(Or, The Long Way Home)
Have you ever watched a stranger die on Facebook? It’s something I’ll never be able to explain to my mother, and for the precisely opposite reason, something I’ll never be able to explain the uncanny eeriness of to my children. It’s the face of the Grim Reaper in our present time, and while its impermanence – subject to the digital impermanence of all our media these days – raises faint alarms in the back of my mind, its immediate nature is both sobering and completely enthralling to me.
It’s not totally unlike when a celebrity dies, but that’s specifically not what I’m referring to. Especially when it was someone you personally found inspiring, the experience can be emotional, deeply cutting, and every bit as shocking to the psyche as the death of a relative. I cried harder when George Carlin died than when my own grandfather died. Losing Robin Williams was like losing my favorite uncle. But it’s the other side of the loss we feel when someone is snatched from the earth that I’m referring to. It’s not the element of personal pain I’ve begun to notice, but the empathy for those who are blinded by it. And it’s much more clearly defined when you watch someone die that everyone didn’t know.
Perhaps 6 months ago, an old coworker and Facebook friend of mine, who is involved in a fairly tightly-knit artistic community in a rather large American city made a post about one of his friends (someone I’d never met or heard of) that for whatever reason struck a chord with me. I think the only reason it even showed up on my feed is because it had maybe 15 likes on it. I hovered my cursor over the number, and didn’t recognize any of the names on the list. Perhaps it’s because it was 3 in the morning, or perhaps it’s because I was high – a part of me definitely wondered what my old friend was up to these days, who his new friends were, and how he was getting along in his developing craft. But if I’m being totally honest, I’d have to say that what made me scroll the mouse back over and click on the linked name was wondering who this “Meredith” person was, and why my friend had said such wonderful things about her in such a melancholy tone of goodbye. I knew in my heart her story hadn’t ended well, but something in his words made it feel like she was my friend, too.
After a half hour or so of reading through a seemingly endless torrent of remorse, pleading, nostalgia, and the strangest flavor of hope I’ve ever sensed, it was clear to me that Meredith had been a deeply and widely treasured – if secretly troubled – member of her professional peer group, in organizing events, and in inspiring even the most reluctant and self-doubting members to take their first steps performing. The goodbyes I read from heartbroken strangers that day instilled in me a feeling I’d only felt before at my father’s funeral, 6 months after his death, as I watched many of his friends and colleagues have the catharsis I had experienced months before. It’s a different kind of grief – one that originates entirely in empathy – and when you feel it, it reminds you for a moment how very cold the universe would feel without friends.
It’s always hard when someone you look up to, creatively and professionally, takes their own life. Most of my heroes killed themselves. It’s an ominous implication, in no uncertain terms, when even the people you admire most – who most successfully created, both in terms of reputation and legacy – in the field you have chosen, end up deciding that ending their lives is a better option than trying to continue living them. That’s a sobering dose, friendo. Perhaps it’s a testament to the psychological occupational hazards of my chosen craft; perhaps writers have a dramatic need for literary closure, and from time to time, you have on your hands a tragedy, with only one obvious, final solution. Perhaps it’s just hard to make a living. Maybe we just tend to drink too much. Still, you would need a chaser for that realization.
Several days before I left Santa Fe, one of my most respected local role models made that ultimate choice. It’s odd, to me, because I never actually physically met Rob DeWalt. Our entire lifetime interaction was through media. Before I ever started writing for the Reporter, Dylan’s Mom used tell me, “You should take a look at Rob DeWalt’s stuff! He does great music reviews! You should do something like that!” (Cheryl has never ended a sentence with a period in her life.) He was one of the few culture critics in town who had even a shred of integrity (and he had a generous helping), and whose opinions of the bands he wrote about were based in a context of personal familiarity with the local scene. He got it. And he called bullshit when he saw it. He never pulled a punch, and I may have disagreed with him on the occasional aesthetic, but be it a restaurant or an album or a gallery, if Rob vouched for it, chances are you should probably go check it out at the very least. So when I started writing Born Here All My Life, and he was one of the earliest people to chime in with his appreciation for the picture I was trying to paint, it was a supremely meaningful compliment. We were supposed to meet for beers one day last spring, but between my bouts of depression and his consistent medical issues, we kept postponing, and settled for giggling at the same memes on Facebook. I thought for a second, about a month before I left, to perhaps try again to set up a time to grab a bite to eat or something, and put a living face to the name I had shared so many knowing chuckles with. But I didn’t. I guess I didn’t think it was worth the trouble – his or mine – to make time and meet a person with whose life mine would probably never again intersect; someone who, despite his representing everything I considered a quasi-famous local writer to ideally stand for, had never made it past the level of “respected acquaintance” in my life. Why complicate things now, and make a friend just to lose him?
I was getting up from my last lunch for a while with another personal mentor, when I casually flicked on Facebook for a second, in my compulsive way, as he stepped into the restroom. It was there that I saw a post by a mutual friend of Rob’s who had known him in high school, and tagged him in it. It was a picture of a burned Van Halen CD with the following caption:
“Burned this for you the day it came out. But doctors and schedules and life conspired to make it harder and harder for us to just get together and hang out or grab a quick lunch (like the good old days).
“And so it's been sitting next to my computer for almost a year. I was glad that F'book afforded us some of the trappings of our old friendship, but it never allowed me to actually hand this over to you; to see what you thought of Ed's playing now, or Wolf's courageous but ultimately lacking attempts at hitting the top harmony parts, or Dave's undiminished enthusiasm for bellowing at age and mortality and boredom...
“And I guess that's where it will stay. Rest in peace my Friend.”
When someone dies, it inspires everyone who loved them to become – if only for a short while – the best version of themselves. And in their grief, they lower their defenses in a way that, if you open yourself to it, will make you feel that love as well. You feel for that moment like you knew this person, as they did, and you feel the joy he brought into their lives, as if he had been a part of your own. It’s a very particular and strange emotion, and while I can’t say I recommend seeking it out, I can’t call it a negative experience, either.
I’m not sure how I feel about watching people die on Facebook. I’m not sure how I feel about watching people die. I suppose I will have to get used to the idea of both more and more. I’m not sure how I feel about that, or the fact that, at some point, the two will be indistinguishable activities for most Americans, the way people in the countries we bomb probably don’t feel the need to differentiate what sort of munitions their relatives were murdered with when explaining it to friends… I’m sorry… Tangent… Where was I? I don’t remember. Something about death… Who needs a drink?