When my Grandpa Ray died in March at the age of 97, he left a larger digital footprint than most in his generation.
He emailed, Skyped, DVR'ed and even Facebooked for a short time. Basically, he ignored whatever edict there is about age and technological savvy being mutually exclusive.
Ray wasn't my biological grandfather. He was the best friend of my dad's dad, going all the way back to the 1930s in Detroit. They met through a musicians' union and started a friendship that spanned three generations. Ray knew my dad as a child, and he and his wife, Hazel, fussed over me from the time I was a baby.
As Ray would often tell me, he considered my Grandpa Howard a brother. And so, when Howard died in 1996, Ray assumed grandparenting responsibilities.
Though I'd written letters and spoke on the phone to Ray and Hazel for years, email was the medium that really brought us together and bridged the 2,000 miles between my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, and their home in Carlsbad, California. I got my first AOL address right before high school, and what started as a thank you note for yet another beautiful birthday card turned into an email correspondence that lasted until a week before he died.
No matter if I was applying to college, picking a grad school, grieving the death of my beloved cat, trying to find a job, moving, traveling -- Ray's emails, always written in dark green Comic Sans, arrived with all the love and support anyone could ask for. Declarations of pride, words of advice, much needed perspective and my favorite: "Don't let 'em work you too hard.... Love you, GR & GH."
GH -- Grandma Hazel -- was a woman who exuded sweetness and peace in a manner I've never seen anywhere else in my life. She died while I was finishing my master's degree in 2012. I knew after that the internet was more important to Ray than ever before, even if some days it was just exchanging YouTube videos of musical child prodigies or swapping pictures of fall in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where he grew up. For Ray those exchanges were an important connection to the world in the moments he was by himself.
A longtime musician and music teacher, Ray also figured out how to record himself playing his keyboard. One night I got a file of him playing an elegy he'd composed for Hazel. It was beautiful and sad and wonderful.
I grew up and lived most of my life in Nashville. In college, I was likely to receive a rough recording of some song a friend was working on. And now my 90-something-year-old grandfather's compositions were arriving via YouSendIt. God, I was proud. I was always so proud of him. I still am.
Then there was the day I got a LinkedIn request from Ray. I laughed. I should have asked him about it, but I didn't want to be rude by pointing out that he'd been retired longer than I'd been alive.
He set up a Google Plus page, too. His bio just said "I'm ooold."
And as it happens, on Friday night a recurring calendar alert reminded me he would have turned 98 on Monday.
For all that tech kept us in contact and always sharing, it was also how I found out he'd died. He'd had a minor heart attack a week before. Things had taken a turn. We'd talked on the phone one last time and I spent the rest of that night in despair, waiting for the news I'd always dreaded. Then I got a Facebook message posted by his stepdaughter saying he'd passed. I was in Austin, Texas, just outside the badge pickup for South by Southwest Interactive, totally exposed in a swarm of other people also staring at their phones. If he hadn't had that heart attack, I would have been emailing him that night about how I'd covered President Obama's keynote that afternoon.
Wanting to email him good news is a reflex I still can't curb.
In the end, I think Ray had an important quality that eludes even my generation sometimes. It's a willingness to poke around and try tech without the fear of breaking it. He didn't worry that he'd click on something and his computer would become inoperable. I still say this to my folks -- there's little you can accidentally do to this phone or laptop by exploring that can't be fixed.
Ray never hid from the world and he never gave up on it.
The last time I visited him, he'd gotten a Samsung tablet and we sat on the couch while I showed him how to get rid of the apps he didn't need. I talked him through how some people use their tablets. I helped him set up a Feedly account to corral some of his favorite news sites.
Mostly, I wished I could teleport to Carlsbad in case he ever needed help with it. Tech support was a small thing I could do for him.
Not everyone is like Ray. Many older folks need extra help. Shoot -- I needed help the first time I tried Snapchat. But what's easy and obvious to people who've grown up with tech or embraced it early in life isn't necessarily so to everyone else. Belittling someone for not understanding computers is no less crappy than giving someone a hard time for fumbling through a second language.
The internet is a window into a lot of things, some good, some bad, but it's probably a tool most of us wouldn't trade away. I don't know when Ray first got a computer. I'm pretty sure he was on Gmail before I was. I don't know if someone taught him or he just bought a computer one day in the '90s, when he was in his 70s, and figured it out. I assume the latter.
Either way, I'm grateful he solved the puzzle. I've got all his emails stashed away. Or more accurately, Google's got Ray's emails backed up into eternity. Though it stings when Gmail asks me if I want to add him to an email I'm about to send to my parents, I'm glad to know that one day when I need it, and it's a little less painful, I can dig up an old thread and get a little blast of warmth from the digital realm, via green Comic Sans.
"Don't let 'em work you too hard... Love you, GR & GH."