When CyberSpace Becomes All Too Real
Last week I lost a friend.
Between the time that I wrote that first line and when I was able to resume was about half an hour. I spent the time staring at my screen and wondering how to write this post. In fact, it’s taken me more than a week to attempt it.
You see, my friend was someone I’d never met in person. In fact, I didn’t know her real first name until shortly before she died. I only learned her last name afterwards.
My friend was someone I met on line in a blog-writing forum. Her pithy funny comments always made me laugh and we soon continued the friendship through Twitter and through daily visits to each others blogs.
For most of this time, I knew her only as Mad Asthmatic. In fact, for the first several months I knew her, I thought she was male. There was something about her writing that made me think of a particularly adventurous Englishman, someone who was constantly trekking off some place with Sherpas. To my ears, her voice was almost Dickensian with its use of words like “whilst”, “tinned food” and her constant sign-off “toodle-pip”. She wrote elegant essays on the lost art of letter writing and the joys of fountain pen and blotting paper. Every now and then she would write a post that gave me a glimpse of the horrendous medical problems she was facing — something that was always jarring as I thought of her as being so full of life and activity. After one or two posts on her medical condition, she’d send me a crisp email or Tweet to tell me to ignore her “pathetic whinging” as she was going to get back on to more interesting subjects. She even wrote a post dissecting the British stiff upper lip.
Reading back on some of her posts now, I’m ashamed that I didn’t realize how sick she really was. It was hard to think of her as a medical invalid as she was so full of plans and projects. She was researching what kind of puppy to get, and much to my approval, she’d decided on a terrier, a West Highland. She talked about traveling to America again. During the Christmas season, she was a positive whirlwind of mince pie baking activity. So I didn’t really give her much sympathy or think of her as ill. I think, in retrospect, she liked it that way.
Because of the time difference between San Francisco and England, we “corresponded” at odd times. She was usually writing and posting while I was asleep. It became a routine for me, when I took the dogs out for their 6AM walk, to come back, pour myself an orange juice and see what MA had written on her blog, the comments she’d left on mine or the pithy, tart private Tweets she’d sent me. They never failed to make me think and often had me laughing.
Then on January 14th, came a post called No Regrets. In a few short paragraphs, it outlined a wise and wonderful program for living. I should have seen it for what it was, a valedictory. I think she knew at that time, the end was very near.
Ironically, her post came just as I was struggling with the death of another friend, a friend who had expunged me and most of his other old friends from his life when he got married. I was wrestling with my conflicting feelings about the death of a person when I’d been through the grieving stages for his friendship three years before. Mad Asthmatic’s wise words helped me reconcile and come to terms with my feelings and I thanked her in this post. She showed up on my blog afterwards with a very sympathetic comment offering even more wisdom in dealing with the situation. It was the last time I heard from her. She died that weekend.
Now I’m in the strange position of feeling the loss so keenly of someone I didn’t “know” in the traditional sense. Not only had we never met in person, I’d never even seen a picture of her. Her face and demeanor were wholely the product of what I imagined from her words. At first, I was imagining a hybrid between a young Alistair Cooke, one of those intrepid British explorers and perhaps Charles Dickens. When I found out she was female, I amended my image of her to be somewhat of a Jane Austen character. But one who would feel comfortable heading off to a mountain top with those Sherpas. I once compared our friendship to those Georgian and Victorian friendships between famous writers who never met but corresponded avidly. She liked that analogy.
I tried to explain how I felt to someone who doesn’t do much surfing of the Net. He was unsympathetic. “Well, you didn’t really know her.” But I did. I knew her by by the thoughtful, funny and insightful words and thoughts she posted up to Cyberspace. And I believe those words were the essence of who she was.
Recently I wrote about the odd experience of having two Cyberfriends become real. This was a couple I knew only from their pictures and comments from our mutual participation in the Flickr Project 365 photography forum. My image of them was a little clearer as, in the course of each of us posting the required picture a day to Flickr, I’ve seen their pets, watched them on their vacations, viewed their collections and their day to day life. Meeting them was a revelation in that there were no surprises. The personalities they projected on-line were their true and accurate personalities.
I like to think I saw the real MA as well. And I’m glad I had her friendship, if only for much too brief a time.
Top photo by PJ Taylor, one of the Flickr friends I mentioned. I thought it was appropriate to honor one Cyberfriend with the work of another. This photo is of graves at Highnam Parish Graveyard, UK. See PJ’s beautiful photos here.