It was a Tuesday afternoon. I was at work. After a long meeting with my team, I returned to my desk in our open fishbowl office and stole a moment to check my Facebook page, as I do a couple times a day. Some would say it’s due to that “fear of missing out” but I just call it a break. We’re still allowed to take those, you know.
Nestled down the page in a list of Facebook messages full of friend’s newly uploaded pictures and status messages, acquaintances’ game gift requests, and links to news stories, I saw a headline that made me catch my breath:
On Monday, August 9, 2010, Leslie Shevick Raymond passed away due to complications from pneumonia.
I read it again. Then again.
The words didn’t make sense. I was puzzling out strange hieroglyphs, until suddenly the letters rearranged themselves so that I rationally understood what I didn’t want to know. A flash of heat went through my body and I started to sweat. Then, there in front of everyone in my office, the tears came. Big ugly sobs. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t.
Leslie, my best friend from college, was gone.
But we just emailed last week! She was getting better!
Before anyone noticed, or before they stopped being polite in pretending not to notice, I snatched a handful of tissues from the box and rushed for the door. Down the elevator and outside on Pacific Street, my mind started rationalizing the fact that I just learned that a close friend had died -- on Facebook.
“What a shitty way to learn someone’s died!” I sobbed.
But then again, I reasoned, how else would I have known so quickly? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad way. I just wish I hadn’t been at work. Unfortunately, we can’t choose how these moments go, the ones that affect our lives so deeply.
I tried to scrub the ruined mascara from my face and went back upstairs. I packed my laptop, and explained to one compassionate co-worker on the way out what had happened. I’d be no good to anyone for the rest of the afternoon. And I needed a drink.
Leslie and I met at the flower shop where we worked in college. SJSU wasn’t like an archetypal college experience, not for us anyway. In the middle of Silicon Valley, it was a school for people who also had jobs. I was putting myself through school, and even with her parents help, Leslie was working hard too. With her flaming red hair, brilliant smile and kooky sense of humor, we bonded instantly. We were both Libras, our birthdays only days apart, even though she was a year younger. We both loved REM. We both loved TV and movies and we were both writers. She was juggling ever changing majors, Journalism and English, though she hoped to go into television production. I was the steadfast and boring English major with a punk rock haircut and Goth eyeliner. But we had our eyes on the prize -- getting out of school in one piece and making something of our lives.
Along the way, we had so many great times being part of the dysfunctional family that was that flower shop. Working long hours, especially around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day; delivering bouquets to offices and hospitals and funeral homes in the rain or in the summer heat; talking to people in the shop and on the phone, some who wanted things just perfect, some who wanted their roses painted black. We arranged flowers and deliveries to celebrate new babies, birthdays, elaborate weddings and funerals. And always now, now, today! It was exhausting and exhilarating. We loved it, both deadline junkies and at home with chaos.
In our time off, we studied together, shopped, ate lots of ice cream, and just hung out. My most vivid memory of Leslie is riding in her car with REM blasting, singing along at the top of our lungs. That’s a true friend.
As we got closer to graduation, I needed to move out on my own. I found a job closer to my new apartment, one that paid better too, so I left the flower shop. Leslie and I still hung out, but soon she was off to Hollywood to start her career, while I stayed in the Silicon Valley at my first tech job. We lost contact, but Leslie would always be a partner in crime, someone I admired and loved. Her mind was like a laser beam and her heart was like a big feather pillow. I never knew someone who was at once so strong and so compassionate.
Over the years, especially as the internet exploded, we kept in touch with each other’s accomplishments and emailed occasionally, but never visited. Ten years went by, and then Facebook became a fixure of all of our lives. Leslie and I found each other, and even though it was only pixels that connected us, we felt like part of each other’s lives again, getting those daily status messages, seeing each other’s photos and sharing links to things that we both liked. I had married young and divorced, but found a new boyfriend. She had waited and found the perfect guy. They had two kids together.
I called Facebook my time machine - a device that allowed me to keep in touch with friends from every epoch of my life, from grade school to the present. It was great for poeple with busy lives.
We finally visited down in LA, meeting for drinks and dinner. Leslie got to meet my boyfriend, but I didn’t get to meet her family. She was on her way home from work, and he was watching the kids so she could have a night out. I wished I’d had more time on that trip to hang out. It had been years since we’d seen each other, but it felt like no time had gone by at all. The connection to a true friend is timeless.
A year later, she was gone.
I’m so glad I got to see Leslie that one last time. I can’t imagine how devastated I would have been if I hadn’t bothered to make the effort. It gives me chills thinking about it.
Always the media critic, I can just hear Leslie’s best radio announcer voice asking, “So Rosemary, what do you think of Facebook as an obituatry delivery device?”
I need to give Facebook a mixed review, Leslie. You definitely get the news in a timely manner, which is vital when you need to make travel plans, but in an environment that is mostly populated with silly videos and jokes, it’s an inelegant device at best for such shocking and life changing news.
But when would I have found out otherwise? I may have been in Leslie’s contact list on her phone. I don’t know. She was in mine. Would her devastated husband have the time to go through the list? Facebook seems like it’s easier on the family in delivering the news, and in such a time, anything that makes it easier on those who survive us is really the way to go.
My boyfriend feels differently. When he got home from work that Tuesday night, I didn’t even have time to bring the question up. He told me where his rolodex was, so that if anything were to happen to him, I’d know who to call. It’s a chilling thought, but one we all need to think about and plan for. Just to make it easier on those we leave behind.
I flew down to Burbank on Friday. Leslie’s memorial was Saturday. I met her husband for the first time in the reception line. I recognized her children from the innumerable pictures Leslie had posted. I was almost thankful that they were so young. They seemed excited to see everyone, unable to understand the magnitude of the occasion.
The family printed out many of the messages left on her Facebook profile, and posted them on a pretty pink poster board montage of text and pictures. The list of messages was long, the sentiments shocked and heartfelt. It was proof that my friend was loved beyond the many people who were able to come to the service. It made me feel better about the Facebook connection.
We can’t choose the way we learn about a friend’s death. We never could. As social media becomes more entangled in our daily lives, more and more of us will be having this same experience. I think the important thing is that we get the news in a timely fashion, so we can do what we need to do to honor our lost loved ones and help those they leave behind.
But I think it might be a while before this knot in my stomach goes away when I check my Facebook page at work.