Heartbreak of Delete

It really wasn’t his fault. I’d asked Elihu to go and get the phone by hitting the find button on the phone base. He hit what looked to him like the page button. Yeah, it does kinda look like it. The little icon of the phone and the icon of the garbage can are very similar in shape. Once again I learned something about his eyesight when he told me that he could barely tell the difference between them. Even though he sees fairly well up close, these buttons were virtually indistinguishable from each other. And so, with one touch Elihu erased two voice messages from my father that I’d kept on the phone for months. They were the last times dad was able to call me on his own. The last time I heard him call me ‘sweetie boopis’, a term of affection he’d used for mom and me ever since I can remember. Dad no longer called me this. Dad no longer even called. With mom now retired and home all the time he had no need to call me during the day anymore. In fact, dad had ceased calling me altogether sometime over this past fall. I’d noticed it, and so had saved the two messages from dad on my machine. And having downloaded many hundreds of photographs over the weekend, I’d actually put it on this week’s to-do list to archive those two precious messages. But in one split second they were deleted without any warning. The timing was more than ironic, the poignancy of the loss so acute, that when I learned what Elihu had just done, I lost it.

I’m usually good about small traumas. I don’t freak out over things as I certainly might have ten years ago. After having my husband tell me about his other children and his choice to leave our marriage – after news like that all else fairly pales. Nothing has ever come close. But this loss hurt. As I sobbed into my hands and rocked in disbelief, not caring if Elihu himself hurt or not, I realized why it grieved me so. Because dad had turned a corner sometime over the past few months, and I had so very little of his old self documented. Nothing recorded, no videos, few photographs. I’d been so busy living my own life until now that I’d taken the mundane for granted. Those voice messages had still sounded like the dad I knew. They were a window into a time that I realized with great reluctance was now gone. Over the past few months dad has become almost childlike – but it didn’t really hit me until I saw him at the party. He was definitely changed. Due partly to the natural progression of whatever age-related disease he has (dementia or Alzheimer’s – jury’s still out) and partly as a result of my mother’s incessant expression of control. She babies him like crazy, stealing away whatever little power he might still have over his own life. I know she may think she’s doing it for his benefit (that is if she’s even aware of her behavior), but I can say that since she’s retired recently dad’s gotten worse – and much, much faster than ever before. Take away someone’s motivation for initiative and you rob him of a basic human need. I know she can never see it, but even my young son can. We don’t like to visit their house for too long, not just because of Elihu’s cat allergies (it’s a five cat household) but also because mom is quick to react negatively (she even takes personal offense at Elihu’s allergic reaction to her cats; she’s often convinced he’s overreacting), and she’s quick to tell others what they should do and or how they should be doing it. It’s exhausting to be in mom’s household too long, and I know even my father in his declining powers is aware of it. Fighting her need to be in charge is difficult even for a vigorous and healthy person; naturally dad in his state can only acquiesce to her dominant nature.

It’s been my own personal quest not to become as she is; not to try to assert myself into the outcome of every situation. And while it’s a work in progress, I have done a good job. But with this one tiny event – the erasing of those two precious messages – my anger rises and I begin not only to hurt, but to feel sorry for myself. To see myself as my mother sees herself; a martyr to life. I begin to think that I lost something because I didn’t take care of the task myself. I mutter to myself under my breath that if ‘I don’t do something myself it doesn’t get done right’. I fume, I cry, I throw something across the room. I know Elihu doesn’t deserve this, so I take my tantrum outside. What happened is sad, yes, but I also know there’s something bigger at the root of it than the loss of those recordings. What is it? I pace, I cry, I feel my heart positively breaking. Then it dawns on me. I know what’s bothering me, I do. I’m scared about losing my father. And I’m scared that when he’s gone I’ll have very little to remind me. Of his voice, his smile, his essence. I know it’s silly human sentimentality, and in the end sentimentality is only superficial, but nevertheless it’s in me to my core. What will I do when he goes? Other people’s parents die, I know. But what happens when mine do? Even mom, as tiring as she can be sometimes, she is still my mother. How on earth will I continue when she’s gone for good? How will I cope with this sorrow? Now whenever the phone rings from next door I think “Oh no, this is the call…”

When Elihu was little we read a book by Richard Scarry called “The Best Mistake Ever”. In the story Huckle’s mother gives him instructions to go to the store and buy a short list of things for the household. He forgets his list, but with the help of his friend Lowly Worm he reconstructs it the best he can from memory. Instead of oranges he gets orange soda, instead of potatoes he gets potato chips, instead of cream he gets ice cream. When he arrives home his mother is very upset about it until the doorbell rings and it’s his Aunt and cousin who’ve come by for a surprise visit. They all have an impromtu party with the things that Huckle and Lowly have brought back, and it’s agreed on by all that the party was thanks to ‘the best mistake ever’. What a wonderful idea. I just loved the story, and although I’d heard this concept before in other contexts, until I read that particular story I didn’t fully get that the potential for unforeseen possibilities lay in the wake of mistakes – small mistakes as well as the really big ones. Even my then four year old son got the metaphor and soon we were both making lemonade from lemons; always quick to cite minor mistakes as ‘the best mistake ever’. (When Fareed made his life-changing decision I immediately thought of this story. At first it was a very bitter pill, but now it seems to be so true. If it hadn’t been for that we would never have known the life we have now.) And so with this current little episode of heartbreak I try to apply the story, I try to imagine how I might turn this around. How I might use this small loss to serve us better, how I might learn something or experience something good that otherwise I might never have known. I didn’t sleep well last night because I just couldn’t get past the sting of the loss. But this morning I awoke with some inspiration.

Friday night dinners. We’ll invite ourselves over for supper once a week. I might never hear my father’s voice again on my answering machine, but I could still make some videos of him with Elihu. We could still ask him questions – he was still very capable of conversation, especially when it was about things from the past. Yesterday – even earlier in the same day – was not something dad could speak about with any true clarity, but if one were to ask him about years past, especially his youth, he always had something to say. I told mom about my idea and she agreed. Elihu did too (he needs to dope up pretty well to go over there. And as long as our stay is an hour or less we can put up with the cats and the control issues. !) So we Conants have a plan for our future Fridays. Perhaps we’ll even learn some new things about dad – all on account of that unexpected mistake. Maybe my heartbreak itself can be erased as easily as those recorded messages.

67 thoughts on “Heartbreak of Delete

  1. This reminds me of the end of 1994 and early 1995, when we briefly had a voicemail service. My dad was dying of cancer, and called a couple of times when we were out, and left a couple of brief messages. Growing up, my relationship with my dad wasn’t good, but as the years went by, it got better, especially after I got married. Dad accepted my wife as a daughter, and things got really nice, and then cancer came back and he was gone. Anyway, for a while, we had those brief recordings of my dad speaking, which I listened to a few times, and then one day, the recordings were gone. Sometimes I wonder if they just might exist somewhere out there in cyberspace, but am not holding out any hopes of ever retrieving them. The recordings are just as irretrievable as Dad is now.

    As they say, the memories are there, as well as a number of nice photographs taken in those last few years. My wife lost her father when she was a very small child, and therefore can’t quite remember him very well at all. She has good memories of my dad, and so that’s something special that will remain for a long time.

    Your idea about going to visit and record conversations is a very good one. Instead of fretting about what has been lost, you can go and get something new (and possibly even better) as you have these talks with your dad. I wish that I had recorded conversations with my dad. You should take advantage of this opportunity while you have it, and then you will have something quite special that you can go back to from time to time as the years go by.

    I can certainly identify with your son’s allergy to cats. I am terribly allergic to cats, too, so that even one hour inside a house with just one or two cats can provoke asthmatic breathing, itchy red eyes and a nose like a bad cold. I, too, have had cat lovers react to me with a certain distain (“Cats are absolutely wonderful, so how could anyone possibly be allergic? It must be in your mind!” No, it’s not in my mind, but rather in my nose, my eyes, and in my lungs!) Now that we are in the nice weather of spring and the summer, you should try to spend a lot of this time outside of the house. In your post about the birthday party, your father is outside, seated in what looks like a lawn chair. Why not have at least some of these get-togethers outside of the house, so that your son can breath better? I shudder to imagine what it would be like inside a house with FIVE cats! It would be best to try to keep everyone outside in the fresh air as much as possible. Yes, there might be a little wind noise in the microphone, but at least your son will breathe well. Even the cats need to get outside of the house breath fresh air.

    Best wishes for memorable recordings and good breathing for all. I hope that it all works out well for you.

  2. I understand the loss you are speaking of from losing my parents. But the process of loss while they are still alive is a slippery slope that was bitter to watch. My father did well a while after my mother passed on but that was only after he joined a veterans group and gave his time to improve the site. Before this time, with retirement and loss of purpose; he seemed to be in a void. Without a purpose, the spirit seems to dwindle.

    Hopefully he can find something to do.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  3. I assume you checked the trash can to see if it automatically empties or might store items until you manually empty it. If you have a “backup” the messages might still be there. I’m so sad to hear of this loss or recordings. I can’t help wanting to find them. Very thought-provoking post.

    1. my heart skipped a beat at your suggestion it might remain, but alas, it’s quite gone. ah well. seems some good has come of it. It’s bittersweet.

  4. It’s so very hard to realise why we have such strong reactions — good for you, for really thinking about why you felt that way, and making some brightness out of the mistake.

    All the best for your Fridays and your archiving.

  5. Those mistakes can show you a part of your own life that you never knew existed or never paid any attention to. Now I have to figure what good side my mistakes have. I also have to call my parents, you made me miss them so much!

  6. May your memories of your dad be a blessing to you. The erased recorded messages which is indeed a heartbreak for now may now be physically deleted but not from you wonderful memories and heart of you and your dad being together, right?

  7. am so happy it has worked out well for you though am sorry about your loss of those voice messages. but now what you will create will be more than those messages – it will be something that even elihu will cherish. spending time is such a pretty idea. i loved the way you learned so much from that story. so positive! hope you’re feeling lighter having written your heart out.
    you will always have your memories. wish you and your family togetherness!
    congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  8. Grief is odd, you can grieve the changes people go through, their absence from you life, even if it’s temporary or their moods that make them unavailable to you. These are the little griefs that make us realize we have something precious. You are lucky to have had a little grief and still have time to enjoy the time left to you to enjoy your dad. I hope the Friday dinners go well. It sounds like your mom might be mourning little griefs, too, as her spouse changes. She’s probably dealing with it the only way she knows how, to work harder and longer. That’s how some people grieve. It can seem controlling, but it’s the output of a lot of effort and care. Indifference or neglect would be worse, I would imagine. Of course, I don’t know you or your parents, so I’m only using my imagination to find a way to understand. I hope I’ve been helpful not hurtful. You sound like a good and loving person. Thanks for sharing. These are things many people go through.

      1. Once I started parenting my kids, I started to use some of the same skills back up the generational line. It’s a bit weird sometimes, but it also feels warm and supportive, too. I hope Fridays are just what you all need.

  9. How beautiful is your message and your captivating style of writing. Thank you for the cleansing tears and for inspiring me to do the same with my father… and mother.

  10. This shan’t have been a mistake if it’s touched other people too… and of course we have our new Friday routine to look forward to. In the end, I feel we’ve been given a second chance of sorts. Thank you all for commenting and being so kind, it means a lot.

  11. i can relate. my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer in september 2011. i realized i had wasted so much time but when i finally had my chance to see him in october i knew i wanted to have some conversations with him. i bought a digital voice recorder and knew i wanted to hear about his story in his own words with his voice before he became too ill to really speak. i knew in my heart it would likely be the last time i’d get to see him because i live in california and he was with my mom, brother and grandma in colorado. i don’t get much vacation time because of the nature of my job – anyway – it never quite turned out like i wanted. my time was cut short with him because of family politics and other interruptions it seemed like. it still stings and i can still get a little angry over it but at least i have the recordings i do have and i will always have his voice and there are multiple photos before he passed a year ago in march. it definitely teaches you to enjoy the time you have before it’s gone. i hope your videos help ease your heartache of those delete messages. i think friday night dinners and videos are wonderful ideas. those will be cherished forever.

    1. better some sort of recording or photo than nothing at all! I hope we can get some good interactions on video on future fridays. At least we’ll have some more time spent together that my son can remember the rest of his life.

  12. Am so sorry to hear about this wingmother… I hope you get to have a lot of memories that over run the disaster of losing those messages…well now that it happend and u decided the friday routines..this is a “best mistake” too ! innit?

  13. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I read your blog like religion..it’s grabs my soul and infuses me with the talents of your writing. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next. Enjoy your newfound fame…you’ve certainly earned it.
    ~Dennis McHale http://www.dlmchale.com

    1. Thanks for the congratulations. It’s made us happy, for sure! And humble thanks for coming along with us here… will pop over and visit you too…

  14. I happened to save, for no particular reason at the time, a “Happy Birthday” message from my grandfather a long time ago. I have saved it again six ways to Sunday and it is one of my most cherished electronic bits. You just drove home how important it is to keep those memories. I’m sorry your messages are gone. I hope your memories stay fresh.

    1. oh how sentimental we all are. But it really is nice to have the sound of their voices to hear again after they’re gone… I hope fridays give us a few more good moments to record… all the best to you

    1. hmm, there’s a fairly recent post on “Elihu’s name” too… thanks for your support – posts on Friday dinners will likely appear one day…

  15. Great ending to your blog and an admirably decision as coping with the heartbreak of this disease is hard.
    I’ve lost both my Mum and my Dad and would give anything to have one more day with them to listen and to really hear their life stories. So much has been lost in their passing, so enjoy your Fridys, relish them.

  16. Beautifully written. Take advantage of all the time you have left with your parents. I nearly lost my mom, quite suddenly, to a subarachnoid (brain) hemorrhage just two weeks ago. She’s only 59 years old. I saw her within a minute of it happening and I will never forget the terror I felt when I realized that she might die as I stroked her hair and told her repeatedly that I loved her. She has been incredibly blessed and is recovering nicely, but I will never take our moments together for granted again.

  17. I enjoyed this and it hits home. My parents are changing all of a sudden too and I am trying to drive up and visit more often to help but even more to spend more time while they are still themselves…my sweet Dad and my Mom whose short term memory is severely compromised. Even at 62 I have trouble envisioning a time when I can’t say I’m going to my parents’ house.. of not having living parents. Nicely put and I like the idea of the Best Mistake Ever, great way to look at the little things life throws at you.

    1. thanks… 62 or 22 or even 82, I’m sure there is never an easy time to say goodbye. It’s just hard to understand that you yourself – and they – are older, when inside you feel just about the same as always. my best to you –

  18. Wow. I’m glad I read this via Freshly pressed. I have a suggestion for you. Submit this post to midlifecollage.com. This is a website/blog where writers post short stories to be read and compete in weekly contests. Check it out first to see if you agree, of course. Your story would be perfect, especially for their Father’s Day competition.

    I understand totally. My father and mother are both gone, and I can hear their voices only in my head. My memories get fuzzy now, and I wish I had recordings too.

    1. Vickie – thank you so much for the suggestion, I really appreciate it. Will check the site out soon.
      Sorry your folks are gone – man, this is a sad planet sometimes, huh. All the best to you –

  19. I love this post and … I used to fear death and losing people close to me, but I found comfort in knowing that there really isn’t death. Just an awakening. This life is a dream and when we pass on, we’re just waking up. I know that I will see all those close me to me again and I find hope and joy in knowing this.

  20. Thanks – I too believe this is just one stopover on a longer journey… nonetheless it will be a sad day when I say my earthly goodbye to my folks. Knowing this isn’t the end does help take the edge off, but I’m sure it won’t remove my heartbreak altogether.

  21. Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone during lunch break. I enjoy the information you present here and can’t
    wait to take a look when I get home. I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .
    . Anyways, awesome blog!

    1. oh you big sweetie in Ohio – thanks so much! My quick reply might indicate I don’t have much of a life… but I’m stalling on folding laundry. so thanks for helping me!! all the best to you –

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