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Xiao Hua Yang

My Phone Doesn’t Realize My Mother Is Dead

Technology has made avoiding painful memories impossible.

Posted on August 3, 2021, at 10:35 a.m. ET

On a recent five-hour flight, I was wholly without Wi-Fi. It was a welcome reprieve from the internet, but instead of reading a book or doing anything productive, I spent three hours scrolling through the photos in my phone — I have thousands dating back to 2007. My friend, who sat beside me, had tens of thousands of photos on hers dating back even further. As we mindlessly scrolled, we found moments that we had spent together over the past decade, even though we don’t live in the same city. There were also chunks of time that I sped over, uninterested in feeling the sharp pain of seeing people who are no longer in my life. But they were there too.

In the endless scroll, I found a cluster of photos of my mother feeding animals at a wild animal park in Texas. My mother died in the fall of 2019, but in these photos she was smiling and full of life. Which isn’t to say she wasn’t already sick — it was just her decline hadn’t yet become severe. I had taken roughly 20–30 photos of her that day. I had also taken videos, but there was no video evidence of her petting buffalo or laughing at ostriches that strode alongside our truck. I had deleted those to make space for more photos months later. Photos that would work well in photo dumps — the ennui floating across our timelines now — pictures of the same skies, memes that made me wonder what I was going through when I screenshotted them, the random detritus of my life and the internet that I have been collecting for years.

I think about all the photos I deleted of people that I love and no longer have in my life — and even myself, growing older — because I needed the space on my phone. For instance, I don’t actually have any videos of my mother left on my phone. I only have two voicemails from her. One is 23 seconds and the other is only 4 seconds long, a simple “call me please bye.” When my father took over her cellphone after she died, he never changed her outgoing voice message. Sometimes I call him hoping he won’t pick up so I can hear her.

When she used to send me selfies of a new haircut, she didn’t realize she was sending me live photos. After she died, I went through our text messages and downloaded every photo she had ever sent me of herself. I took her cellphone and texted myself all the other selfies she had taken. Now, when I hold my thumb down, I can watch as she takes a photo of herself smiling, head moving to the left and right for the best angle. It’s the only evidence of her aliveness that I have.

Over the last few years, all the technology that catalogs our lives has learned to feed those moments back to us. iPhones send unprompted “new memories” and collate photos at the end of each year to play back to us, Facebook bombards us with memories, and everywhere you turn, you have the potential to be reminded of things you wish you could forget.

For millennia we’ve had to rely on human memory alone. Slowly, we began to augment it with writing, with art, and, not even two centuries ago, with photography. In the past decade or so, our phones have become agents of our recollection. We archive nearly everything on these slabs of glass that we tuck into pockets and cram into purses. They’ve become little mausoleums for the things we’ve held onto, consciously or not. And recently they’ve begun to poke at us with algorithmically selected reminders of our past. Sometimes these are joyful. At best, they can evoke a sad and welcome melancholy. At worst, they can resurrect the pain and regret we have tried to forget.

One of the last photos my mother took was actually a selfie of the two of us. Her head was shaved, she had oxygen tubes coming out of her nose, and I was asleep next to her. The live photo shows her head moving for the best angle, and it’s hard not to see the sadness in her eyes as she takes it. The despair. There’s a flash at the end of the live photo, and she looks surprised. Then she fumbles with the phone to put it away.

Our phones have become agents of our recollection.  

When I look at the photo, I remember how exhausted I was. But I was also anxious about falling asleep in case she needed me. When I am scrolling through my phone at the checkout line, or on a plane, or anywhere where I need to pass the time, I always skip over this particular photo quickly. I also skip over the photos she sent me of the back of her head when we were trying to get a wig made of her hair. All these photos are live too. Her small head is pointed down so my father can get a good shot for me to send to the wigmaker. Her shirt hangs loose around her bony shoulders.

She died before the wig was completed, and whenever I look at those photos, I remember writing to the wigmaker asking to get my mother’s hair back. Now, I wonder what exactly I thought I was going to do with it. I wasn’t thinking clearly then; I just wanted some piece of her to survive. I think about the fury I felt when the wigmaker told me I could not have her hair back because the wig was already in process. Instead, the wigmaker wrote, I could have the completed wig, which had already been mixed with synthetic hair, or I could donate it so another woman going through chemo could use it. From time to time, when I see those photos, I wonder who ended up with a blunt bob fashioned to look like my mother’s.

My phone doesn’t realize my mother is dead. It decided to feature these photos in my year in review, queued up to soothing music. It doesn’t know that these are memories I choose to revive sparingly.

I have otherwise been vigilant about deleting painful pictures from my phone. There are no wedding photos left. Evidence of my marriage was posted across social media though, and not long after our divorce, when I was still getting used to a new apartment, a new life, I was bombarded by memories of my wedding day from Facebook, asking if I wanted to repost photos from that day to commemorate it. No, I didn’t. I wondered if my ex-husband was getting the same prompts sent to him in the middle of the night. In my sleep-deprived mind, the only response I could think of was to delete Facebook altogether. It had become a repository for a life I was walking out of with trepidation. Why wasn’t the algorithm smart enough to know, through the name change and the switch from “married” to “single,” that I didn’t want to get a daily visual reminder that my wedding anniversary was coming up?

In April, Lauren Goode wrote a Wired article about how social media algorithms are designed to never let you forget your biggest life events, even if they don’t go as planned. Like Goode, I also have trouble remembering when "apps started co-opting memories, madly deploying them to boost engagement and make a buck off nostalgia." These companies have made billions of dollars selling products to make those life markers memorable, yet they aren’t smart enough to realize when you’ve called them off, when you’ve had a miscarriage, when the person you love no longer exists. Goode, who called off her own wedding, was haunted by algorithms following her, dispatching periodic reminders from “a ghost life cycle that you never had the chance to live out.”

Around Mother’s Day, my email inbox fills with reminders to send my mother flowers. Last year, in frustration, I responded to one with: She’s dead! This past April, the emails returned once again.

So what do we do with these prompts from a ghost life and otherwise painful memories we are besieged by?

Forgetting isn’t the answer; that feels just as painful. It’s why I keep those live photos of my mother in my phone. Why I’ve held onto seconds of her voice. When I want to feel pain, to remember the loss of her, on my own terms, I have the catalysts at the ready. Because there are moments when I am gripped with fear that I will forget my mother’s voice altogether. Forget her.

The feeling is so acute that I refused to upgrade my phone for an entire year — even as it urgently reminded me that my memory was full and my apps kept crashing — because I was irrationally worried that I would lose the two voicemails from my mother that I do have. I called Apple tech support a few times to find out how safe the upgrade process was. Even after I emailed myself copies of the audio files and the transfer occurred without issue, I was still worried that I would do something to erase them forever. I was already living with the guilt of erasing my mother from my phone for years, trying to free up space for other photos I don’t even remember taking.

When I want to feel pain, to remember the loss of her, on my own terms, I have the catalysts at the ready.  

We’ve been trapped in collective grief for 16 months (and counting) now. And while it’s nice to be able to go back outside — and travel to see loved ones — there’s still a threat of the world coming to a screeching halt once again. LA recently reinstated indoor mask mandates after weeks of climbing COVID rates because of the terrifying spread of the Delta variant. And now, other parts of the country are doing the same. We’re stuck in an inbetweenness where anxiety and trauma bubble up with every report of a new variant or CDC update. In some parts of the world, the pandemic hasn’t abated at all. The grief of this moment has settled over us like a fog, whether we choose to contend with it or not.

And all the while, we’re trying to find a way forward, to grapple with what’s happened to us, though American culture often demands that we skip mourning and go straight to the party. It feels strange to even stop to think about the loss we’ve collectively experienced — especially since we're still in it. But everyone has suffered some kind of loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the loss of time, the grief of missing a final year of school or missing the possibility of having a child. Now, we’re just supposed to pick up where we left off. Move on and get back to living.

But no one I know can even begin to figure out how to grieve all that lost time. Do you start with March 2020? Or January 2020, when the fear of COVID’s spread first began to seep into our consciousness? Or even earlier? And when does it end?

I’ve had trouble remembering much of what’s happened — both the highs and lows — over the past 16 months. Instead, time has simply melted together into one undefinable soup. Which isn’t to say that I haven't had any life experiences — I've had plenty, some of them really wonderful, and I’m grateful for them all. It’s just that, in the sea of sameness, I’ve had trouble remembering much of anything at all. The list of things I can’t remember grows longer each day — memories from childhood, what I did last week, the name of the restaurant I used to frequent and love, nearly every password for every website I’ve tried to log in to over the last year and a half.

Of course, there have been many articles that have tried to grasp why so many people have been struggling with memory loss lately. One of the best is from my former colleague Ellen Cushing, for the Atlantic, in which she writes, “Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and find myself bewildered as to why I am there. (At one point during the writing of this article, I absentmindedly cleaned my glasses with nail-polish remover.) Other times, the forgetting feels like someone is taking a chisel to the bedrock of my brain, prying everything loose.”

The forgetting is a trauma response and there’s nothing new in that kind of memory loss — it’s necessary for survival. Algorithms and photos of random things we are moved to capture have filled in what we can no longer remember for ourselves. I have dozens of photos of sunsets from the same overlook from the past year and a half. What exactly did I want to remember from those moments? The feeling of being there? Or simply a reminder that I still exist? That I’m not living a ghost life, or a lost life, even if this period of time has felt that way?

It makes sense photo dumps would crop up more and more during the pandemic, at a time when memory has become slippery and every day has largely felt the same. In a way, they make the singular photos that compose them virtually meaningless. They don’t seem to carry the same weight as the life events that the algorithms have learned to read as opportunities to sell things back to us.

Recently, the Google Photos app on my phone sent me a prompt to “look back at four years today” in order to “relive my best moments with memories.” The series of photos played back to me were from July 2017: one of the family dog and four of a sunset I was trying to capture at the beach, each imperceptibly different. My mother was still alive then, and when I look at the photos and think back to that time, I can’t recall how aware I was that she was actually going to die. Or if I was still trapped in some kind of misguided hopefulness. In the sunset photos, the sky is foreboding, just after a rainstorm, so chances are I was trying to convey turmoil in the Instagram story I would later post.

When I went to Instagram to look at my stories archive and see what I may have posted that day, the app had the same sunset image already queued up, urging me to repost the photo as a memory. I scrolled to the very end of my stories archive, but it only went back to December 2017, so I am permanently cut off from that summer — at least in my Instagram stories.

As I struggled to remember what I was doing on that beach and what I was thinking, waiting for the storm clouds to open up again, I found that I didn’t want to go back to that memory — or that time. I was already separated from my husband but unsure about what would come next in my life.

In an attempt to jar my memory of what actually did come next, I began scrolling. I happened upon a photo of a hospital pain rating chart from March 2018 — with a caption I had typed over it that read “Life is weird.” I instantly remembered that I was standing in my mother’s hospital room while she was lying next to me with a collapsed lung. I must have been trying to lighten my mood in that post while also signaling that I was, in fact, not OK. When I see the post now, I’m embarrassed by my glibness.

Did I need these memories queued up by the algorithm, fed back to me first thing in the morning? Or ever? Probably not. But I also can’t ignore the photos that Apple and Google spit out at me that make me smile or laugh. Moments strung together that I had completely forgotten, of nights out before the pandemic. Before my memory started to slip. I can’t help watching my own personal photo dumps played back to me — curated haphazardly by my phone.

These joyful moments from the Before Time bring their own kind of melancholy, though, because they’re a reminder of a place I can’t go back to. And because I still don’t know if remembering is worse than forgetting. ●


Picador

Life Events

Karolina Waclawiak is the author of the novels Life Events, How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders. Formerly an editor at the Believer, she is the executive editor of culture at BuzzFeed News. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Hazlitt, and elsewhere.

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