May 1st, 2013

purple hair

Turing!Len gets email

So here's a sort of goofy thing.

A week or two after Len died, I forget exactly, all of a sudden one day emails addressed to him started showing up in my inbox, most of them listservs and announcements and things like that. It was a bit jarring and quite surreal; then again, basically everything about that time had a "you are living in a Jeunet and Caro film" feel to it, or at least that's the cinematography everything from around that time has when I play it back in my head, the point-of-view floating erratically like a balloon drifting through the streets. (This was also around the time when I had someone accompanying me every time I left the house because I was often too distracted to avoid walking into traffic. Just to give you some context.)

Of course I figured out pretty quickly what had happened, and an email in the mix from one of his colleagues at Leuven confirmed it: the department was removing his account from their servers, and had added an alias from his email address to mine. (They'd also backed up his mail spool and home directory on DVD and it was waiting for me at my convenience. Belgians are polite.) So, for better or for worse, my dead husband and I were now sharing an inbox.

I suppose some people, maybe even a lot of people, would be done with that email address at that point. I was the exact opposite. For days, I read his email -- every single one that came through my inbox. Even the duplicates from mailing lists we were both on; those I tried to read through his eyes, tried to imagine the conversation we might have had about each one. I smoked cigarettes in bed, trying to call up discussions about fountain pens and ink chemistry while we chain-smoked by the swing-open window in our flat in Leuven, and pored over advertising e-mails from fountain pen vendors. I read conference announcements. I read spam conference announcements. I read LinkedIn updates. It was routine, mechanical -- no judgment to apply, just read it, read it all.

Len's favourite book was A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I forget who we had do this at the funeral, but somebody read this quote from it1 aloud:

"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part."

Some of the mail did in fact stop coming. Something is apparently not quite right with the alias configuration, in such a fashion that he's been automatically unsubscribed from most (if not all) of the Mailman lists he was on, because too many bounce notifications happened and I didn't have the time or energy to keep up with reactivating subscriptions for mailing lists I was already subscribed to myself. The DIYbio mailing list is still going strong, though, as are the ACM table-of-contents announcements -- he was on a lot of journal notification lists. I don't read the DIYbio duplicates anymore, though I'm not going to take him off the list; I feel there's something meaningless but honorable about Google faithfully dispatching an extra copy of each message in his name, into perpetuity, like a priest saying Masses for the soul of someone who donated to their church2, except the priest has been replaced by a very small shell script. I kept reading the ToCs for a while; lately I have been letting them pile up, perhaps in frustration with the ACM and their obnoxious paywall policies, but I will probably leave him subscribed in case they do get around to going open access. Actually making the effort to unsubscribe him from anything involves confronting a wall of inertia that I still don't feel up to dealing with, coming up two years on; it's easier to delete the obvious spam, mark as read the things I pretend I'll go back and read someday but am really just consigning to a box in the virtual garage (though, granted, a box I can grep), whittle the flow of data down to a manageable trickle.

The end result of this is a stream of his professional life, as it has continued in his absence. Most of it is reports from various paper- and slide-tracking services about how often his papers are being read, plus bursts of LinkedIn endorsements and the occasional connection request (of which, at this point, I expect most are spam). The endorsements were weird at first, but over time I decided that if people wanted to use that as a way to say "Yes, Len was good at that," there wasn't anything wrong with that. ("The street finds its uses for things; uses the makers never intended.") So the net effect is, oddly enough, kind of comforting. His work lives on. Our work continues.

Things change. Ain't nothing like it once was; not a goddamned thing.

1He'd given me a copy of the book our first Christmas together, and I'd read it all the way through once. I knew I wanted something from it read at the funeral, but wasn't sure what. That passage is in the first chapter; I re-read the entire book in the couple of days between getting back to Belgium and the morning of the funeral. I don't know why I'm bringing this up, it just seemed relevant.

2He was a lapsed Catholic; I think he would have appreciated that simile.