My mom wrote me an email ten years ago today.
It was a particularly normal email. With its subject line of “Durham NC vs Duke,” she recounted her experience listening to a news story on NPR which was pretty hot at the time: an African-American woman accused three student athletes from Duke’s lacrosse team of rape. A single mother and student at Durham’s North Carolina Central University, she was moonlighting as a dancer/stripper who was hired to perform at the party — and things got out of hand. My mom wrote me because of my interest in the case, as I had lived in Durham ten years earlier and had seen the dichotomy of a very affluent, private university community juxtaposed with a working-class, black community, many of whom were toeing the poverty line. (I had been working at UNC-Chapel Hill while living in Durham — which was thought of as a cardinal sin to all of my students.)
She mentioned the news piece’s interviews with members of the black community of Durham, many of whom were resentful of the rich (mostly white) students from out-of-town who had a stronghold on the west part of town. There was talk of the “many miscarriages of justice in the past” by local law enforcement and the legal system which stacked the deck against the poorer black neighborhoods. And there was a mention of the median income of Durham at the time — $40,000 — which was (and still is) less than the tuition for one year at Duke.
And she hypothesized that the black community was more upset at the institutional imbalance in Durham than the actual facts of the case — especially as there was no DNA evidence at that time which supported her accusation. My mom suggested that “…all of the baggage from the past is getting in the way of the actual facts.” That people were rushing to judgment as a knee-jerk reaction.
So I started to write her back. I mentioned my experiences driving in Durham, sometimes through neighborhoods that I would pass through without stopping. I mentioned the polarization I had seen in other towns in the state. But things got busy and I put off finishing the email. I knew I could finish it the next day. My mom deserved a well-thought reply.
And we had written each other some short emails over the next several weeks. And talked on the phone briefly. We even had a visit with her and my dad so they could spend time with their three year-old grandson. Still the email remained unfinished, staring at me through the “(1)” on the side of my screen. I would get to it when I had time, I thought…
Fourteen weeks after I started this email, my mom died.
It was very sudden. It took everyone by surprise. The evening prior her community saw her at the synagogue as she recited Kaddish in memory of the anniversary of her father’s death. She had spoken to my Dad on the phone that same evening, as he was in Connecticut dealing with business regarding his late father’s estate. But that next morning there was a 911 call where she stated she was having trouble breathing. And even with the quick response of the paramedics arriving and busting through the locked front door, it was too late. The police called my dad while he had been driving home to Maryland. He then called me — as I was much closer to home than he was — to deal with the officer at the scene, to identify my mom’s body, and to start making arrangements. It was a long day.
When we look at relics from our past, they usually have some significance to them due to a memory, an event, or some kind of meaning behind them. But before those relics have these memories associated with them, they’re just regular, mundane objects without context. My son’s speckled beanie-baby was just that — until it was given to him by his doctor to help him calm down before an eye operation when he was much younger. And in the same way, this email was just an email until it became an artifact of the relationship I had with my mom.
I was looking to grasp on to so many things that would allow me to keep memories of my mom alive. For a while it was a voicemail message she had left me with the sound of caring, nurturing and love in her voice. After a while that disappeared when our phone carrier changed. Hanging on to letters and notes was also a reminder of her beautiful handwriting — the penmanship of a sixth grade teacher who meant business. (That was her first career.)
In the digital era, where practically an infinite amount of data resides in “the cloud,” we don’t need to cull our inboxes or our photo streams, especially if everything instantaneously gets indexed and can be searched for and found at a moment’s notice. It makes me wish that I had taken more pictures of my mom. Or that there was such a thing as Facebook or Instagram able to capture moments and save them in the cloud — and in time — forever. While some of these moments are preserved in my own “cloud,” it’s far more difficult not only to share them with others but also to take another look at them, imagining that I’m seeing them for the first time.
And there are new things I’m seeing when I re-read this draft email — or rather her email which prompted the draft of my reply. My mom’s comments about people being quick to judge the Duke lacrosse players was spot on. The entire team’s season was suspended and the coach forced to resign soon after. The prosecutor who took on the case to prosecute these students was certain of their crime, and wanted to do whatever possible to ensure a guilty verdict. What my mom didn’t get a chance to find out was that, a year later, all charges against the student athletes would be dropped due to inconsistencies between the accuser’s testimony and evidence collected. The defendants were deemed victims of “a tragic rush to accuse,” and the prosecutor of the case was ultimately disbarred for “ dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”
And then there’s my mom’s next paragraph of her email to me. In which she stated: “I typed the paragraph above with my eyes closed, and there were many mistakes that I corrected.” She talked about her recent eye surgeries and how much better she was seeing. She also mentioned seeing the rest of our family before signing off with “Many hugs and lots of love, Mom.”
I’ve thought about writing back. Completing the email and letting it go from my Drafts folder. But her work email account has already been long deleted, and her home email will just sit, unread, in the cloud.
I’m looking forward to keeping it on hand for the next ten years. I’ll perpetually know that it’s right there — in “Drafts (1).”