World Dispatch

After the beep

World Dispatch

Voicemails from the dead

The most mundane messages can be the best memories.

People who call you to talk are few and far between these days. And out of those people, the ones who leave a voicemail are even rarer. We put out a call on social media for saved voicemail recordings, and in a special episode of our podcast, The Outline World Dispatch, Tolu Edionwe talks to those who are holding on to voicemails — from their dead loved ones.

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Full Transcript

Rawiya Kameir (Host): Hey Tolu. So you got a bunch of people to give you their voicemails. Why’d you do that?

Tolu Edionwe (Host): Uhh… Well I don’t know about you, but I don’t get a lot of voicemails any more. People usually just text instead of call. I speak to a lot of people on the phone. I prefer phone conversations. Usually when I see a missed call, people will then send a text, like “Hey, I just called to say, this this this.” But I do get a few voicemails that I’ve held on to. And one is from my good friend Milton.

Milton: [singing]

Tolu Edionwe: He’ll leave these long, rambling messages that usually start with a nonsensical song using my name.

Milton: [singing]

Tolu Edionwe: Milton was a theater major.

Milton: [singing]

Tolu Edionwe: And the other set is from my mom. And they’re like mundane things that she’ll say, like, “Help me fix my phone,” or, “Help me with this internet thing,” or whatever. But I’ve gone through them and saved them.

Rawiya Kameir: All my voicemails are robocalls, I think. Maybe… my dad is probably the only human person who leaves me voicemails. But like you said, he just will text me, and I’ll know exactly why he’s calling. So I’ll just call him back. So I feel like you’re in a rare category of people who care about voicemails.

Tolu Edionwe: It is kind of rare. But I found a group of people who hold on to voicemails, and they do it for a really specific reason. They’re holding on to the voicemails of their loved ones who have died. And so I reached out, sent out a call on Twitter and Facebook for people who have these voicemails, and actually a bunch of people contacted me and agreed to talk about it.

Rawiya Kameir: So, if you’re listening at home, something you should know is that we are going to be talking about some sensitive things, including suicide.

Tolu Edionwe: So one of the first people I talked to was Alex Alam.

Tolu Edionwe: Hi Alex, this is Tolu!

Alex Alam: Hi Tolu, nice to meet ya! How are ya?

Tolu Edionwe: And Alex told me about a message from his grandfather.

Voicemail: I don’t know whether I believe that message you have on that phone or not you little shithead. Oh, no — you, uh, ‘Dirty Doo-doo Bird.’ [laughs] Love ya! Give us a call! Bye!

Alex Alam: That was… October of 2011. And he passed in… 2013. September, 2013.

John Lagomarsino: So why’d you hang on to a voicemail for two years?

Tolu Edionwe: That’s my producer, John.

Alex Alam: So, my grandfather fought off cancer a lot of times. As morbid as it sounds, he would always joke, like, “well at least I know how I’m going to go.”

John Lagomarsino: Is this voicemail a good representation of your whole memory of him?

Alex Alam: Kind of. Probably I would say so, especially with the context of knowing that when it sounds like he’s saying something mean, he’s really not at all. That’s the most love he had, like, that was possible. If I just play this to some other person, they’re gonna have no concept of who he was, or what he was actually saying, or doing, or meant by it. It’s totally divorced from the rest of everything that I know about him.

Tolu Edionwe: I think these are the types of memories that are most important to recreating a person. That kind of inside joke type of relationship. That’s amazing.

Alex Alam: I was real mad at myself for picking the wrong one to save for a long time. But I’ll take what I got.

Tolu Edionwe: For some of the people we talked to, a voicemail from a dead loved one was a surprise find in their archives. But for others, it was a carefully saved artifact. But all of them seemed to hold a reverence for the specific quality of an audio recording.

Rae Witte: Hello?

Tolu Edionwe: Hey, Rae?

Tolu Edionwe: That’s Rae Witte.

Voicemail: Witte! Witte! Witte! Witte! Witte!

Tolu Edionwe: And that’s a drunk voicemail, from Rae’s friend Taryn.

Rae Witte: I live in New York. And Taryn was also a freelance writer, younger than me, based in LA. So initially we just started out sharing each other's work and sending each other leads, and things like that. We ended up exchanging phone numbers and we would Skype here and there — well, because we both worked from home. You know that schedule when you’re just alone at the house, all the time?

When I met him I was 29 or 30, and he was 24. But I feel like it’s trendy for kids that age to talk about suicide and death all the time on Twitter, and I’m just not of that comedy. But it got to the point where I was like, “I don’t really think you’re joking.”

Voicemail: Gimme a call back at this number...

Rae Witte: Or nights like that when I would get that voicemail, I would hit him up the next day and be like, jokingly, but dead serious, like: “Just wanna make sure you’re still alive!” That was... that voicemail was in December 2015.

Tolu Edionwe: So Taryn and Rae got closer when Taryn visited New York in the Spring of 2016. Rae took him out to eat at all her favorite places, and did all the things you do when friends from out of town visit. But then a few months after that visit, Rae received a text with the news that Taryn had killed himself.

Rae Witte: We had talked about his relationship with suicide and depression at length, because I wanted him to know he had someone to talk to. Even if it wasn’t just the joking, it was like, if things aren’t okay you can call me, it doesn’t have to be funny, and it doesn’t have to be at a comedic expense.

Tolu Edionwe: So Rae has held on to Taryn’s voicemail for the last two years, and she doesn’t have any plans to erase it.

Rae Witte: I had first found it on a train, and like an idiot, I tried to listen to it on the train and started crying on the train, some real New York moment shit, crying on the train. Had to wait ‘til another time to really listen through it.

Voicemail: Wonderful, wonderful...

Rae Witte: It makes me so sad that he felt like he couldn’t go on here, but I never want to get rid of that voicemail, because it’s so my relationship with him. Him just literally screaming drunk into the phone.

Voicemail: Witte! Witte! Witte! Witte! Witte!

Tolu Edionwe: Jon Shanahan’s recording sounds kind of familiar to me.

Voicemail: [muffled talking]

Tolu Edionwe: That’s a butt dial.

Jon Shanahan: I don’t really have anything of his voice, and I don’t really have anything of a conversation with him.

Tolu Edionwe: Jon said that his dad did that a lot.

Jon Shanahan: So, when I had gone through my voicemails — this was six or seven months after he had died — it was in the Deleted Messages portion. It was the swishing, it was the pockets, it was the muffled conversation.

Tolu Edionwe: You said you keep it on your phone as a reminder, do you listen to it often?

Jon Shanahan: Um, not so much. At this point, I listened to it a few times after the weeks that I found it, I shared it with my family and they all laughed at it too, because I wasn’t the only one that was getting the butt dials, you know. It was mostly whoever he had spoken to last. So my mom would get them all the time, my sisters would get them. And so right after I found it I shared with them and I said “Hey, look what I found on my phone” and then, that’s when I found out that they each had their own that they just haven’t deleted. We all had a good laugh about that.

So you’re right. It’s so much like his personality and everything culminated just in that, because he really did like technology and I’d always show him whatever the new features were on the phone, but he just couldn’t grasp it. I mean, it was really funny.

Tolu Edionwe: This last person I talked to, Mallika Rao, actually didn’t have a voicemail to share with me. But it turned out that was a whole story in itself.

Mallika Rao: My mom died right after I graduated from college. She was a physician and so she had a very professional outgoing message that was directed more to… potential patients, than really family or friends. She passed away and it hit me really hard, and it hit my dad really hard. And he told me he was gonna just maintain her phone account for a year because he liked to call her voicemail.

Tolu Edionwe: Mallika’s dad saved the voicemail, but Mallika had reservations.

Mallika Rao: I, at the time I was like, “Ah, that seems unhealthy,” I don’t know, I was worried about my dad. But then I found myself, I would get devastatingly sad and call it, and she just sounded so normal and like, ready to go.

And my mom, she was an Indian immigrant and she had an accent, that, I remember when I was a kid, I never heard my parents’ accents. I don’t know… I think this is a common phenomenon where other people tell you that your parents have accents. My mom, I never had really heard her as an accented person, and then when I’d hear her message, I mean it was so her, but there was also this double hearing that I had where I heard her, but then I also sort of heard her as a stranger might have.

And yeah, when I would call her it was like I could just enter into this other existence briefly, former existence, and then… and then it would... end.

Tolu Edionwe: Mallika’s relationship with her mom’s voice recording changed over time. And then she told me that as she started to feel better, and not as sad, that she’d call less and less. And then one day she called, and it was gone.

Mallika Rao: You know, my dad never told me when he cancelled the account. One day I called and it wasn’t... I think I got, I reached someone, and it was... very depressing. But also like, probably healthy? I don’t know, I mean, when you guys asked for the recording, I called it again just to see and it’s not her number anymore. And it’s sad. I don’t know. It’s sad that it’s not there, it’s gone. I don’t know that I would use it all the time but… it’s kind of like a drug, ya know?

Tolu Edionwe: Not many people leave a voicemail expecting the recipient to play it over and over. It’s not a video, or a photo, with all of the pressure to encapsulate a memory for later.

Rawiya Kameir: Right, ‘cause it serves a purpose, and it’s purpose is not to be replayed, it’s purpose is to communicate something at that moment and then it’s supposed to be gone once you hear it.

Tolu Edionwe: Right. But, for these people, it represents so much more. I think there’s a lot in the mundane that can be crucial to remembering a person outside of like, the bigness of what… or how it’s expected that we remember them when they die. I keep imagining like, a picture of someone in a coffin, and like, that’s how you’re supposed to remember someone. Like, “Rest in Peace”, done. But in a voicemail, they sound so alive. And that’s what you should really be remembering about them, like, the tone of their voice and how they sound when they laugh, you know. It’s like, color.

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