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From Issue #11 February 28, 2013

Death of a Code Man

I knew my father was dying when he gave me his AOL password.

By Jane Hodges Twitter icon 

“You should probably have my AOL password,” my father said slowly, taking a long breath as he lay in his railed hospital bed. Then he reeled off the secret: four numbers and the letters H and A, which he delivered in his gentleman’s drawl as “Hotel Alpha.”

We were in his room at the Seneca Health & Rehabilitation Center on a sunny South Carolina winter day a year ago, and it was clear to me that he was neither regaining health nor achieving rehab. That he’d shared his password with me, the reluctant party to whom he had just granted his power of attorney, was the closest he’d come to an acknowledgement of his mortality.

The fact that the password was the license number of his former Cessna plane — with him saying the “hotel” and “alpha” substitutions used by control towers — was a nod to his love of flight and frontiers. I’d remind myself while reconciling his trove of technical flotsam and jetsam in the weeks and months to come that my father was nothing if not a committed geek.

Four days after sharing the password, and one day after I returned home to the west coast after visiting him, he died. The hospital says it was a heart attack. We knew he was at high risk as his congestive heart failure advanced and its inevitable indignities became apparent.

But, in this daughter’s heart, he died because his final freedom — the freedom to use technology and the identity he got from it — was abruptly struck from his life.

Unwired

You couldn’t have a laptop (or even a wallet) in your room at Seneca Health & Rehab. Even if you sneaked one onto the premises there was no wireless network available to transport you out and away from the place’s tasteless food, oft-tripped security alarms, and institutional smell of petroleum jelly. There was no cloud computing on offer, and no magical modem ride, to help time pass in heaven’s anteroom.

Because of his vulnerable health, my father was forbidden from leaving the rehab facility for more than a few hours, and only then with able-bodied wheelchair wranglers half his age. That included me. He’d beg for a ride home rather than go to a doctor who reminded him why he couldn’t go there — that he was operating on 10% to 15% of a heart at this point.

So he struggled physically and then psychologically with the news of his condition, bouncing up and down the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. We all spent a lot of time negotiating his denial, humoring him with the insufficient delusion that when he got better (not if he got better), he could move into better living conditions in some stripe of assisted living facility, rather than acknowledging that his rehab was really hospice.

But his delusion was even greater and vaster than the one we proffered, for he reminded us that when he got better he would return to the lake house he shared with his wife, because it contained two of the things he most loved: his spouse, and his techno crib. He had assembled a lifetime of servers, computers, software manuals, old tape reels, and other evidence of a living made with and by machines that, like him, were once modern and even a little cutting edge. If he could just get back to his gear, it’d all be okay.

Shrinking horizons

Up until the hospitalization that put him into rehab, my father had succeeded in ignoring his own physical decline because he still had a life of the mind, thanks largely to technology. Like many seniors, his physical independence had been stripped away piece by piece like Honda parts in a Bronx chop shop. He’d stopped flying recreationally in his fifties after his first heart attack. His sixties brought dozens of prescriptions. In his mid-70s, he could no longer take long flights or drives as a passenger, effectively scuttling vacations.

After a “pacemaker incident,” his doctor forbade him from driving his beloved energy-efficient Prius. Following a pacemaker replacement, he relied on a new device that beamed his cardiac rhythms to a server farm and on a portable oxygen concentrator that at night exhaled endless Darth Vader white noise. His audio was powered by a newfangled digital hearing aid.

But as the human battery that was his heart wound down, he handily ignored its warning lights and kept on going and going and going, ever chipper in the face of adversity. That is, until things ground to a halt in rehab. Without the distractions of laptop and log on, he saw how narrow the tunnel of his life had become. Before the long hospitalization, and despite whatever unpleasant hacking cough or waterlogged edema or other discomfort he suffered, as long as he was ensconced at home he could look out at the lake, hear his wife’s musical voice, and fiddle on a machine that sent its bits over a Wi-Fi network called The Lake House.

In his retirement, he defaulted back to a user experience of yesteryear. Out went software coding; in came solitaire. He added passwords to anything and everything, forwarded political jokes and Snopes.com stories around the ’Net, sent Pollyanna-ish health updates to his daughters, and McAfee-protected the bejesus out of it all. He bought a trove of retro tech from eBay (film cameras and sets of Rada steak knives, anyone?) to refurbish and sell.

And of course there was that AOL account. Who’s got mail? You’ve got mail! He and his wife swapped romantic notes from their twin AOL accounts at desks down the hall from one another. Riffling through his account during the weeks after his death, I saw that she was sending him posthumous love notes. She knew him well.

Secret languages

My father was an early adopter before “early adopter” was a thing, owner of both a brick cell phone and a wieldy Osborne 1 portable laptop upon which he helped me design my high school literary magazine one floppy disk swap-out at a time. I spent weekends during the 1970s running laps outside a gym at the University of Richmond while he ran batches of punched cards off a mainframe computer in a dank basement.

When I got older, I helped him tabulate marketing research surveys. He proudly programmed his own marketing software. Called QNumQ, which stood for “Quickly Numbers Questionnaires,” it’s still available on floppy disks for tabulating data of a certain bygone era. When I got into Dartmouth, the campus where BASIC was invented, he held out hope that I might wind up in the computer center, learning his secret language of bits, rather than the hermetic truths of deconstruction and highfalutin’ French that came with my comparative literature major.

I’m sure my books about the Foucauldian Panopticon were every bit as nonsensical to my father as his books on FORTRAN, C++, and other languages of the ancient geeks were to me. But I’d be lying if I didn’t note that QNumQ sales funded my interest in psychobabble, deconstruction, and the novels of Marguerite Duras. That study led me to New York to pursue a life of letters, subsidized by jobs reporting about business, marketing, and technology — a pleasing grey area in the Venn diagram between us.

“I’ll miss you,” my father said on the last morning I saw him, the future tense of that statement ominous. He stoically allowed me to kiss him on the cheek. It was the last thing he said to me. “I’ll miss you.” But now, one year and five trips back to the South later — five trips to marvel at all the ancient technical crap he quasi-hoarded and make sense of why he kept it and why it kept him happy — I believe he also meant he’d miss his technology, for to my father, technology was itself life or livelihood.

Final resting place

The swampy summer of 2012 I spent in South Carolina reconciling his basement’s worth of gadgets, guides, and gear and tapping into an AOL-password-protected virtual world of accounts. Now and then, I notified a correspondent that my father had died. Often I cleaned the inbox: de-junking it, marking spam, feeling it was the right action to be a human-powered spam-riddance system.

I was tasked with moving out two rental trucks’ worth of disorganized disk drives, tape reels, office equipment, Kemeny books, theories of marketing and statistics, his thesis, file cabinets, metal desks, carbon-copied tests administered to students at five colleges in the Southeast. His widow wrung her hands as I worked, impatient for the closure she thought this outflow would deliver.

I understood, and wanted to find a good home for his gear. Would anyone care as much about this technology as he had? Apparently, neither Clemson University nor any resellers did. Pressed for time, I enlisted a childhood friend named Rich, who has a strong back and a dark sense of humor, to help me find a resting place.

In record heat, we took dozens of trips to the Oconee County Convenience Center — which is to say, a South Carolina dump site five miles from the house — to bury the things my father had loved as much as the people in his life: the books and disks in which he’d seen the future writ code. We spent three days in a constant state of motion, driving back and forth in my rental car to the dump.

On our last and final trip to the reeking containers, the skies turned cobalt and then charcoal. Soon, supernaturally heavy rain poured down on us from thunderclouds, the distant lightning suggesting frogs and locusts and acts of God that never came. We ran, wet, to the ledge of the compaction pit, tossing over his final box of dot-matrix printer paper, heaving the 50-pound Osborne, and chucking the old desktop monitor I didn’t have time to list on Craigslist, hearing it clatter to the bottom of a bin full of recycling.

“Bob smited us!” my friend Rich said, laughing, slipping into the rental car before hail began river-dancing on the roof. “He’s looking down at us tossing his old technology.”

I laughed, too. What else could I do? Six months after my father left us, the scope of his technology collection showed me the breadth of all the things I didn’t understand that he did — all the things we might not have understood about one another. In machines, he saw some unnameable potential. They were his Icarus wings, carrying him toward a future his body couldn’t visit. All I could do was give them a proper and orderly and oddly appropriate burial, and then log off, clean.

Illustration by Caty Bartholomew.1


  1. Caty Bartholomew is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and a master of both paint and pixels. She’s also a highly acclaimed teacher of toy design and illustration at Parsons and at City College of New York. 

Jane Hodges is a Seattle-based writer having a prolonged midlife crisis that began in 2012, the year her book Rent Vs. Own (Chronicle Books) published and two relatives died, both of them leaving her in charge of their affairs back in the South that she had fled like a prison escapee. In recent months, she drove cross-country, began working on a literary startup idea and a memoir, joined a Crossfit gym, and started eating paleo. In case it needs saying, she's too scattered to use Twitter effectively.

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