Digital ritual

I received the news digitally, in a text from an old housemate, Kat. Just to let you know, the message said. I was curled up on my couch, twined up with the new lover, whom I was introducing to a trashy sci-fi series I’d watched in the months after my first stint in a hospital day program, when I still felt too fragile for the social world, too tentative in my new routines, my new thought patterns, my new skin, to expose them too frequently to the wider world.

At that time, it had been about a year since I’d left the house I’d shared with Kat, the house in which I’d hit what I now call – when I talk about it – ‘the crisis point’, where my weight had dropped to less than it had been when I was ten years old, where I’d been unable to sit still for any time at all. When I was driven, constantly, by the restless, almost manic energy that acute hunger pushed through me for so long, when I was most convinced that my tightly controlled, minimal eating was not a problem in and of itself, but simply what I needed to be doing in order to manage the rare physical illness I’d been living with, by that stage, for six or seven years.

When I talk about that house now, I always mention how Kat and Michaela would spend evenings knitted together on the old brown sofa that we’d rescued from the street. They would eat the dinners that Kat cooked, watching awful movies that had them both in stitches – it was only later, days later, that I recognised this mirroring. I always mention how I had largely stayed out of the lounge room as a result, but had each night visited the kitchen after they’d both gone to bed, secretly eating the vegetables out of the containers of leftovers Kat had kept to take to work for the next day.

Just to let you know, the message said. Michaela died of a heart attack in her sleep last night. She was thirty years old.

I’d fallen out of touch when I’d left that house, when I started trying to leave my hunger and the strange half-life that it propped up, as well.

Which is to say: I hadn’t seen Michaela in person for about four years.

I hadn’t been in touch with her wider circle either, even though we all still live within three suburbs of each other, even though, for a time, we spent almost every evening together. For a time, Kat had been my closest friend. She’d moved into my sharehouse from Canberra, and after travelling for several months, knew no-one in Sydney and so invited me along on all her outings. She was brashly funny, curious, intensely charming and wickedly outrageous, completely certain of herself and her own decisions in a way that I have never been, but have always admired. That winter, she started dating Michaela, and I tried to cling to that same friendship for months, even though there wasn’t the same space for me anymore; I was really just third-wheeling along, wildly, blindly, and a little furiously, as my body fell apart without me even pausing.

Which is to say: my friendship with Michaela came about, largely, because she and her circle spent at least four nights a week at the Warren View. The Warren View was a pub at the end of Enmore Road, the arterial road from which the street I lived on peeled away, and I knew that if I went along I could drink vodka-sodas instead of having dinner. When I knew Michaela best, it was my heart that was at risk of failing, the muscle itself being metabolised by my malnourished body.

I’ve been more present in her death, and in her mourning, than I ever really was in her life, even when I was physically sitting alongside her.

Hours before I received Kat’s message, I’d been on Facebook and noticed a mutual friend had changed her profile picture to an old photo, one from a party at the house Kat and I had shared. In the photo, she was standing in my old kitchen, clinking beers with Michaela, both of them dressed in men’s shirts, with false moustaches and aviator glasses. The party had had a gender-bending theme, mostly so that I could wear the second-hand boys’ waistcoat and suit pants that I’d found at an op shop one weekend. Michaela’s moustache had been drawn on with eyeliner, and was pencil-thin; our mutual friend’s had been made by her boyfriend, who worked in a TV art department, and was a glorious (and vaguely pornographic) 70s-style brush. It was a great party, I remembered, before flipping back to looking at articles about misbehaving footballers, photos of cakes and cat memes.

In the days that followed, I watched our other common friends do the same: changing their own photos to shared shots, each of them standing beside, dancing with, winking at, toasting or passed out beside Michaela, or perhaps slinging their arms across her shoulders, holding matching grimaces for the camera. They reposted old photos, too, all images from years ago, from the years I now think of as my lost years; the years I don’t like to remember were now a steady presence scrolling downwards on my computer screen. I was suddenly seeing Michaela far more frequently than I had in all the intervening years combined, precisely because I could never see her again. The man I’d been curled against the night I received the message called this frantic, almost instinctual reposting, this public – if mediated – mourning, a digital ritual. He compared Facebook’s wall to a wailing wall, against which my friends were lamenting, crying out their loss and pain. Our generation has no real rituals for grief, no way of publicly acknowledging private loss. Perhaps no generation has ever had them, but what is different here is how we grieve as a community, both because our community exists and is expressed online, and because it was more vital, more important, than traditional family for Michaela – and for so many of our common friends.

There is, of course, an uncanny aspect to this: these rituals are only possible because of the data the site has stored, its documentation of the small events and interactions that make a life. My friends were sifting through these, digging out those tiny, even mundane, gestures that we come to love in other people and then putting them back on display. Facebook was a mausoleum, an accident site, where small memorials could be placed. Photographs of particular expressions, a lifted eyebrow and sardonic grin. Recordings of mock-manic dance moves. Screen grabs of text message exchanges: Wanna come to Centrelink with me on Valentine’s Day? I’ll buy you a beer and we’ll call it a date. This, they were saying, this is what I’ve lost, this is what I will miss. These are the things that I have loved and will remember.

One of the first reposted photographs I saw was taken in the Domain, during one of the festival performances held there in the long evenings of summer. It was a close shot of three faces: Kat’s, Michaela’s and my own, all of us big-grinned and quite obviously tipsy. I’m wearing a pair of oversized earrings that I loved and that I lost some months later, and a bright red jumper that doesn’t hide the ridges of my collarbones. I remember those concerts: we’d always take picnics of cheese, dips and bread, the pre-mixed sugar-free vodka cruisers I drank at the time, the occasional Scrabble board and, once, a fondue pot. I’d almost always end up eating something that I knew I couldn’t and then throwing up in the line for the portaloos, the line that never moved quickly enough for me to hold my troublesome stomach at bay. I clicked on the photo to see it in closer detail and accidentally opened up Michaela’s own, still active, Facebook page.

No-one, it turns out, knows her password. No-one can shut it down.

And yet so many of the photos that were suddenly recirculating were photos of Michaela at that pub, the Warren View, her local, close to Kat’s and my house, but also halfway between Michaela’s flat on the edge of Stanmore and the townhouse halfway to Marrickville that Naomi, her best friend, shared with two friends and an ancient dog. I don’t know how many hours I also spent there, sitting in the beer garden that is the backdrop to these photos, in those strange and vaguely hazy months at the height of my illness. My own face, smiling wildly under dead-fish eyes with sheenless skin, or staring absently at the drink in my hands, recurs again and again, near the edges of so many of these images.

I was unsettled by this, too, because I had stopped going to the Warren View. When I started moving away from Kat and Michaela, when I started the long and awful process of moving away from the illness that had come to dominate each day of my life, I moved to a new house, with new places and venues in its orbit. I clung to different friends, with whom I could talk, however cautiously, about unspecified sadnesses and anxieties, with whom, sometimes, I coalesced. I hadn’t been to the Warren View for more than four years. Until Anzac Day last year, when I went back, almost by accident, to meet up with another friend, a new friend, a young woman I met in the day program of a psychiatric hospital in Western Sydney.

I walked up after eating my lunch, and sat again in that leafy garden with my friend and her strange assortment of companions – a colleague, a uni friend from Canberra, an army doctor, a soccer teammate, several of their partners. I had a drink and chatted and realised that I was no longer on edge, no longer coiled with that reckless energy that I was used to feeling in that place. I watched my new friend flirt and knock back gin-and-tonics, talk constantly and frantically, laugh with a tossed-back head at jokes that weren’t really that funny. I watched her steadfastly ignore the bowls of crisps that the boys bought for the table over the hours. She bought me another drink after I’d said that I didn’t want any more. In the late afternoon I asked if she’d had lunch and she replied, with obvious evasion and a vague hostility, that she’d been out for breakfast with friends.

Which is to say: I watched her behave almost exactly as I used to, back when I was desperate to push away my illness, when I was frantically trying to find my own shape, to hold myself together by clinging to the structures of other peoples’ lives.

But I felt, that day, like I made my peace with the place, that by coming back to the Warren View I was able to see how much I’d changed, regardless of how much I’ve lost across the years to my disease.

I didn’t ask Kat for the details of Michaela’s funeral, partly because I was unsure of the etiquette around it and partly because I didn’t feel I’d belong there, surrounded by our common friends who’d still been so deeply involved in her life, even though I’d moved away. But I kept watching Facebook, and eventually I saw a new series of posts: photographs taken in the backyard of Naomi’s townhouse, unchanged in the golden afternoon light that I love at this time of year. Our common friends playing frisbee on the tiny lawn, clutching longnecks and sitting on the same wooden benches that line the fence, toasting the camera with raised eyebrows. The captions all tagged ‘… with Michaela Collins’, even though she wasn’t there, even though the photographs could never have been taken if she had been.

I wasn’t there, but had been in Naomi’s backyard so many times in those months of acute illness, in that space, alongside that circle. And looking at those images, from my bedroom, I still felt close to them, felt drawn into their common loss, a participant in their mourning every bit as vicarious, perhaps, as I had been when I sat beside them in that pub. Presence, just like connection, is always relative, and all that digitisation has done is blurred lines that were never as clean-cut as we’d like to imagine. So, too, is loss a complex, multivalent thing; perhaps this is simply made more obvious because Michaela’s data won’t be lost, can’t be lost.


Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright’s new essay collection is The World Was Whole (Giramondo, 2018). Her first book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for nonfiction, and her poetry collections are Knuckled and Domestic Interior.

More by Fiona Wright ›

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