A friend died this week. One moment she was living life deeply and the next unable to speak or move. The suddenness was jarring, and it knocked me back a bit, my thoughts jingly jangly, my focus jagged, tectonic plates shifting, grating.
She wasn’t much older than I, and perhaps it wasn’t sudden to her. She’d been chasing down symptoms for months, and a stroke ended that search. Even so, I thought, aren’t we all chasing down one symptom or another these days? We expect to find, if not a cure, at least comfort, relief, a softening of symptoms, bringing a sharp wince and moan down to a murmur. Not an end.
I was also unsettled because of the similarity to my mothers’ death at age 69. A sudden stroke, gone a week later. None of us prepared. Shock waves.
The odd thing with this friend was that we’d never actually met, at least not in person. She was one of my many online writing partners in one of the many groups that I meet with several times a week on Zoom. Spread out as they are throughout this continent and in Europe, I’ve only met up with one in person. And yet, many I love dearly.
Our groups started writing together after an online Natalie Goldberg class in Spring 2019. When the quarantine fell like a wide net, trapping us in our homes (though happily at our writing desks) we’d patted ourselves on the back; we were already versed in Zoom machinations, and had a ready made community to write, read, and listen to each other. Along the way we shared our deepest thoughts and feelings, woes and triumphs, observations of the world, memories and dreams, humdrum verbiage, queries and puzzlings, writing experiments.
However, we only hear partial stories from each other – stories with no beginnings and few endings, stories broken by weeks of not reading together as we shuffled from one randomly assigned breakout room to another. It’s an intimacy with broad gaps, a hodgepodge skippy scotch pattern of familiarity, distance, intimacy, and missing pieces.
Can I really call them friends when we haven’t met face to face, or lived in proximity to each other, or shared a meal or traveled or taken long walks or raised families together? And yet, what is a friend if not just someone you like, who perhaps shares interests or experiences or intimacies? And that you will miss if they leave the group, when they go off to spend time with other activities and interests, or pass away?
I was pleased when one of my writing friends came through town to visit (twice now!) and it helped to bond us closer, filling in the things we knew about each other, eating together, walking together, sharing stories and experiences. She befriended my husband too. I was reassured that online friending could truly work as a way to bond in real life.
So yes, we’re friends, just of the modern sort, newly defined for our era, a kind of computer dating, no longer uncommon. Maybe you’ve also found this sort of friendship through work-from-home or classes or community gatherings or any number of online ventures that have developed in recent years.
But being writers intensifies the relationship; we say things in writing we might not otherwise dare to share. I got acquainted with a couple women through my blog, and recently drove up to Washington to meet them. I was somewhat trepidatious about what I would find – penpals can be quite different in real life! To my great relief, they were as interesting and wonderful in person as they were online.
Two months before my friend died, she gave birth to the idea of a new writing group, one dedicated to writing about death. She wanted to stop avoiding the topic, and keep death alongside as she wrote, following her mind to wherever it led. Perhaps she’d had an inkling, heard a whisper from beyond. She wanted to write with the knowledge that death is at our backs, with no turning aside, as we do. She wanted depth, to look into the void without flinching. And she brought a whole lot of us with her onto that ride.
Her death was a message that landed me in the here and now, perhaps a bit less repelled by the idea of death, less apt to turn away at every opportunity, as in Roz Chast’s book, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Because when we do turn away we also turn from the vibrancy and wonder of life. Rilke says, “Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love….”
Her death was a reminder. I, my friends, my family – we’re all aging too. This will happen more and more as I age. I’m not used to it yet. Maybe I never will be. But it is becoming more familiar, more expected.
Though my grief is long distance, we were friends, no matter that it’s a kind I never knew before. Now it’s a friendship of another dimension, across the astral plane, another sort of relationship to get familiar with as I grow older.
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting goby Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.