From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 26, 2005*: In health and in sickness

Pretty much by definition, one of the recurring themes of these columns has been an examination of how communications and information technologies have become an integral part of my daily life. Among numerous other "personal" topics, I've reported on how the computer has become a member of our family, on the difficulties of living without an internet connection even for a few days, and about how my mother almost succeeded in learning to master a word processor and e-mail. Over eight years ago, when the Boidem was very young, I attempted to examine how mourning and condolences found expression in cyberspace. Over the past six months I've had the opportunity to do that on a more personal level.

In mid-April my mother suffered a stroke. The first report I received of this from my brother (who lived very close to her) was via e-mail. This first report was VERY extensive - primarily because Mark had his PDA with him (as he almost always does) and while sitting long hours at the hospital waiting for doctors' reports and the like, he was able to type his review of what was happening, pretty much in real time, e-mailing that report to me and to my sister when he got back home.

In situations such as this people want to stay in close contact. Though e-mail was our primary source of information, for more immediate contact the telephone and instant messaging were our media of choice. And between these two, both Mark and I preferred the messaging for the perhaps idiosyncratic reason that it allowed us to save the text of our conversations.

Speaking for Mom was very difficult - her words slurred, and it was frustrating for her to not be able to express her thoughts. Speaking with her on the phone, therefore, became primarily a one-way conversation. She listened, and tried to get out a few words fitting to the topic. The preferred phone for the times when my sister or I called was my sister-in-law's cellular which has a built-in speaker. With that phone Mom was able to follow what was being said without having to hold the phone up to her ear, and Mark could hear as well, and give some commentary on what was happening when there were lengthy silences on the other side.

Because Mom was hardly able to speak, most of our communication with her was one-way. We read her books, watched videos with her, listened to music, told her stories. Mark prepared a large poster that he put on her wall above her bed, telling a bit about her life, and suggesting to visitors what they might speak with her about while visiting. And for at least part of the time he also moved her computer to her nursing home room where it ran a continuously looped slide show of digital (and digitized) family photographs that had accumulated (and continued to accumulate) on her hard drive. These could be both a topic of conversation for people who visited, and something for Mom to focus on if nobody was visiting while she was awake.

Three months after her stroke, Mom died. We knew that this was coming, and had prepared a list of people who should be informed of her death, and/or the funeral arrangements. This list was divided into those who should be informed by phone, those by (stamped) mail, and those via e-mail. This seemed perfectly logical to us - there seemed to be nothing improper about informing people of her death via any of those media. And of course we received numerous condolence cards and e-messages - and read their content without regard to the medium. If years ago some people still questioned whether e-mail was fitting for times such as this, it's quite clear that it's now fully legitimate. Mark has been slowly constructing a memorial site - actually more a celebration of Mom's life - on his site. Part of it is new material, part links to parts of his site that were already there. I try to help a bit. Undoubtedly he'll be busy with other things, and won't devote as much time as he might want to maintaining the site. As noted, that's sort of what happens with web sites. So we'll take it slowly, and hope that in this aspect as well, the technology will be part of our lives.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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