Are You There, Dad? It’s Me, Alice

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Modern Love

In December I moved the contents of my 10-year-old niece’s bedroom from my brother’s house in Portland, Ore., to mine a half-mile away, where I tried to create an exact replica: same color walls, pictures hung in the same spots and stuffed animals laid out exactly as they had been.

Alice was going to be staying with us part-time because her father — my brother, James — had, at 37, taken his own life. Although James had at times quietly suffered from depression, he had seemed fine last fall; none of us saw this coming.

Ten months earlier, he and his wife, Trina, got divorced, and they and had been sharing custody of Alice equally. But Trina worked full-time, with long nursing shifts, and after James died there were three days a week unaccounted for.

I wanted Alice with me on those days. Desperately.

In my grief, I took other parts of James’s life into mine, too. His clothes, for example. Often I wore his socks, always his coat, most times his shirts and sometimes his jeans, which hung on me.

And soon I began to inhabit his online life as well. Searching for answers, I hacked into his various accounts: his email, Facebook, Instagram, tropical fish forum, chat site for BMW technicians, Snapchat, bank accounts, garbage bills and mileage awards charts.

What I most wanted to find was the search history on his phone, thinking it might provide a clue, but the phone locked me out after too many failed passcode attempts. I knew it had to be some combination of 4s and 0s, but I couldn’t get them in the right order. Or maybe, in my emotional fog, I just kept entering the same combination over and over: 4-0-0-0, 4-0-0-0, 4-0-0-0. (I did, eventually, through a series of complicated steps, gain access to some of the phone’s features — but never the browser history.)

The first call had come from my father on the morning of the winter solstice. Did I know where James was? That led to a series of calls and texts to relatives and friends that seemed to go on and on until he was discovered later that morning.

After leaving my brother’s house, my mother and I drove to Trina’s, where my niece, Alice, sat crying on the couch, her face white, body shaking. If I could just be my brother, I thought, I could pick her up and say, “Don’t be sad, Blueberry. I’m back. I’m right here.” And she would giggle and squirm into my lap, which is too small for a 10-year-old, but neither of us would care.

That evening, I took the log from my phone and wrote down a minute-by-minute summary of when everything had happened, all of the calls and texts. If Alice were ever curious about the day, I would not leave anything out. The next days were a blur as relatives arrived and we tried to come to grips with what had happened, all with Christmas looming.

On Christmas Eve, Alice texted me: “Did dad get me Christmas presents?”

“Yeah!” I replied. “A big pile!”

I could almost see her brain working to compartmentalize this new reality, as if slamming a door on something she wasn’t yet able to process.

James’s presents for Alice had been in his desk, unwrapped and without tags; I took them home with me. He and I have nearly identical (terrible) handwriting, so I could fill out the tags somewhat credibly on his behalf, being careful not to smear the labels with my tears.

I wrote: “To: Alice” “Love: from Dad!”

And “To: Blueberry, I love you!! ~ Dad”

And on behalf of their puppy: “Kisses from Scout!!”

On Christmas morning everyone came over to our house. For an hour and a half, I forced myself to hold it together and give Alice the Christmas morning she had been looking forward to. The next day, she left to spend the holiday week in Seattle with her grandparents, and that’s when my husband and I moved her room, in its entirety, from James’s house to ours.

From Seattle, Alice texted: “My room is at your house?? dont send me pictures!!!! i want to be surprised!”

“You’ll love it,” I replied. “It’s just the same.”

After New Year’s it was a whole new life for us, with Alice staying at our house on the days she had stayed at her father’s house. I would tuck her into the bed her dad got her, under fleece blankets instead of the sheets that still smelled like his house.

In this way, months passed. Daffodil shoots started to peek through the mud. The shock began to wear off. And as it did, Alice started having trouble sleeping, despite her room being exactly the same and her schedule exactly the same.

She began to approach me with complicated deals, like if she couldn’t sleep in her bed, she would sleep on the couch. If she couldn’t sleep on the couch, she would sleep in the babies’ room. If she couldn’t sleep in the babies’ room, she would sleep with my husband and me. And then, if all that failed, she would call her mother to pick her up in the middle of the night.

I wished, again, that I could be James for her. If only I could.

Many nights, after my husband fell asleep, I would log in to James’s Facebook account. Twice I forgot to log out and ended up posting as him in chat groups of his friends, which left them in stunned silence. Once, I mistakenly messaged back one of James’s friends as him too. At least on social media it was as if time had stopped and he was still alive. Until somehow Facebook learned of his death and his page was converted to a memorial account, and this last vestige died too.

But his email account lived on. I would leave it logged in and up on my computer on the tab to the left of my own email. (I still do.) He wasn’t getting many emails, mostly junk or notices from various lists he had been on — notifications from Alice’s school and alerts about lost neighborhood dogs.

Then one day a new message popped up: “hi dad”

I stared for a while at Alice’s message, so plaintive and weightless, without even the anchor of punctuation. I wondered if I should reply. I asked a therapist friend, who said: “Don’t answer as her father unless you ask Alice and she agrees to it.”

It took me a few days to figure out how to ask Alice casually. During that time, I searched and read every email and text he had sent her. I studied his punctuation, his cadence, his vocabulary and his endearments. So many exclamation points.

And then I texted her: “I’m on your dads email. can i write you from it?”

She replied: “wait what? oh ok”

“i guess i want to pretend,” I explained.

“oh i get it ok that is fine”

Then I changed the subject and did not acknowledge after that moment that we had agreed on virtual resurrection.

The next day, I pulled up the little message she had sent — “hi dad” — and replied, “Hi Alice!!! Love you!!!!”

The next day she wrote, “hi by the way you wrote that to me during school.”

“Oooooops! Did you open it at school? Miss you so much Blueberry!!”

She wrote, “I read it on my fit bit but it only reads half the message so I checked after school.”

“Thats my girl. I heard you have had trouble sleeping at aunt jessies? Hope it is better tonight!!!!”

“Ya,” she replied.

The next day she wrote: “how was work dad”

“very busy!! I am on break!! Missing you!!! Love you Alice!!!”

“I miss you dad I love you”

I don’t know what Alice thinks of these exchanges, which continue to this day, though with less frequency. She knows we are pretending, of course, but who can say what goes on in her mind? She never says anything emotional. She just wants to chat with her father, to say she misses him and loves him. She wants to be able to ask questions and work through this in whatever way feels right. And I want the same things.

I keep the tab to my brother’s email open in my browser 24/7 and always try to respond within half an hour. Alice now sleeps well at my house, though she still sometimes ends up in bed with my husband and me. I text her most evenings and ask: “Hi, Mid, Lo?” And she tells me the highlights, midlights and lowlights of each day.

You can’t put things back to the way they were, but you can try to make the best of the way things are. You can replicate her room and answer her emails. You can pull her into your lap and say, “You’ll be O.K., Blueberry. We’re right here.”

And we will be.

Jessie Glenn, a book publicist in Portland, Ore., is working on a collection of essays.