Technology nurtured my special bond with my father
MY FATHER and I were always close. We loved many of the same things. Music, books, old movies. And, eventually, technology.
I suppose it started, age 10, when he took me in to work at a summer sabbatical research position he had at the Rand Corporation in Los Angeles, to play the game hangman with a computer.
I only found out decades later that it most likely had been the famous Johnniac mainframe that is now in the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.
Sad to say, that event only mildly impressed me at the time. It was much later that we found a geek bond. As an academic – a professor of medicine in California – he benefited from his university department supplying personal computers to faculty. At about the same time, I was getting my own introduction to desktop PCs through a part-time job. And then I went off to study in Ireland and – thanks to postgrad friends in the computer science department – I was, as far as I know, the first ever postgrad from the arts end of campus to ask for an email address.
Now, though thousands of miles apart, Dad and I were both on computers, with email. Phone calls were still hideously expensive then, and involved the tedious use of the old A/B phone. Dad’s entire involvement, if he chanced to answer the phone, was to say, “Let me get your mother.” Dad didn’t do phones.
But he sure did email. Soon we were chatting back and forth every week, and he became the conduit through which my mother passed along family gossip, neighbourhood happenings, advice and even recipes. I recently found an old computer printout where my father had patiently typed out my mother’s recipe for chocolate-chip cookies.
He joined his local computer club, and we would discuss his latest software programs and the ones that I used on an Apple Mac. He quickly discovered the new world of computer games, especially Flight Simulator. Now, I would find him late at night on his PC, piloting his digital plane over the Grand Canyon.
He loved the innovations that came with the mainstream arrival of the internet – the search engines amazed him, and Google Earth kept him entertained for hours. It was our common love of technology that first made me aware that something wasn’t quite right. He kept asking for help in operating his PC, forgetting how to do things he’d done a million times. And he wasn’t using the latest edition of Flight Simulator I’d bought for him.
One of our last father-daughter activities was to visit the Computer History Museum. He was beginning to get confused, and had trouble speaking. But I knew he would enjoy seeing the old machines. To my amazement, he recognised the Johnniac and told the museum’s director it was the machine I had played hangman with so long ago. The director confirmed the history of the machine indicated it probably was exactly that mainframe. As Dad grew less able to do the things he’d loved, I set up an iPod and playlist for him. He marvelled at how small it was, listening to his beloved opera, classical music, and Gilbert and Sullivan.
Last year, as he lay dying, technology was still our comfort, our bond. He was so confused by then, and had had a stroke, too. I set his old playlist running on his PC so he could listen quietly from his sickbed in his study, and he would grow calm and doze.
I’d play him his most-loved arias, too, off my Mac, propped on the rails of his bed. “Who’s this, Dad?” Amidst his confusion, he’d stop and listen, his eyes lighting up, not remembering who I was, but trying to recall the names of his favourite tenor, Jussi Björling, and his late-in-life boyish crush, the soprano Anna Netrebko.
Later, after he passed away, I went through some of his old computer files and, astonished, found a true treasure: a short autobiography he’d written for my little nephew years back, knowing then that he already was losing his memories and ability to speak. It was a poignant, wonderful piece of Dad, with some stories I’d never heard about his extraordinary early life, saved in the 0s and 1s of his hard-drive. For so many decades, technology joyfully shaped our relationship, broadened and deepened it, kept it endlessly fresh and full of fun and excitement.
As Father’s Day comes around, I see him again, tall, white haired, blue-eyed, at his PC, flying free, looping the loop in the endless blue skies of its digital mind.