Death in the Digital Age
I open my Skype to see your smiling face in my contacts. You are idle, but still online. Your status says “Away,” and it only seems to reinforce this feeling I can’t shake — that you are gone for now but will come back sometime soon.
If this were some earlier decade, it would have only been songs and movies and books and foods and flannels and places and notes that would remind me of you, but you were 24 years old and a user of the Internet so now my laptop and camera roll and text messages and emails and Facebook and Instagram and Skype and Twitter and Venmo and hell, even LinkedIn remind me of you too. Sometimes I go looking for you there, but sometimes you surprise me when I least expect it.
Innocent search words in my inbox pull up random emails from you — a new restaurant you wanted to try or an NPR story you thought I might like. I’ll look at someone’s Twitter profile, and you are still listed under “Followers You May Know.” Your birthday is still in my iCal, set to repeat every year and never stop. Autofill proposes your address to me on a regular basis. I find videos I had forgotten — you doing the whole “Single Ladies” dance with our cat in your arms; us eating drunk food and bantering incoherently at the end of a long night. I’ll stumble across an old Facebook picture that you had commented on (there are lots of them, because as an exemplary platonic male friend you made sure to cheerlead even the questionable ones). You haunt me, feeding a kind of cognitive dissonance between what I know to be true (you are dead) and what I desperately want to be true (that you are still here).
Of course, I can’t blame this all on you. Sometimes I seek you out. Two days after you died, I gave in and clicked that “See Friendship” link on Facebook to see every single interaction and picture we’ve had there since the start. I knew it was emotionally masochistic, like stalking an ex but infinitely worse. I also knew I would either do it now or sometime down the line. There were lots of moments I had remembered but plenty of little goofy shit that I had completely forgotten. I cling to everything. I save every picture. I screencap your jokes and every comment you made and put it all in a folder devoted to you.
In addition to all the lovely things you said to me, I see the times I showed my love for you in birthday posts and the like. Facebook is a shallow medium for such expressions of friendship, but now I feel relieved every time I can find evidence that I told you how much you meant to me. I can’t screencap our actual memories together or the things we said out loud, so I collect as much of these online fragments as I can.
When I start to run out of little scraps to rediscover, I panic. I dig through increasingly obscure corners of the Internet and thousands of old photos to find any last trace of you. I add them all to my shrine-folder.
I once had tried to take a picture of you, but my camera was in video mode. You were beaming at me, and then the video blurs as I point my iPhone down to switch the settings. What was once just four seconds of clutter in my camera roll has become a great gift.
I even cave at one point and write on your Facebook wall, asking how I am supposed to watch the new season of House of Cards without you and an extra large buffalo chicken pizza. In the moment that I write it, I truly feel like you are on the other end reading it. This sweet hit of denial washes over me, alleviating my sadness for a few seconds. It dissipates as quickly as it came, as reality sets back in. But the tiny spiritual corner of my cynical heart holds out hope that you can hear me.
Text messages are the sweetest and hardest of all. Since you had recently moved far away, we were mostly texting in the last few months of your life. And because of this, I know the last words you ever “said” to me. You wished me happy birthday and told me that you loved me.
And finally, you sent a message in the middle of the night to our group chat with a few close friends, to wish one of us a safe flight. You must have died minutes after that. A few hours later, I got the call and couldn’t believe it. I had just heard from you. It didn’t make sense that you could be cheerfully messaging one moment and gone the next. But that is what happened.
It has been a little over a month since you died, and while I think of you all of the time, there are very few moments when I can accept that you’re really dead. I feel the need to smash through my denial once in a while, to confront the truth. The only way I can do that is to remember you in your casket. You looked like a wax figure of your former vibrant, youthful self. I force myself to remember squeezing your cold arm in its suit jacket, the only part of you I could bring myself to touch. I remember carrying your casket into the hearse, and watching your family say goodbye. And then, for good measure, I repeatedly tell myself that I will never talk to you again.
Most of the time though, I allow myself to float somewhere in the middle of denial and acceptance. I think your digital phantom might be partially responsible for keeping me in between. I wonder if I should remove you on Skype and unfollow you on Twitter, or if it’s okay to allow myself to cling to these tiny pieces of you. Maybe they are a source of comfort. But maybe they only comfort me by fueling my denial.
For now, I leave it all as it is. As the saying goes, you might have died but I will always keep you alive in my heart. I wonder if it’s okay to keep you alive in my computer, too.