Happy Birthday

The first post came a few hours after the funeral. A Facebook post like the ones you would always share with us: just your old smile with your wife and son. There would have been nothing unusual about the picture if we hadn’t buried you that very same day.

I still remember that ride to the funeral. I couldn’t stop thinking of the several times I had promised to visit you, catch up, have a beer together like we did when we were at the university and finally meet your five-year-old boy. Five years. You only lived two hours away, yet in five years neither of us could find the time to visit each other. You had an excuse: wife, son, family. What were my excuses? As I looked out the window and saw the view I should have seen several times before, I could think of none.

It would have been easier on all of us if it had been an accident. A car crash, maybe. If you have to die before 30, that’s how you’re supposed to die. We would be blaming the lack of road signs, the irresponsible youngsters who drink and drive, the randomness of the universe, bad luck.

Pneumonia is trickier. Who can we blame when a young, healthy man who used to go to the gym every other day simply gets sick and dies in a hospital bed like a withering grandmother? What reasons, natural or supernatural, can your friends find to distract them from the fact that we’re all fragile, that any of us could disappear at any second and that it was unbelievably stupid of me to forget that it could happen to you?

Sometimes I think that’s the meaning of your posts. A reminder that what happened to you could happen to any of us, that you shouldn’t take old friendships for granted.

Yesterday it was a photo of you playing with your son. He must be almost eight now, but he’s a toddler in all your pictures. Frozen in time, in those unfairly short years when he had a father, and I was still promising myself that I would visit my best friend, imagining how we’d instantly reconnect as if we were never apart.

At times I would imagine our encounters so vividly that it felt as if you were there. I would then send you a message, ask you about life, set a vague date in the future for a barbeque that would never happen. I like to think that we would finally have turned those plans into reality if you hadn’t died, but part of me knows that we would probably still be giving each other the same excuses for the past three years.

People talk about how social networks connect us to our friends. But what if they are only giving us an illusion of connection? What if, by tricking us into believing we are together, they were actually keeping us apart?

For five years I watched your kid grow through photos my computer screen, but never actually met him. I didn’t know how his voice sounded like, whether he was calm or agitated, whether he was shy like his mother or a social butterfly like his father. When I saw him for the first time, hiding behind his crying mother’s legs at the funeral, he looked at me liked the stranger that I was. Five years. I had spent his entire lifetime avoiding the two-hour train ride to the town where you all lived — the same two-hour ride I took without delay on the day you died.

At least I can still see you on Facebook. Most of our friends from college have unfollowed you — they say the posts are too creepy. A dead man’s profile should be as dead as he is, they say. It’s like having a ghost on your timeline. I don’t mind. I know I deserve being haunted.

It might also be your son playing with his father’s computer, or your wife posting old memories as a way of sharing the burden of her loss. There are many reasonable explanations for your online activity, I’m sure. As long as I have you on my timeline, though, part of me will still believe that you might send me a message tomorrow. “I’m not dead. You should take the train and come have a beer with me next weekend. I’ll explain it all”. Would I go, then, or would I still make excuses?

Tomorrow is your birthday, old friend. I just saw it on Facebook. I hope you are having a good time. We should get together one of these days.

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