I scroll through the nearly 1,300 names in my smartphone’s contact list around this time each year, with an eye toward editing. That’s when I’m haunted by the dead.
At present, there are 15 friends, colleagues, and kin who have passed from this life to whatever waits beyond. Seeing their names always gives me pause—a smile, a twinge, a pang. Deleting them would seem an affront, somehow disrespectful of the roles they played in my life. So for now they live on in the ephemeral world of silicon and proprietary software. Their entries are little memorials, the cellphone numbers and addresses serving as Digital Age epitaphs. Each one tells a story.
I just wish my collection of dead contacts weren’t growing at such an uncomfortable rate. I’m now 58, and as I continue down the alphabetized list of names, I wish I didn’t feel quite so much like a melancholy elephant at a graveyard, sifting and swaying as it sorts the bones of the fallen.
Look here, near the top, under the B’s:
Mark Bowling, my cousin’s son, his body battered since childhood by diabetes, dead at 39 while awaiting a liver transplant. Seeing his name reminds me that diabetes runs in our family; my grandfather, father, and both brothers have it, though I’m as yet unaffected. Mark reminds me to keep fit, eat sensibly, and nag my kids to live smart in the long shadow of that disease.
And just down the list, Margaret Burke, who along with former Orange Coast book critic Marylin Hudson, even farther down, co-founded O.C.’s fabled Round Table West book-and-author program. They were like Lucy and Ethel, only funnier, and were inexplicably kind to me in the early days of my writing career.
The C’s include fabled TV-writer and novelist Stephen Cannell, a bigger-than-life character who, despite vast success, treated me like a peer, and once invited me for a drink in the back seat of his ancient black limousine after we appeared together on a panel.
I scroll on, past Jay Dantry, a bookstore owner in my hometown, and Oakley Hall, who founded UC Irvine’s MFA writing program and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers; past Kirk Hawkins, with whom I coached our sons’ soccer team, and whose death left behind a devastated young family; past Michael Parrish, at whose USC magazine-editing class I was a regular guest.
The most troubling ones are those who were just about my age, or younger, when they died. Cousin Buddy Parsons went earlier this year, at 64. He’d battled cancer, and apparently won, only to succumb to something he picked up during a hospital visit. Cancer did get Joel Pasco, a big-hearted veterinarian and husband of my friend Jean. Joel passed in 2009 at 62, a few months after Steve Plesa, once my boss at the Register who fell to liver failure at 55. Watching Steve die convinced me to be especially kind to that particular organ. I’m still processing the news that Jason, a long-time soccer buddy in his early 50s, committed suicide not long after sending his only son off to college. He left behind an angry young man and a beautiful, lightning-struck wife.
There are more, but you get the idea. Together they’re a club whose members are bonded in death as they never were in life. Their common link was an acquaintance with me. But this club never has meetings, and I’m the only one who knows it exists.
I return to the top of my list, then go through it again to make sure I’ve found them all. Which is creepier: killing, or keeping? I consider dialing their numbers, but then imagine my disappointment if a stranger answers.
In the end, I do nothing. My lost acquaintances remind me that life is unpredictable, in ways both good and bad. Strangers become friends. Families survive the unthinkable. Tragedies befall the most honorable people. The good die young, and sometimes for reasons that make no sense.
The dead people in my phone are my personal Greek chorus, chanting over and over: Right now is all we’re guaranteed.