For several years now, I have started most days with a glance at my friend Scott’s puns of the day: “Pigs are stymied,” or “Beginning campers do it intentionally.” Sometimes, our mutual friend Rick posted a pun in reply and it seemed just like when we used to be in English class together. When Scott wasn’t well enough to post, I missed him, and I guess others did too, because when he showed up on Facebook after an absence, there would be comments, “Glad you’re back!” “Missed you!” “Welcome back!’ I didn’t know, until I read his obituary, that he had published several books of puns.
I had not seen Scott since high school, almost sixty years ago, but we had been friends for several years through Facebook, e-mail, and eventually, snail mail. I don’t remember actually speaking to Scott – ever. I remember him, even in high school, as quiet, usually sitting in the back of the room, but always funny. I was quiet also and admired the way Scott and Rick and some of the other boys could pile pun upon pun. Other than that, I remember that Scott was a really good basketball player.
In Facebook days, when I was still spending time at our place in Maine, Scott and I tried to get together several times – for kayaking or canoeing or to go to a Bluegrass Concert, two things for which we both had a fondness—but, sadly, it never worked out. There were other things we shared too. We had both been teachers; he lived in the three states I lived in most of my adult life (Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts), and, we were both part Irish. And he often posted other things I cared about: photos of some of my favorite places in Maine, Hubble pictures of nebulae, progressive politics, and quotes about the art of writing.
And then, one day a couple of years ago, Rick emailed a few folks from our high school and told us that Scott had been diagnosed with cancer and had told Rick he could let a few folks know. I was touched to be included as someone he would care to hear from and immediately wrote to him. My partner and I had just finished (we thought) dealing with Rosemary’s cancer earlier that year and so Scott and I had that in common too.
It’s strange, how close you can get to someone you never see. I didn’t really know many things about Scott’s life since high school until I read his obituary last week. Nevertheless, I wrote him emails, sent cards, mailed little gifts, and, with the regular updates I was getting from Rick and several others in my class, Scott was on my mind a lot.
Facebook, for all the bad press it has been getting lately, has brought me close to other people as well. Even before Scott and I became Facebook friends, I had become friends on Facebook with Betsy, also from my high school class. Like Scott and me, I don’t believe Betsy and I had ever exchanged more than a word or two in high school, although I always thought she was very cute and friendly. We just hung out with different people. But Betsy, like me, was a faithful Facebook poster, and gradually, I jokingly referred to her as my new BFF, and commiserated over her misfortunes, felt happy when things looked up, and missed her in her absences. Others from my class came back into my life as well, and it all seemed like a good thing. Even though I lived far away from them, we had spent some of our more impressionable years together, and none of the other people in my life now shared these memories.
I reconnected with family this way as well; cousins and second cousins in Nova Scotia, Maine, and other parts of the county – ones I had lost track of – I learned their spouses names and their children’s names. Since many relatives that I had grown up with are now reaching the age where they are passing on, I am pleased to know I still have this extended family. It makes me feel connected, less alone in the world. (Even as I write this, a notification of my cousin Alice’s post pops up in the corner of my screen and brings a smile.)
In my later years, some of my professional work was as a consultant helping organizations to build and maintain online communities, so it was not a foreign concept for me to develop relationships without a physical connection. My doctoral dissertation was on this topic, and I often found myself defending the possibility for real connections at a distance, although I have always also believed that nothing compared to what we used to call the f2f (face-to-face) relationship. (Do folks still use that term?)
Still, there is something special about a virtual relationship. I suppose all relationships have a huge dose of being one’s own projection of what you think the relationship is. Even in the “real” world, I have my own story about my relationship with you, which may be rather different than your story about our relationship. However, in a virtual world, where one is less confronted with “reality,” there is a great deal more room for me to be creative about my narrative. It is easier for me to find and hold onto the best in these people that I relate to from afar. Also, I have more time between interactions to fill in the blanks, think things through, and be my best self with them.
My dissertation committee was comprised of three professors and a student reader. During the three years that I was researching and writing my dissertation, we met in person as a committee perhaps 4 times. In between, I met more regularly with my chair, Jeremy, but really, most of my relationships with them were virtual. I didn’t email or phone them very often. Nevertheless, I had a daily and ongoing relationship that developed with each of them as I wrangled the data and my ideas about the data into sentences and paragraphs. As I wrote, I would think, “Now, Fred will surely ask me this about that,” or “Patrice will like that I followed up on her suggestion.” I talked more regularly with my student reader, Loni, but even she was with me as I wrote and became another voice in my head. In my graduation speech, I told how I my committee members had been like the imaginary friends I had had in my childhood and thanked them for being that for me as I wrote my dissertation.
Perhaps the most intense virtual relationship that I experienced was with Josh (not his real name). Josh was the father of a friend of my daughter’s. I had really been friends with his wife and had lost touch with Josh once they divorced, when our children were still babies. I saw him perhaps 3 or 4 times over the course of the girls’ growing up, at birthday parties and at his daughter’s wedding. Josh had had a very respectable career before falling on some hard times, which led him to alcohol, bad surroundings, and lots of things that I know he wasn’t proud of. Then, on one unfortunate day, when two men tried to break into his apartment, Josh, in his most paranoid state, shot and killed one of the men, a neighbor, who had been tormenting him for some time.
His daughter, who was grown and with a family of her own and now lived in another country, was, of course, devasted. On one of her visits to try to help her father, I asked what I could do, not being able to imagine that anything I could do would be very meaningful. She said that if I would be willing, I could write to her dad in prison. Gladly, I undertook the task and during the next seven years, Josh and I became good friends.
I learned about prison life. In many ways, it was good for Josh, for he overcame his alcoholism and regained some of his former sense of self in a way that he might not have on the outside. He graduated from the psychiatric prison he was in to a more “regular” prison. His relationship with his daughter, which had seen better days, was renewed and deepened into a wonderful friendship and he lived for the day that he could get out and be a good grandfather to her children. Like me, Josh was a writer. We shared manuscripts, publication ideas, and how to deal with the challenges of writing. We learned about each other’s lives. I sent him cards and books (I learned that it isn’t easy to send much else to someone in prison), and he sent me beautiful handcrafted cards drawn on whatever paper he was able to procure. (I tried to send him paper, but it was confiscated.)
I cared very deeply about Josh, although we never met in person again. When he developed cancer, the prison health system was ill equipped to diagnose or deal with it. His daughter fought ferociously to get him out of prison on “compassionate release” and was finally able to make it possible for him to meet his grandchildren and to be released to a correctional hospice program, where he died two days later. I sobbed through his funeral. The “favor” that I had offered to do turned out to be a gift to me as well.
I am grateful for these virtual relationships, for the ability to have a connection to friends far away who would otherwise be lost to me. In the words of the Van Morrison song that Josh requested be sung at his funeral service, And [they] light my life with love.