How you feel about voice mail is largely generational. People who haven’t hit 40 don’t get why their parents don’t just text or let a missed call speak for itself. In some cases, it’s an argument of etiquette: Some say voice mail is obnoxious, while others believe it’s rude not to leave one. It’s actually neither. Voice mail is great. Voice mail is essential.
My dad died unexpectedly last July. After a death, events keep tumbling at you in a steady deluge, and you can’t pause to take stock of what’s happening or who brought you a casserole or how you ended up with four tubes of waterproof mascara. But in what felt like a time warp, I somehow found some structure in voice mail.
[pullquote]I didn’t listen to them immediately, but they were there as a de facto comfort when I needed some.[/pullquote]
Right after my dad died, my phone started ringing and didn’t stop for about a month. I could text, but I couldn’t really talk on the phone. You can say thank you only so many times before you start to feel insincere. But people wanted to speak to me. And people left me voice mails.
I didn’t listen to them immediately, but they were there as a de facto comfort when I needed some. Unlike whatever ephemeral technology we’re obsessed with for five minutes, my voice mails didn’t disappear after one listen. You actually have to really want to delete voice mails to get rid of them. They’re indelible.
People also say things in a voice mail that they won’t say in person. It gives them the ability to ramble without response, and for all the times you’ve listened to an uninterrupted, stream-of-consciousness voice mail, hoping for someone to get to the point, one day you realize it’s wonderful. People don’t know what to say in sensitive situations. Left to their own devices on a voice mail, though, they’ll find their way to the right words.
While it was my dad’s death that made me realize voice mail’s value, it has a broader worth. Voice mail is the default archive of your life. You would miss it if it were gone!
One time, my roommate called me pretending to be my dog. (“I’m standing right by your door right now, wishing you would come outside and just pet me for a little while.”) Saved it. There’s also the occasional drunk dial. I love a good drunk dial.
Another truth: Sometimes it’s just good to hear someone’s voice. E-mail is great and texting is fine, but it takes effort to pick up the phone. Typing and talking have an inverse relationship: As it’s gotten easier to write your feelings, it’s gotten more difficult to speak them. Even if your feelings are “I was just calling to say hello.” That means something.
My dad must have known that. He had an entire calendar full of hundreds of people he would call on their birthdays and sing “Happy Birthday to You.” If you picked up, he’d sing your ear off. If you screened, he’d sing it to your voice mail.
Since Dad died, I’ve had untold numbers of people approach me and tell me they had messages from my dad on their phones singing them happy birthday. Happy birthday to Mark! Happy birthday to Suzanne! Happy birthday to people I don’t know from Adam! Shoot, I’d think every time, why didn’t I listen to my voice mails more?
Then one day, I poked around in my Deleted folder and found my dad’s happy-birthday message from last year, saved. I hadn’t meant to save it, but there it was: “Hi, Leslie. I have something very important to tell you: I love you! I love you, and I hope you’re having a great day. Bye-bye.”