Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Junk Email From The Grave

There is a story of a great spiritual master who was dying, surrounded by his grieving disciples. They cried, “Oh, Master, please don’t leave us.”

He answered, “Where would I go?”

 My son Luke has been gone for over a year now but I still get email from his "coolhand" account on Yahoo.  Instead of describing what it's like on the other side, his emails usually scream things like "Make Happy the Girlfriend!" with offers of pills for erectile dysfunction that I can obtain by clicking on dubious internet links.  Other emails from him offer cut-rate prices on purses and jewelry.  It's not that Luke when alive was averse to this sort of junk.  I know that he obtained Seconal for a suicide attempt from an online pharmacy, and I suspect that he was a regular consumer of internet medication in the months leading up to his death.  The first time I received this junk email, however, was a jolt, but afterward I realized the subject line of "Hi" or some such always exposed the fraud.  Luke was more of a "Yo!" than a "Hi!" kind of a guy.

Friendship on the internet means never having to say goodbye.  There is probably a way to get his Yahoo account taken down but I'm not ready to take that step.  I keep a folder in my Yahoo account with over 150 emails from Luke.  After his death, I did de-friend him on Facebook, but now I regret it.  He still has 87 friends there but I can't join them because there's no one to accept me back.  An ex-girlfriend set up a tribute page on Facebook which has 30 members, most of them high school friends, but I withdrew from there as well.  The woman in whose bed he died continued to post messages there on a monthly basis and they were too painful to read. 

When Shirlee's daughter Kathryn died last year someone managed to cancel her Facebook account after a period of virtual mourning during which friends posted tributes to her wall.  I'm reluctant to do that for Luke while friends continue to visit his page, even though I can't see what they're saying.  Who has the authority to dispose of the dead on the internet?  Luke's mother and I have spoken only once in years and that was when she asked me to send her $1,000 to pay half the cremation fee (I'm still doubtful that it cost that much but it wasn't the time to bargain).  Would she have to give permission for Facebook to put his page to rest?  Would we have to fax Luke's birth certificate as well as our marriage and divorce papers to prove we have the authority to erase his online presence?  I suspect this is new legal territory.

When my close friend Peter died I kept his emails to me for a few years before finally letting them go.  It is so strange to read words from the dead as fresh and alive as if they were just emailed.  When I heard last week that my old friend Bob Chorus had died of pancreatic cancer I turned to the email exchange we had a year ago before he got the diagnosis.  We met in the 1970s when I was a press agent in Hollywood and he was a music writer.  I really liked his wry sense of humor.  He used to buy an old clunker for $50 or less and when it stopped running he would abandon it and buy another.  He claimed it was the cheapest way to drive.  When my boys were small, we took them camping, in the backyard of Bob's rural cabin.  What particularly interested me was his later career.  He wrote that after
I left the music business, I got a job as an ambulance attendant, then a firefighter, owned a health food store, drove an airport bus in Vancouver, guarded parking lots, worked as a community mental health worker, had a little alley garage, farmed dope, then became interested in animal rights so used my ill-begotten loot to open an animal rights store in Vancouver, then eased into non-profits. I lived in Canada for 15 years (I'm a dual Cdn/US citizen). I swore I'd never move back to the states since Canada is so much nicer, but so much for swearing. I left the music business because I was tired of selling records. I still wanted to write but realized that I didn't have any experience so I didn't have much to write about. By the way, being a fire fighter is really a good job - people are always really happy when you show up for work. The only job I ever had that I preferred was picking navel oranges on Crete. That was spectacular. Working for Rolling Stone is right near the bottom of jobs I've done.
What he finally became, from Seattle 1999 onward, was a prominent animal rights activist, campaigning for the endangered with verve and wit.  He would dress up as a turtle or a chicken to campaign against abuse, or strip naked to protest the wearing of fur coats.  You can still read his blog (will this one outlast my demise?).  When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last September, he wrote about it at AltDaily where he had a regular column. "I will probably be devoting much of my remaining time to traveling, seeing friends, tidying stuff up and running up my credit cards. I’m quite accepting of this diagnosis and am refusing any further medical care except for pain management. If lucky, I’ll have a couple of good months and a hell of a send-off." The story at the beginning of this blog was taken from Bob's final column in which he concluded: "I have had a really interesting life. I have no regrets and no bucket list, since I’ve done more in and with my life than I’d ever expected. My to-do list is done." We corresponded about our cancer situation and his decision to give it up without a fight, and he wrote to me:
Did you have people pestering you to get care for your prostate cancer? My two stepsisters and some other folks have been bombarding me with names of doctors and hospitals and seers and supplements. They somehow seem to feel that it is worth abandoning all your beliefs to gain a little bit extra time on Earth. I know they mean well but I'd prefer that they respect my wishes.
Bob died Jan. 2 in Virginia.   His Facebook page lives on.  And his partner, Pat Hull Vedomske, has put up a selection of photos which should be publicly accessible. 

Life after death makes little sense to me, and that includes the Buddhist notion of reincarnation which I find incoherent without a self that can be reborn (and it's the Buddha's explanation of mind and the absence of an eternal self that I find most persuasive).  But humans have been ritually burying or burning their dead since the dawn of time.  Is this a category mistake, or does it point to some enduring truth that makes no rational sense?  Here in Asia, respect for the dead is endemic, a cultural given.  They are on the other side, wanting to communicate if we can only figure out the means to transcend the barrier.  For me, however, my parents, my son Luke, and my friends Peter and Bob, are gone.  They are no longer evolving somewhere else.  They live on in the memories of those still alive.  And now, in this Age of the Internet, they will live on forever in digital bytes on Facebook and on enumerable web pages as well as in the photographs that will never fade.


Ian H said...

I often wondered what my friends and family would make of my internet legacy when I died so I signed up for a service that allowed me to stipulate what happens to each account when I'm gone. Some will be deleted, control of others passed to members of the family to do with what they will.

Ananda Perkins said...

It seems for me, I'm still processing life and death. I also still get emails from Luke--and similar to you, the first one I received post-mortem made me jump out of my skin. He and I unfriended eachother on facebook in the months prior to his death. But I still, every so often, invariably go to his page and see what is left for me to view. I take some comfort (some longing) in knowing its still there. Just as I sometimes look to this blog for some rememberance of him--and some update as to what you, his father, is doing at this juncture in your life. I was startled to see his picture today, although I cannot explain why. I have the same foto on my tribute page to him. I cannot explain the reaction I've had to his death. I cannot know which days I simply live my life without thinking of him, and which days I think of him without crying and which days my knees will buckle and I weep with my mouth contorted in a silent scream so as not to frighten my children with the deep emotion that comes bursting forth. I simply live, as best I can. After all, as a mutual friend of Luke and I's reminded me some months ago, "Life is for the living."