Learning of the death of my first boyfriend gave me a sharp lesson in perspective
I recently discovered that my first boyfriend had died. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years, but that’s partly why I was shocked and saddened to learn of his death. Unbeknown to me he actually passed away not long after I last saw him.
J and I dated briefly at university. It was 1988, and I was just 18 when we met. We only dated for three months before he ended it. Truth be told, it was probably not a particularly important relationship to him, but I remember feeling quite devastated.
He was the first boyfriend I’d had; the first person I had sex with. I believed that I had fallen completely in love with him and that it would last forever. When it ended, I was bereft. Aren’t most people when they get dumped for the first time?
Thankfully, the feelings were not to last long. A few months later, I met someone else. What I believed to have been a broken heart had merely been bruised. More relationships, of greater significance and length, were to follow.
J and I quickly lost touch. This was before everyone had cell phones and the internet.
When we met, I was living in a vast student halls of residence in central London. J was at a different college and lived south of the river. If anyone wanted to contact me, they had to ring one of the public phones in the hall’s lobby and hope that someone would answer and come to find me: something that might take several minutes.
It’s hard to remember how this inability to immediately contact one another was the norm at the time: how alien it would seem to most students today.
After university, I saw J only one further time. I ran into him in the mid-90s and we briefly chatted on the street. After that, I never saw him again.
Then, of course, the internet arrived. I think I got my first mobile in 1998, and my first email address shortly afterwards. Social media arrived in the mid-00s. I remember making cursory searches for former friends and ex-lovers when I first joined Facebook.
Some were traceable, while others were not, but I didn’t think much about this. Not everyone had a social media profile back then.
Occasionally, J — and others — popped back into my mind, and I found myself typing their names again in to my computer. Not really for any other reason than to satisfy a curiosity as to what they might now be doing.
One by one, most of those I’ve looked for have appeared, if not on Facebook then later on Twitter or LinkedIn. But not J; and that’s when the thought first occurred to me that perhaps he might have died.
J was the sort of person who would definitely have had a Facebook profile; the continued absence of one rang an alarm bell at the back of my mind.
I don’t know why he again popped into my head, but having not searched for him online in a few years, I found myself typing his name into Google.
That’s when I found his memorial site. It had actually been set up in 2010. It reported that he died in 1996, probably within months of the last time I’d seen him. He’d suffered a stroke at the age of 28.
I felt deeply, unexpectedly, saddened by this news. I can’t pretend that I was a significant person in J’s life, or that I was close to him. We had only dated for three months, and neither of us had made the effort to stay in touch.
Part of my sadness was grief for my own youth and a nostalgia for a different age: one in which it was all too easy to lose touch with others, particularly in a city as big and as transient as London.
But I also felt great sadness that J died so young. When a life is cut short at such an age, there is an accompanying sense of injustice and unfairness: all those years when I had wondered what he might be up to, unaware that he was no longer here.
I couldn’t help thinking of everything that he had missed and never lived to experience. The loved ones he’d left behind. It reminded me how so very fortunate I am to have the life I have.
The rise of social media has been a curse and blessing. When I met J, you really could be ‘ships that pass in the night’. Nowadays, ‘friends’ are collected electronically and we plot their path through the radar of social media.
We also, inevitably, end up comparing ourselves to others: measuring ourselves against them and the images they post. We can easily overlook the lives not documented, or forget to revel in the fact that we’re taking and posting photos at all.
Things may get me down on occasion, or I might beat myself up when life seems to be going against me, but J’s death reminded me I’m still here. And sometimes to simply still be here is enough.
Originally published at www.gaystarnews.com on October 12, 2016.