I remember the first time someone I knew died. My sister’s friend had gone missing, and when the news finally came that her death was sure, I privately went through my phone, which had previously been my sister’s, and searched for the friend’s name. Sure enough, her number was there in the contact page. The letters and numbers glowing on the screen seemed to make a proclamation: “This is where she is,” they asserted, “and this is how she can be reached.” It was a statement that was so confident I wanted, despite everything, to have faith in it. Surely, I could press the phone button, the green light shining softly in the dark corner of my bedroom, the insides of the two machines would whir into action, connecting just as they had done in the past. Surely her voice would come from the small speaker, tinny and distorted as it should be, and maybe a little louder than I was prepared for, but once I flinched at the sudden sound surely it would be like nothing had ever happened.
The act of pressing a button and making someone appear is affixed in our subconscious. With dozens of ways to reach people instantly, and with the ubiquity of smartphones and the homogenization of chat programs, it becomes more and more unfeasible that someone could be utterly unreachable. A swipe across your palm, and there they are. All of them: their art, their personal journals, their identity, and sometimes their entire life story, from birth to the present, lighting pixels on an LCD screen.Death ends on all those endeavors, but a machine can’t understand that someone is gone for good. They can’t know to remove a name from the list of people available for conversation, not to taunt you with a picture of their smile, not to recommend you reconnect with them, not to ask you for a gift on their next birthday. They won’t try to hide the evidence of their unfulfilled ambitions and their unfinished business, to remove the records of their immaturity and youth, to put whatever full stop on whatever sentence was truncated, to wrap their life into a box and pretend they got an end they would have been satisfied with. All of this makes it feel so possible that their green dot might light up again. We’re used to connecting to people without needing physical contact: it has become second nature to feel someone’s presence only through the glow of their name on a screen. Yet, it’s somehow all the more jarring when they suddenly disappear.
They don’t leave from right in front of you, their presence just vanishes from some imperceptible place. When, suddenly, those footprints stop, the fact that their absence will be permanent doesn’t seem self-evident. It’s as if we’re taking someone’s word that they won’t start again. The only evidence of their absence is a timestamp, and the distance in time between that past and this present, and that chasm growing slowly, but unyielding as ivy on a headstone.