On voicemail and grief
leaving words for posterity
Someone asked recently if I’d received their voicemail, and that’s when I realized I’d had zero new messages since my husband and I swapped cell phones a couple weeks ago. (He gave me his upgrade and took my old phone, cuz that’s just the kind of man he is.)
I’m not a fan of voicemail, either leaving or receiving them. Talking to someone’s voicemail feels like useless prayers, unheard requests bouncing into the void, and I cannot keep my train of thought. I’m not someone who thinks out loud. I have inner dialogue, not outer, and hearing my own voice on a recording annoys me.1
I prefer the “visual voicemail” feature, where my phone converts the voice message into somewhat-accurate text. I can see the important details this way and I’m more likely to remember and respond. Also, reading someone’s message is faster than listening to them speak it, and I prefer to get to the details quickly.
I’m sorry I’m this way. I used to think it meant I was anti-social or inept, one of “those people” who can’t make a phone call, but I’ve learned there are other nice people who are the same, and they are not inept. That’s one good reason to share your idiosyncrasies, because whatever part of you makes you feel sorry or weird or wrong, there is someone else who is the same in that regard. If you can see them as “alright”, you can also see yourself that way.
I looked at my voicemail on my new phone and it was all different, no messages showing, no history. I pressed the “call voicemail” button and listened to the recording tell me I had seven saved messages, and proceeded to play those messages without giving it much thought.
But then all of a sudden: a realization, a possibility, and tears.
I saved my last message from Dad. I’m going to hear his voice…
I hear his voice sometimes in our middle son. It’s a gruff, quick reply; a quietly funny remark. Or I hear his laugh. My son has his grandpa’s beard, and he wears his grandpa’s New Zealand wool coat, and he quietly gets up and leaves the house without any fanfare or long goodbyes, like his grandpa.
I don’t know what happens next, and that’s more clear as time goes on. Life is completely bewildering, especially my own, to me, always. Confusing. More and more I live the wisdom of these words, quoting some iteration of them: you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are a vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes.2
I play the seven messages on my phone and I think I’m going to hear Dad’s voice, but I don’t. I cry through each one, wondering if the next voice is dad’s voice, but it’s not. I don’t know why I’ve saved these messages but none of them are worth a tear and my anticipation was all wrong.
Somewhere I’ve saved his message, and someday I’m going to stumble upon it in my Notes app or Evernote or Voice Memos, or somewhere in the mystical Cloud where moths and rust theoretically do not destroy.
I’ve also saved his last text message, sent posthumously to my phone. I had sent him a picture of my son—in the woods, chainsaw in hand, a thin grin beneath a trimmed, red beard—with the words “look familiar?” Because he looks familiar. Dad had typed a response but never sent the text, and we discovered it on his phone the morning after a howling wind over Flathead Lake ushered Dad out of this life.
There is a concreteness to written words—if I read something, I can see the words in my mind and that helps me remember them, which is why texting and visual voicemail are so handy. But spoken words are indelible, etched somewhere deeper than my mind.
Once I heard God speak in complete voicelessness and I am not one to proclaim thus saith the Lord, but I heard Him with my ears and I still remember the words with no voice. I would recognize the voicelessness if I heard it again.
I hear my ancestors in my children. I hear their friends and coaches and teachers, my husband, our pastor, my mother and father-in-law—all the influences. I hear my husband’s brother in his laugh and I hear my mom in my own words, and we all laugh at our resemblances and our differences.
But I hear my own voice and cringe, and I don’t leave voicemails to be saved for posterity.
Dad’s voice is out there, around me, waiting. Some day in the future I will stumble upon it and what I’ve learned about grief in the two years since his death is that it does not end or lessen or get better. It just grows with you, changes as you do, and surprises you with its sudden appearance. You are fine one moment, and not the next.
I don’t know what happens next, between our idiosyncrasies and our vapor, but I’ll bet, dear reader, if you’re anything like me, there’s a voice you are afraid to want to hear. Or specific words, answers, you are afraid to want to have.
May you hear them—bravely, timely—and may you give them.
So obviously, this was the perfect post to try out the “voiceover” option. Substack tells me this post has a 5 minute read time, 7 minute speaking time, thus making my point about the efficiency of text over voice. But the whole point of this post is….
James 4:13 CSB