R died a few months back. He was an enigmatic bloke. Once, decades ago, in a darkened university lecture hall, there was a moment. Not that his wife wants to hear about my failed romances. I was young, naive. More seasoned than me in that regard, he was on his way to becoming a rock star. He said ‘I’m a star’ so often, it became his mantra. Days were spent at La Trobe uni’s Agora, his entourage of male friends and me – them talking music and science, me missing psychology classes. How I passed third year, I’m yet to understand. What I take away from those years is an image of R climbing a tennis court railing on my twenty-first, his mate jumping fully clothed into a pool after me.
It was R’s birthday a few days ago. Prior to this, and upon his death, I had been wondering what would happen to his Facebook page. I didn’t fret as an intimate might; I simply moved my right shoulder blade back as if away from an itch. It irked me that I was being reminded that I would now never have the chance, something I had once taken for granted, of one day bumping into R on the street and sharing threads of our lives over coffee.
We had gone for many years without catching up, as many friends who have lost contact do. Then about twelve years ago, I was walking in South Melbourne during a work lunchbreak and there he was. I looked much younger than he did, he said. He had young kids. I was yet to have a family. We became Facebook friends mid 2011. It was simply a request and an acceptance – no LOLs or drawn out sentences. Just a click and an acknowledgement of a friendship past.
Which is probably why I wasn’t comfortable going to the benefit gig held to help him and his family pay for some of the huge expenses associated with terminal illness. It was weird that this healthy looking bloke was dying. A part of me couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, believe it. Not R. Not the killer guitarist who cracked the charts and should continue to have, with his beautiful wife, teenage daughters and a bevy of friends, the world at his feet.
I saw mention of his birthday on the sidebar of my Facebook page, alongside his profile pic. ‘Why will no-one shut down that page?’ I thought. It was like a stain reminding me of what a bad friend I had been in not going to that benefit. Not to wade through the awkward feeling of having to float in the crowd, as if I was a groupie waiting for him to flag me down to say hello. The awkwardness of searching out other mates who surely would have been partnered up while I was alone, going through a rough time with my partner, one minute wanting him to come, the next minute not wanting him breathing over my shoulder.
‘What’s the use of that page?’ I hammered, every time it caught me unawares. ‘One more reminder for those who really loved him that he’s not here?’
Perhaps my thinking says more about my attitude to losing someone than about retaining a reminder of a life. When my father died, I was aged 20, and one of the first things I said to my mum was: ‘are we going to sell the house?’
Her reaction was the opposite. For her the house my dad designed was a monument to the man she had chosen to live her life with, to the children they raised and to the garden that they tended to together every Sunday.
When I tentatively clicked on the link to R’s page on the day that celebrated his birth, I learned what can be made of a page that lives beyond the life of its owner. Perhaps I had been afraid it would be empty. Or even worse, there might be just a solitary comment. Instead, words of brotherhood, adoration and friendship adorned his page like lasting wreaths.
I did not add to the comments; but they spurred this post. Today, because of Facebook, I raise a glass to an old mate. I thank the year 2012 for a chance to discover what might have remained hidden if social media didn’t exist. This might sound very simple to those who have a greater grasp of theories and practices relating to the digital sphere than I do. More could also be said about Facebook pages that are erected to engage the community in solving crime, or as memory spaces, ord as signposts to physical gatherings like the 30,000 strong march for Jill Meagher on September 30.
More could also be said of the deeper connections that are formed through phone calls, emails and texts – perhaps these form a line to the otherwise unfathomable lives of lost friends?
But to not have to go a day more wondering what happened to an old mate, to know that R died and how he died, and that that is not a mystery, well in this, as much as there is pain, there is relief.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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