Death and the hard drive

Death and the hard drive: Data can be a precious link to a lost loved one -- if you save it. By Moira Muldoon

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My father was killed when some loose earth gave way and he dropped 600 feet down the side of an Arizona canyon, crushing his spine and his skull, snapping his neck with such force that it tore the flesh of his throat open. Despite the passage of nearly four years, so many things about his death are still not easy for me — not the least of which was recently clearing out his old laptop’s hard drive.

My father was a start-up kind of guy. He sold his company, started up another one, sold it and was starting a third when he died. He was also an early adopter: Six years ago when I was living in Ireland, I was the only kid who communicated with her parents over e-mail. Every thought he had — his notes, his plans and his personal letters — was on his computer.

I went home to Texas over the Fourth of July. A bunch of my girlfriends here in San Francisco had expressed an interest in the great mythology of Texas and in my home, so we packed up and went for a weekend. We barbecued, went country dancing, planned water-skiing excursions and lounged by the pool. While I was there, entertaining and eating and shooting off fireworks, I also helped my mother clear off my father’s hard drive.

I sat with my mother that weekend and opened all his files. We’d tried to do it a couple of times before and just hadn’t made it through. But this time we were giving the aging machine to his favorite charity, and so anything that wasn’t saved would disappear forever. This time we had to finish the job. So we opened each file, read it, chose which could be discarded and tried to figure out what to do with the rest.

Searching through his documents evoked dozens of visceral memories. When I lived in Ireland, I had a lot of trouble with my friend Kevin. Kev and I had been lovers and were trying to learn to become friends. Dating had been intense, and being friends was even more so — when we fought, the air around us reverberated with the power of Kevin’s anger.

My father had a temper, too. All his life he fought the blind rage gripping the center of him. He was pure, my father, pure in his love, in his way of seeing life — either good or bad — and pure in his rage when it consumed him. Like Kevin.

So when one particularly bad fight caught us off guard, I wrote to my father. I wanted to know how to help Kevin. I wanted to know how to handle him, how to get through this to the other side where I could love Kevin once and for all, love him completely and live with his rage. I asked my father for help.



I remember the tone of his response — it was warm, concerned, deeply sympathetic, to both Kevin and me. Dad knew exactly what was going on with Kevin, and he knew how hard it is for someone else, even a close friend, to live with that rage. The letter was compassionate, loving — I felt him holding my hands as I read it, clearly saw him sitting at our kitchen table as he tried to guide me through something he alone understood the difficulty of. It was a wonderful letter, and it drew me closer to my father. I loved it.

That letter was destroyed when the drive on my father’s computer was reformatted for my brother’s use. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have it back. But it’s gone. And now, after my weekend at home, many other things are gone. Notes to potential clients and investors, old business plans, new business plans, outlines — things that we couldn’t reasonably justify saving. Where would we put them? What would we do with them? Deleting them was like slowly cutting our fingers off, knuckle by knuckle, one at a time, but it had to be done. Things that we couldn’t bear to part with, things that simply read so much like him that to destroy them was unbearable, we saved to diskettes. A stack of a dozen full diskettes sits on the corner of my mother’s desk now. Black diskettes, carefully labeled and lonely.

I think about this now, about what will happen each time someone dies. My friends and I all communicate by e-mail. My mother and her friends do as well. I am annoyed by anyone who doesn’t have e-mail access, because it is my preferred method of communication, as it is for so many. What happens now when people die unexpectedly? What do their families do with their e-mail, their to-do lists on the hard drive, their personal notes and ideas and plans? Burning a journal would be a sacrilege, and e-mail should be no different.

I called a number of psychologists and psychiatrists in San Francisco — a town so wired that grocery store clerks discuss their modems with you when you check out. And none of them had encountered the problem. Their clients didn’t discuss issues of data left behind. What to do with old articles of clothing, yes. What to do with photos, and memories, and heartaches, yes. But not e-mail. And when I think about my mother, sitting at the long desk she used to share with my father, her face raw and ravaged by the sadness of still missing him — a look that I know will never entirely leave her — I know we can’t be the only people facing this.

And we’re not — exactly. There’s a site called AfterLife, where volunteers agree to maintain personal Web sites after people die. There’s memorials.org, where you can create a Web site to honor a loved one. But neither of those is of any help to me or to my mother. Where is the brilliant start-up company that will take old e-mails and archive them permanently, or bind them into a beautiful journal to keep for generations? A journal that would allow the children I hope to have to get to know the wonderful man who would have so enjoyed being their grandfather?

One of the things that is hardest for me about my father’s death is that I am denied so much knowledge of him. I was 21 when he died. Twenty-one is not an age when you know your parents as people; they are still your parents. I am discovering my mother, the person, every day — something that I will never have the chance to do with my father. And when I opened his files, saw his words, heard his voice so clearly, pored through notes about his marriage, about his battles with his self and soul, about his hopes and about how to strive to be a better person, I at least began to understand him in a way that I might have been granted had he lived another 20, 30 or 40 years. He was only 45, after all.

Last week I fell in love. Blindsided, hit-by-a-truck, from-the-middle-of-nowhere, madly in love. Yesterday this man e-mailed me what is surely the first of many love letters. The joy of being loved by an articulate, passionate man is extraordinary. The joy of not being alone — after locking away my heart for so long, fearful that I would love someone and he would die — is extraordinary. I read and re-read the letter, created a new mailbox to store it and pulled it up again and again throughout the day simply to thrill to it.

Should I die tomorrow, should my heart stop beating, my lungs stop working, it matters to me that that letter continue to exist.

Moira Muldoon is a senior editor at Computec Media.

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