Future Tense

Sharing My Husband’s Digital Afterlife

Two and a half years after he died, I gave his iPhone to our daughter.

A young girl holding a smartphone by a window.
Miguel S. Salmeron/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The other night, my good friend Katie came by for dinner. As is customary whenever Katie comes by for dinner, the conversation veered toward my husband, Mike, who had his own good friendship with her. Katie owns a golf cart rental business in Arizona. Mike, a talented writer, offered to help her craft some promotional materials, a job they agreed would be best accomplished if they “experienced the golf carts,” as I distinctly remember him telling me. And that is how they got to spend an afternoon cruising the bars of downtown Scottsdale, taking pictures of men’s room signs to populate an Instagram account Mike had created.

I don’t recall why he chose to create an Instagram account devoted to men’s room signs, but I do remember the day it went live. We were at our favorite neighborhood pizza place when Mike returned from a trip to the bathroom smiling like a mischievous little kid, handed his iPhone to me, and said, “Check out what I just did.” There, on the screen, was a picture of the word men carved on a teal metal plate under the handle @mensroomsigns. I rolled my eyes and silently dismissed the whole thing as a silly idea. But he kept at it, photographing signs wherever he went, with or without me.

My memories of his afternoon with Katie existed as a fast cut in the film of stitched-together memories that has played on a loop inside my head since Mike’s death on Nov. 1, 2017, 30 days after we learned that the dull, nagging pain on his back was a manifestation of advanced pancreatic cancer.

On that recent evening, after Katie and I ate homemade orecchiette and shared a bottle of Barolo, she opened the Instagram app on her iPhone, typed “@mensroomsigns” in the search field, and, after a little scrolling, found their adventure. As I appraised the aqua blue M floating above the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album at Hi Fi, the copper-colored stick figure shining under a spotlight at DJ’s Bar and Grill, and the unicorns having sex at Counter Intuitive, I felt as if I were witnessing a resurrection. These were pieces of my husband that lived a life of their own on the web, in an Instagram account he had created and that had outlasted him. An account whose existence I had completely forgotten.

Navigating the bureaucracy of death is an unavoidable, time-consuming, and tedious affair. Call the bank to remove his name from our joint checking account, call credit card companies to cancel his cards, call the car insurance company to delete his vehicle from our policy, call to end the memberships he had and I couldn’t afford to keep. These are also one-dimensional tasks. No one can like, share, or comment on them. With his death, my husband killed their significance.

But there was one account I did not close, at least not entirely. On days that I missed him more than the usual everyday missing of him, I’d tell Siri to call him so I could see his name and number pop on the screen. I disconnected the line about a month after he died, but I still asked Siri to call him once in a while, even if it meant hearing a message telling me the customer I was trying to reach was unavailable. I also held onto the phone itself and to the number, paying $5 a month to make sure it wouldn’t be assigned to someone else—paying so that I could give it to our daughter, Flora, whenever the time was right.

That’s what happens after a piece of you dies: You keep holding onto the pieces left behind by the person who is gone. The dull pocketknife that Mike bought at an antiques store in western Massachusetts, where we first shared a home, lives in my underwear drawer. I like to caress its tan suede cover, if only to create a tactile memory by feeling a feeling he must have felt whenever he reached for that knife.

The pictures and videos he posted on social media, in the Instagram accounts he kept and also on Facebook, are a public registry of the life he lived and the life we shared, culled and edited to expose the best sides of him, of all of us. I mostly avoid looking at them, though there have been times when I’ve been lost in these pictures, not because I yearned to relive the moments they captured but because they helped me process the end of us.

Mike’s cancer was merciless. It devoured his pancreas and a piece of his liver, and then it wrapped itself around the connection between his stomach and intestines, shutting down his digestive system. Still, in all his frailty, as he confronted the fast-approaching end of his life, Mike summoned the energy to give me the keys to every online account he had—Gmail, fantasy football, and everything in between—by typing each password on a Word document that he printed out and quietly left on top of my dresser. He trusted me to be the steward of his digital afterlife.

A few weekends ago, I decided that it was time to give Flora his phone. She is 10, and though she’s not on social media yet, she has her own playlists on the Spotify account that was Mike’s and now is mine.

I made sure I backed up the phone before I gave it to her so I wouldn’t lose the pictures and videos Mike had stored there. (Somewhere out there floats a cloud with his name attached to it, filled with his memories.) I sat before my laptop, typed “icloud.com” on the browser, and filled in the user ID and password fields with the user ID and password that were his. In that moment, I became him.

For his wallpaper, Mike had a picture of Times Square that he took from a pedicab we rode together on our last night as residents of New York in 2012, when my job back then, as a staff writer for the New York Times, brought us to Arizona. The moment carries greater significance as I look back on it now because it would be truly his last night as a resident there.

Flora changed the wallpaper as soon as she got the phone in her hands. Hers is a picture of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, all sass and style.

She called Mike’s mom on FaceTime from her phone as we drove back home from the Verizon store. His mom didn’t answer, so I called her from my own phone to explain why she got a call from Mike. Of course she hadn’t deleted his name and number from her contacts. Of course I hadn’t, either.

Flora and I went shopping that afternoon; I needed to buy new hiking shoes. At one point, she asked whether she could roam around the store on her own. I said yes and told her, “I’ll call you when I’m done.”

When I was done, I asked Siri to call Mike, and it was Flora who picked up, as I knew she would. After we hung up, I replaced his name with hers and bit my lip. I waited until we got home to cry as I scrolled through the pictures on the other Instagram account he had, the one that I remembered. The account is still there, as are his other social media accounts. I don’t know what to do with them just yet. I’m not ready to kill what is left of him.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.