Cell Phone Upgrade

By Nadine Karel

The mailing envelope sits on the table in front of me, open and empty. My cell phone, five years old now, lies next to the envelope, but I can’t bring myself to put it inside. I don’t know why I hesitate over this last step because really, the hard work is already done.

A month ago, I decided to buy an iPhone. It’s my first smartphone, and it’s about time. My old phone is so small that everyone, upon seeing it, would say one of two things: “How do you open it?” and “How do you text on that thing?”

But I loved it, as much as a person who doesn’t really like talking on the phone or texting could actually love a phone, I suppose. The phone suited me: Small. Compact. Simple – with no bells and whistles – but functional, with several handy hidden features.

And yet, I envied those iPhone owners with their fancy gadgets packaged in nifty cases. I envied the iPhone’s amazing functions, and I soon began to worry that I was being left behind. So one day, when I came across a deal that I couldn’t resist, I bought an iPhone. That part wasn’t so bad. The hard part was getting rid of my old cell phone, which I had to send back, all my information erased, in order to get a rebate on the iPhone.

I’ve always had an above-average tendency to attach myself to objects. I slept with a teddy bear until I was 16, I put 200,000 miles on my first car, and sometimes it’s hard for me to throw away a toothbrush (I’m only sort of kidding on that last one). You could say that these attachments are my way of keeping constants in my life, my way of feeling secure or safe or comfortable. And that would all be true. But it’s also about holding on to, and remembering, my past.

I do this in the obvious ways, too: photographs and journals, videos and scrapbooks. I think about the reasons I feel a strong need to document my life, and I always come back to the same thing: I don’t want to forget.

My childhood best friend can recount entire conversations we had in 3rd grade; meanwhile, it’s a coup if I can remember what she and I talked about yesterday. It’s not as if I have no long-term memory; there’s a lot I remember about my childhood. But so much of it comes from photographs and the retelling of stories. These are my memories. All the rest – all the stuff that made up my day-to-day life, all the details – they’re lost. And that makes me kind of sad.

But what happens when some things are lost forever, and the memories are all we have? I’ve given this a lot of thought lately. My best friend, David, died last year. Days after his death, in a panic, I began writing down everything about him that I could remember. I saved digital photos of him to at least three different places, and printed out hard copies as well. I searched through the archives of my email, and read through every message he ever sent me, imagining what his voice would sound like if he spoke the words.

His voice: I had saved a voicemail he left for me a few months before he died, and every 21 days, as my phone’s messaging system asked if I wanted to delete the message, I would listen to it again, and press “9” to resave.

Every 21 days for nearly a year I listened to this message, until I decided to buy a new phone. Almost desperately, I asked the salesclerk if I could transfer my saved voicemails onto the new phone, and his words hit me like a dead weight, square in the chest: “No, I’m sorry; all messaging is erased in the transfer. We can’t save voicemails.”

I went home and rethought the decision to buy a new phone, telling myself I didn’t really need a Smartphone, telling myself that my old phone worked just fine. And it did.

But here’s the thing. I knew that I couldn’t hold onto that phone forever. The voice inside the phone? It was David’s voice, but it wasn’t David. Keeping that phone wouldn’t keep David with me.

And so, I did the only thing I could think to do: with my camera, I took a video of my cell phone as it played David’s voicemail. The audio is a bit muffled, but I was able to record his voice.

I don’t listen to that recording every 21 days. In fact, I haven’t listened to it in months. I understand that my memories of David will begin to fade – in fact, they already have. I spent months battling that inevitability, trying everything in my power to keep David’s memory alive and fully present. But finally time – and a new cell phone – helped me to store my memories in a place where they belonged. I began to accept that some things would be lost and forgotten, but also that there would be some things I’d always remember. And it is this acceptance and understanding that will allow me to move beyond my past, and steadily into my future.

At this moment, my old cell phone is still sitting on the table, next to the open envelope. The voicemails are gone, the texts are wiped clean, the photos erased. It no longer stores my memories, and I no longer need it to. I’m ready to fill a new phone with new memories. But every once in awhile, I will find that video of David’s muffled voice, and I will listen to it. Because there are some memories that I will always keep.

About this writer

  • Nadine Karel Nadine Karel is a drug and alcohol counselor, working with high school students in the Philadelphia region. Things that make her happy include: strong coffee, giant pandas and learning how to text.

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