declared the imminent death of email. To no one’s surprise, his death proclamation involves the chance to make money on “something better.”
In truth, rarely in our world does a communication medium die. When it does die utterly -- 8-tracks, Betamax -- it does so only because there is a newer medium that does everything that medium could accomplish and then some. That is, they only die when they get devoured by a bigger fish.
As my life of communication has increasingly taken on more avenues and alleys, as Instagram has become a legitimate way for me to communicate with my own daughters, email has become that cute aunt you grew up admiring but whose constant smoking and drinking has aged her drastically. She still wants to be cute and fun, but she’s getting all wrinkly and raspy-voiced, and you kind of wonder if she’ll grow up in time to live to see her AARP membership card.
Recently, I’ve been reminded why email is an undervalued vehicle for communication, and this reminder has come attached to cancer.
One of my childhood friend’s sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early fall. One of my coworkers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November. One of my in-laws was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December.
My friend’s sister -- she’s a friend of mine in her own right -- is barely 37. My coworker just turned 44. My in-law relative is in his early 50s. Just as it does with everyone whose path it crosses, cancer has rocked their worlds and challenged everything they knew about priorities, values, health, boredom, love and friendship.
When you’re sitting with them, even if you’re talking about some inane topic like "Duck Dynasty," you can see it in their eyes. They have no desire to talk endlessly about their own health, the challenge their mortality faces, but it still stabs into their conscience like a rude drunk dinner guest, and they try blinking it away. They don’t want everything to be about Their Cancer. But there it is, and it won’t leave, and it’s eating them out of house and home. And everyone brings it up or is thinking about it even when they don't.
Two of these three people have created an email list of friends and concerned acquaintances. They are writing regular updates on how they are doing. In the case of the relative, he isn’t sending out emails, but his wife is. Although I’d never considered any of these people to be “Writers,” I’ve been blown away and deeply moved by the level of detail they provide, the small non-sentimental window they open into their experience.
Their emails are not pleas for sympathy or pity. They are information. Here’s how I’m doing. Here’s what it feels like. I didn’t know my neck would hurt this much. Food has begun to taste like metal. My hair is clumping in the drain, and I have to admit it’s freaking me out, no matter how much everyone tried to prepare me for it.
Cancer updates on Facebook just don’t have the same gravitas. It reeks a bit of oversharing, or of seeking too much sympathy from too many people, a sort of self-promoting of one’s illness. On the flip side, it’s almost cruel to ask someone to repeat their Adventures in Treatment and Vomit for the 33rd time on the phone or over coffee.
Rather than having to tell all of this, over and over, time and again, in one on one settings with all those people who -- yes, they’re genuinely concerned and love you -- won’t let you enjoy a dang minute of thinking and talking about anything BUT this nightmare that has taken over their lives, these bulk emails must be liberating.
One story. One version. Sent to any and all eyes who fall into that second circle of close friends and family and coworkers. Brief conversational follow-ups that take on a new dimension, with people who know the basics from the email updates!
Meanwhile, people like me who are (probably overly) emotional but try not to wear it too blatantly on their sleeves can read these updates, weep quietly in the comfort of my office or home or car, and then gather myself for the rest of the world.
If email dies, and nothing sprouts up to allow me to get my cancer updates (or, heaven forbid, to one day allow me to email my friends and loved ones updates on my own potentially terminal condition), then we will have truly killed something special and powerful.