Hit That Record Button, Preserve Loved Ones’ Voices

Over and over again, the young boy in the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” plays the messages from his father on the answering machine. The messages are from Sept. 11, 2001. The 11-year-old boy’s father is trapped in the World Trade Center.

I don’t have to write much more for you to know that the father did not survive. But that’s not why I’m writing this. Something else struck me as my husband and I watched this movie this weekend. The young boy, no matter how much pain it caused him, could not stop listening to those messages. Those snippets of voice were his last connection to his father. What this boy experienced is universal. The voices of our loved ones hold incredible power over us.

Having that answering machine tape was a treasure and nightmare for the boy because he felt guilty that he did not pick up the phone as his father made his last call. The boy likely was too scared that if he picked up the phone, he would have to do what he dreaded the most: Say goodbye to his father before he died. The tape filled the boy with guilt but also gave him a priceless gift – the ability to hear his late father’s voice.

Winter 1968: My brother, age 6, and me, age 4 in our front yard

I wrote about wanting to hear my late brother Kevin’s voice again in a recent column for The Boston Globe magazine. I have many photos of my brother, and I love looking at them. They remind me of particular moments in time, but they do not put my brother in front of me like his voice would.

Summer 1985: Kevin and I at his graduation from Ohio University

Within hours of my essay’s publication in the Globe, readers began writing me their own stories. A father who lost his son in a car accident four years ago wrote about how he worried that the time would come that he, like I, would no longer be able to remember his loved one as fully. Another woman who lost her brother wrote about how much she missed her brother’s voice. A man wrote that I finally made him understand why his wife could not part with the last phone messages left by her late father. A daughter wrote about how she taped her mother before she died. She was glad to have the tape, the woman wrote, but rarely plays it. Hearing her mother’s voice makes her too sad.

In my essay, I wrote about how I had only recently learned that a friend of Kevin’s had found an answering machine tape with my brother’s voice on it. Learning that made me realize that I could no longer remember exactly how my brother’s voice sounded. It made me realize that I would love to hear my brother again. My brother’s friend, though, later emailed me that he could not find that tape.

So I am left to wonder what it would mean to hear my brother’s voice again. I cannot do much about that. What I can do, though, is make sure I have recorded the voices of the people I love most. Right now, I tend to collect memories in a haphazard fashion. I have stacks of old photo albums with photos that need better protection. I have converted some old reel-to-reel movies into DVDS, but others need to be converted before they deteriorate. I created three photo albums of my son’s first year of life, but have done nothing since. He’s now 4. My husband and I have 1,000s of digital photos backed up, but not fully organized. We have videos, too, capturing our son’s voice and at times our own voices. I think we have a video of my father reading a book to my son, but what of my mother?

After reading so many letters from people aching to hear their loved ones’ voices, I suddenly feel urgency. I need to preserve memories better so they are accessible when I need them. Like that boy in the movie, I want to be able to hit the play button when I feel like it.

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