My father died 10 years ago today, after a period of dementia and failing health that was much more heartbreaking than his actual death. He was 83. I have a friend, Jessica, whose mother died one year ago today after a sudden and rapid relapse of cancer. She was 62. My father never met my children. Jessica’s mother was a close and loving grandmother to her daughter.
Jessica and I have almost never spoken in person. We went to the same small east coast women’s college, finishing in the same year. We did not run in the same crowd. I have a general memory of a woman in the dining hall with a Louise Brooks haircut and a modern swing dress. I don’t know if she has twenty-odd year old memories of me, but if so, they may involve a leather motorcycle jacket and snarky attitude.
I grew up in a Michigan college town, Jessica in an Ohio town about three hours to the south, between Cleveland and Akron. After college, she wound up in my hometown, where she briefly taught at my old high school. I lived in Ann Arbor for a while, before moving to Cleveland, where I started practicing law. I briefly tried municipal bond law, where one of my firm’s clients was Jessica’s hometown of Stow, Ohio. We met once, during that period. She was working in an art gallery in Ann Arbor and I was in town for a visit. I bought a blue tile and as I paid for it we crinkled our brows at each other and figured out that we had gone to college together. I took my tile home and put it on my wall and didn’t think more of it.
In 2009, I joined Facebook, holding my nose and dragging my feet. There I discovered lots of people whose fates I had wondered about for a long time. And I got a friend request from Jessica, who I barely remembered. Slowly, through the medium of Facebook, I noticed that we had overlapping areas of interest in culture and politics. And that we had both gotten married in Ann Arbor in 2004. She had met her husband and had an early date at a bar I used to go to during graduate school. We both had daughters in July 2006. Our husbands were both born in January (same day, different years – I believe). She lives in Michigan still, in another college town, with her family. I live with my family in Oregon.
We chatter and gossip on Facebook almost every day about trivial and and delicate topics and we have occasionally corresponded about writing. At our 20th college reunion we mostly spent our time in the embrace of our mutual sets of college friends. When Jessica’s mother passed away I and others of her distant friends sent condolences out over the ether and bore witness to her grief, upholding her as best we could.
Facebook feeds some of my particular obsessions: I keep track of birthdays, anniversaries, dates and coincidence because I like seeing the web of connections: A cousin-in-law who went to high school with a co-worker. My sister’s partner’s cousin who is friends with my cousin’s brother. Days when three different friends from disparate parts of my acquaintance all have birthdays. I kept track of those sorts of things before social media. A friend had a child on my brother’s wedding anniversary, the same wedding where I left the reception to go to a deathbed (the mother of a friend whose birthday happens to be today). Facebook just gives a little more density to the information. Instead of being like a loose spiderweb, with dewdrops here and there, it’s more like a busy Baroque score, with the same comforting mathematical density.
With each year, my father recedes farther into the distance. He had already gone where I couldn’t follow before he died. The threads that tie me to him stretch, but I know they won’t break. The grief thins and fades as well, floating lightly and mostly invisibly over the intertwined paths of the living. I watch the friends who I worried would die of drug overdoses in high school mostly holding jobs and raising families. I see my former law partner doting over his grandchildren. I see my father’s niece and nephew’s grandchildren. I see the new griefs for new firsts that Jessica lives with: first anniversary of passing, first birthday.
Different things are comforting at different times. Sometimes the web of friendships, little and big is like a comfortable hammock, but sometimes I need something less abstract. Every one finds comfort in different things. I don’t know that everyone finds comfort in the hammock of connections. I don’t know if Jessica does, or if she does today, but I hope so.