom to peer over her shoulder, I’d struggle to make sense of what was on the screen. And I could not get her to stop typing that grammatically incorrect gibberish.
Sometime during her junior year of high school my daughter began meeting new people online, even a few as far away from our house in Virginia as Boston and Seattle. This included boys — boys she was now making plans to meet. Her father and I made a rule that any meetings must involve us and the boy’s parents. I wondered if we were being old-fashioned, but as it turned out (all three times), the boys’ parents were relieved at our insistence that we all be present.
In her senior year my daughter told her father and me that she’d gotten to know several college students online and wanted to meet one of them, a boy in his third year at Virginia Tech. He was like an older brother, she said, listening to her and offering advice when it came to boys and jobs. She would not be alone; her best friend and two other girls would be going too. And she wouldn’t drive to Blacksburg until the end of April, after her exams.
On the morning of April 16, 2007, we heard the first news of shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. With the reports still coming in, my daughter called to check on her friend. His roommate answered and said he had already left for class.
Two days later the roommate confirmed what my daughter feared: that her friend was among the thirty-two people killed by a gunman. I heard her wail, then ran upstairs. My daughter was not online but crouched in the hallway, shaking.
At my daughter’s school in the guidance office the next day, I asked about grief counseling. Someone answered that nothing was set up, but students could walk in, no appointment needed. Meanwhile another person in the office asked my daughter whether this boy had been a “real” friend or only someone she’d known online.
Years later my daughter and I were talking about it. She said she was not put off at all by that question. But I was.
I’m fifty-one and new to Facebook. I live in Hawaii, and I recently “friended” a twenty-eight-year-old woman who lives in Boston. One afternoon a message from her popped up in a little Facebook chat box. We wrote back and forth for a bit before we both had to run.
In the evening the chat box appeared again. It’s an odd medium of communication, chat: not as composed as an e-mail, not quite as direct as a phone call. We wrote back and forth until two in the morning her time. I joked that, with the five-hour time difference, we had the same bedtimes: 9 PM for me, 2 AM for her.
The next day, Friday, my new friend and I chatted for five hours. Neither of us wanted to stop. We made a morning date to continue the conversation.
I got up at a quarter till five, fixed tea, and sat down at the computer. We were going to limit ourselves to two hours, but we went three, though occasionally she had to stop and spend time with her eighteen-month-old daughter. My wife was out of town, so I had no distractions.
Saturday evening the Internet was running slow on my end, so she called me up. (I’d given her my phone number the day before, to verify that I was real.) We both agreed that a phone conversation was a scary step in the relationship. It was awkward at first, but we talked for a long time.
We’ve arranged to both be in LA in two weeks. It will be so great to finally meet my half sister.
I don’t know what exactly made me send a message to him on Facebook. It had been forty years since he’d told me he didn’t love me as much as I loved him. But despite my happy thirty-two-year marriage, successful career, and two accomplished adult children, I could still feel the sting of rejection.
He wrote that he’d become an alcoholic, that he had never married, never had a family, never been as successful as he had hoped he might be. When he admitted that he had been well on his way to becoming an alcoholic when we’d been together in college, it was as if I could suddenly decipher a secret code. It explained so much.
I was naive about alcoholism in 1970. I didn’t know it was possible for a sweet, fun-loving boy to be drinking and getting high to keep from feeling anything — including the intense love that I felt for him, with his shaggy brown hair and dancing blue eyes. It never crossed my mind, as he lay with me in my dorm room, that the memory of that night would someday be wiped from his head, along with so many others, by years of drinking and getting high.
He still had a picture of me, he said. He offered to e-mail it. I cringed at the prospect and had to brace myself before opening the attachment. I had been an ugly girl and hadn’t let many photographs be taken of me. I didn’t want to see that pathetic self again — the one I had worked so hard as an adult to transform.
Slowly I worked up the courage to open the file, and there on the screen was an image of myself at eighteen: soft black curls framing a heart-shaped face with pink cheeks and an inviting smile. I wanted to embrace this young girl who didn’t realize that her mother was a prescription-drug addict, who didn’t know it was the drugs that made her mother emotionally unavailable, unpredictable, self-centered, needy, and completely incapable of loving anyone — especially her ugly, angry, difficult daughter.
At eighteen, barely out of my miserable childhood, I’d sought out a lover who, like my mother, couldn’t love me back.
For the rest of my college years I’d seen myself as unworthy of anyone’s affection because I’d been rejected by my first boyfriend, who’d eventually made his way into the beds of so many other girls in my dorm.
“It wasn’t you,” he wrote now. “It was me. I wasn’t capable of loving anyone at that time in my life. You were standing in the light, and I was standing in the darkness.”
Ah, I said, rereading his e-mails and loving, for the first time, the girl in the photograph.
When my mother moved to the dementia unit, it struck me as odd that they had free Wi-Fi there. My mother can no longer read, write, or talk on the phone. It’s not as if she updates her status on Facebook. She no longer even knows my name. I did find one use for the Wi-Fi, however.
On my mother’s eighty-third birthday I went to visit her after work. She doesn’t understand birthdays or candles and can’t eat cake with a fork anymore, so I brought a box of Mallomars, her favorite cookie, and my laptop. From Mom’s room I called my aunt, who lives out of state, and we connected for a video chat via Skype.
It took me a few minutes to get my mother to look at the screen. At first she showed no sign of recognition. Then my aunt adjusted the camera angle on her end and said, “Hi, Mem!”
“Hey, it’s you!” my mother said, and she touched the screen. “Are Mother and Nana here or in the kitchen?”
We sang “Happy Birthday,” and my mother joined in, unsure whose birthday it was. I wrapped her hand around a Mallomar and lifted it toward her mouth. She stopped short and said, “We should give some to the people.” She gave hers to me, then took another and pushed it into the computer screen for her sister. My aunt reached out and pretended to eat it. “Mmm. Thanks, Mem!” she said. “This is delicious.”
My mother smiled, lifted her dented Mallomar as if in toast, and took a bite.
After finishing her cookie, she kissed her chocolate-covered fingertips and pressed them to her sister’s face on the screen again and again.