PARENTS

Parents' Voicemails Preserve Their Memory in Death

05/26/2015 04:52 am ET | Updated May 26, 2015
Shutterstock / Zurijeta

The voicemail message was like so many others from my mom.

"Hi, it's mom," she began, then chatted on, full Jewish mother in her distinctive gravelly timbre. "There's a storm coming your way ... Please drive very carefully ... Love you. Bye."

It's the type of message I normally didn't pay much attention to, quickly deleting it after I listened. But three weeks after my mom, Harriet Ornstein, uttered those words, she died at a hospital outside Detroit. I unearthed this message and others from her while plumbing my iPhone's cache of deleted messages, amazed and grateful by this unexpected ability to preserve her voice.

I have many treasured memories of my mom, who died in January 2013. I have serving platters, wine glasses, birthday cards she sent me, and photos of her as a girl and with my children. I have videos of her and my dad at my Bar Mitzvah and wedding. But somehow, oddly, the voicemails -- those unscripted moments of everyday life -- are the ones I turn to most often when I'm feeling sad.

I hear her, maternal and overprotective, even as I raise a family of my own. The mom eager to share a juicy story ("Just watching the news and there was another crazy New Jersey guy..." she said in one message.) The mom who called every few hours, brimming with excitement as my family and I drove 10 hours from New Jersey to visit her and my dad in Michigan. The mom increasingly frail as her Parkinson's disease advanced. ("Charlie, I have a favor to ask of you... I'll talk to you later. Love you. Kiss everybody.")

I had stumbled upon the messages almost by accident. While going through voice messages of condolence from friends, I came upon a single mundane call from my mom. I then made the fortuitous discovery that my smart phone was really smart -- it required a second delete to send discarded messages into the ether. I had a trove of verbal memories.

Our phones have become our new scrapbooks. Unlike photos that capture how we looked in second grade or remind us of our 21st birthday, voice mails -- perhaps because they are divorced from the visual -- capture our essence at different moments in time. My 5-year-old son's impishness as he asks for a call back. My 8-year-old's obsession with our fantasy sports teams. My mom's voice growing weaker over time.

Hit delete and messages left on the home answering machine are gone for good. But our cell phones allow us to carry memories with us, perhaps without realizing it.

When I upgraded my iPhone last year, I kept the old one and, just to be safe, saved the messages to a digital voice recorder.

A day before my mom's heart unexpectedly stopped, sending her into the coma from which she never recovered, she called my dad's cell phone from the hospital emergency room. It was before dawn. "Hi. I love you. It's 5:30. I haven't slept but I love you. Take care of yourself please. Bye."

It's haunting to listen to those words. I wonder if she knew her own end was near. I recorded that one on my phone, too.

Sadly, I would go through a similar ritual when my dad, Alexander Ornstein, died suddenly, four months after my mom. Last week marked the two year anniversary of his death.

"Hi everybody. Shabbat Shalom. It's Papa O, calling from Michigan. Okey doke, bye now," said my dad's soft voice, still sending us love in one message we had inexplicably not erased on our home machine.

When I listen to my dad's messages on my phone, I hear the gentle caring man who always asked about how others were doing, irrespective of his own myriad health problems. ("I don't know what time you were going home. Have a safe trip and give me a call when you're back in New Jersey.") I hear the dad who always made us roll our eyes and chuckle because he insisted on noting the precise instant of his call -- "1:33 and a half," despite the time stamp on the message and Caller ID.

Like the messages from my mom, those left by my dad chronicle the slow march to his death, which ended the daily calls (often in the heat of my workday when I didn't have much time for chatting) and the messages I now treasure. In his final weeks, complications of diabetes and a fall led to the amputation of one toe, and then all of the toes on one foot.

"You know I'm minus a toe but I'm more worried about the foot," he said in one message. "Anyway, I'm OK with it. Alright, bye now."

Eight days before he died, he left me what would be his last message: "Everything seems to be going fine," he said at the end. "Bye now."

My parents endure in many forms. But most of those, I don't carry with me in my pocket. More than once, I've pulled over while driving alone, taken out my phone and played the messages one after another. I marvel how the things I cherish most about my parents aren't those that I would have ever imagined.

This story was co-published by ProPublica and NPR. Listen to the story on All Things Considered. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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