Digital Haunting What Happens to Our Numbers When We Die?
When I search for my father, I feel his numbers. Here’s a house number on my friend’s street that mimics the first few digits of my father’s phone. Here, at the 7/11, my receipt totals the amount of the last four digits of his SSN.
This is Digital Haunting , a new column by Annesha Mitha which explores the digital traces a life leaves behind, and how we, the living, interpret these traces and carry them forward.
When my parents became American citizens, their fingertips were blackened by a government’s ink. I was eight or nine, and I remember the horrible waiting room, stinking of ink and air fresheners, where I sat while my mother, then my father, were swallowed up by the fluorescent throat of the hallway. They came back ink-stained, and I marveled at how the darkness seeped into their fingertips, illuminated the creases that were normally invisible to me. The hard eye of the state labeled them, scanned their fingerprints into the machine—their faces, too.
In that office where I was not allowed, my parents were assigned numbers. Social security numbers, dates and times, the serial number on their citizenship certificates. These numbers joined the many they had accumulated over forty years of living. Phone numbers, addresses, debt, credit scores. There were the numbers used to rank them in high school, and college. Later in life, they accrued numbers like net income, and even more mysterious—net worth.
That night I watched them cry for a country I knew nothing of. I felt somber and self-conscious in the face of their tears. If they were crying because they were now American, and no longer Indian, then did that mean that I had always lived a tragic life, having been born American, not Indian?
Even at eight, I was already collecting my own numbers. The social security number I had been carrying since birth. The address and grades my school had on file. In my future was a phantom index; as my body grew, gathered flesh, so I would be gathering numbers.
What happens to our numbers when we die? At my grief group, which takes place in the stony heart of a convention center, people tell me they see signs—animals, stars, lights—that they believe have been left in the world by their dead relatives. I believe them, and I envy them. When I reach out into the world and search for my father, I feel only hard planes and facts, I feel his numbers. They float up out of the world towards me. Here’s a house number on my friend’s quiet street that mimics the first few digits of my father’s phone. Here, at the 7/11, my receipt totals the amount of the last four digits of his SSN.
I still have my father’s phone number in my contacts. Immediately after his death, I could call and hear his voicemail, which was just his voice forming his name. Until one day I couldn’t. Until one day, I only heard the number you have dialed has been disconnected . . . and then the hush of noise. But still, that phone number remained—mute, inert, meaning nothing to the world at all.
Last year, I had to change my own phone number, for complicated reasons related to billing. My friends didn’t know, and kept texting my old one, which had been assigned to someone new. Whenever they sent her a text, something innocuous like “you in town?” or “are you free for my birthday party?” she would send them a picture of a dirty old bra on her bed. It infuriated me. I was tired of feeling pain even though I tried so hard to be good. I thought, let me be bad for once —and I sent that number a wakeup call at seven in the morning, to teach her a lesson, I thought. She found me on Facebook the next day and sent me a message: I’m in the hospice, I’m dying, could you tell your friends not to text me anymore? Karma has always kept me on a tight leash. We still talk sometimes, that woman and I.
If you died after 1935, then your social security number has been added to a master file of other numbers, called the Social Security Death Index. The government, not knowing what to do with the dead data on their hands, lays it to rest in an open book. This is how they continue to watch you, even when you cannot watch them back. If, after death, you can’t come back as a ghost, if you don’t have the ability or time for a haunting, your number exists after you die, filling the ether with your traces. It’s the number you spoke into the phone while the dentist looked for your insurance before your first cavity filling, when you applied for a car loan, or disability, for a visa, or passport, food stamps, a job. It has followed you, and it exists after you.
If, after death, you can’t come back as a ghost, if you don’t have the ability or time for a haunting, your number exists after you die, filling the ether with your traces.
The Social Security Death Index is also called the Death Master File. It has no record of my father’s death (and I’ve tried), because he died after 2014, and perhaps those records aren’t yet public, or perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. Maybe, in a few years, he’ll live there too.
And did you know that you may get a call one day about a debt that isn’t yours? It’s called zombie debt—what happens when a number from your past comes to haunt you, an electrical bill of twenty dollars that blooms into thousands, or else when your name aligns with someone who is dead, and the collectors, not knowing the difference, hound you as their ghost.
There will never be fewer numbers in the world, just as there will never be fewer ghosts, or fewer numbers of the dead. Time passing means more, not less, and though this is obvious it is also astonishing. For months I used to call my father’s number, hoping, strangely, that he would answer, that his lack of ghostliness would end. And one day, someone did—a man’s voice, far younger than my fathers, slightly nasal. My father’s number was reassigned—did you know that they do that?
I still have my father’s number saved on my phone, under the gibberish name I had changed it to once after a fight so terrible I didn’t even want to see “Baba,” which seemed to me more his name than his name, on my lockscreen when he called.
And though his number lingers in my contacts, it now leads down a different path, to a different voice and a different life, a different history, too. Sometimes I want to call that old, abandoned number, and ask the young man who answers: Do you know that you are my father’s ghost? But I never do. And though I may also have a phone number of the dead (as do you), I have yet to receive one of these calls myself.