Why does that little box want to know what’s on my mind?
Two years ago I left a job in the suburbs to move in with my grandparents at their beach house. At 91 years old, my grandfather’s health was declining rapidly. He was tethered to an oxygen concentrator and would be overwhelmed by exhaustion after taking only ten straight steps. For a man who’d lived a fiercely independent life, his greatest struggles came from asking for help from anyone but my grandmother, his wife of 62 years, who could only do so much herself.
He’d often need a hand getting up, or someone to hold while climbing stairs. Yet the most frustrating moments he experienced that summer didn’t have to do with a battle over pride and physical decline, they happened when he was in his office and the computer wasn’t doing what he asked it to do.
He’d write post-it notes with directions, “click file, click save, click save again,” and stuck them around the monitor. He understood how to open, save, and print Word documents, had a Gmail account, and regularly emailed colleagues, family, and friends. And when all of his grandchildren began bringing their i-technology to the beach house during their all too brief summer stays, he sat patiently, marveling at the possibilities while trying to learn how each device worked.
He saw within this new digital world an ability to learn, communicate, and work at a far more efficient pace. Not to mention, it was exciting, and what everyone was doing, so he wanted in.
But then Google would change their format and all hell would break lose.
He’d call me up the stairs to his office while he stared at the screen asking, “Why would they do this to me?” I’d explain how it worked the same way, and that the buttons just looked different. He’d scribble my exact words on a post-it and stick it to the monitor. Eventually, he’d calm down and we’d practice sending emails before he’d take a much needed nap to ease the stress.
Still, his frustration over the computer would strike again, and again. When he joined Facebook, he asked about the suspicious white dialogue box that wanted to know what was on his mind. I couldn’t help but laugh as I began to question it myself; what were the motivations of that little white box?
Teaching my grandfather how to use the internet became a ritual. After dinner on many nights, and over the first cup of coffee on many mornings, I would sit and show him how to manage his inbox, update his Facebook, format documents, and search for information using browsing sites. We did this because he said he wanted to know and understand where the world was going, but I think he also liked the challenge of learning something new. While his physical self wasn’t in the best shape, his mind and wit were sharper than ever.
Nevertheless, that summer was his last.
If we’d had more time, and less website update setbacks, I’m sure my grandfather would have become familiar enough with Facebook that he would have posted regularly; perhaps I could have even taught him how to tweet. He always was a great storyteller, and he never had a problem holding back anything from anyone. In fact, on our first night together that last summer, a neighbor who joined us for drinks asked, “So, Peter, what are your plans this summer?” To which he responded, “Well, I’m old so I’m going to die,” with the casual tone of one commenting on the weather.
Someday, I too might require the same help from a grandson or loved one, when my hovercraft stalls out and my information-injecting eyepiece needs a software upgrade. I’ll probably get frustrated, but then I’ll think of my grandfather and smile.
And then I’ll take a nap.
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