This is a part of a special series looking at how social media has impacted the lives of its users. This week, the story comes from Amy Vernon.
I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and every time I moved, I vowed that I’d stay in touch with people better than I did the last time.
Easier said than done.
After a few letters or phone calls, friendships gradually faded away, though the advent of email meant we could share stupid jokes that made the rounds until you saw every joke in the history of mankind at least a half-dozen times, and began to regret ever signing onto email in the first place.
That’s besides the point, though. Fact is, until Facebook, there really wasn’t any way to really catch up with all those people who’d disappeared over the years.
I’ve learned of one elementary school friend who responded heroically when a maniac shot up her office. Of college classmates who’ve risen to fame in Hollywood. Of friends who succumbed to the siren call of drugs and are still struggling to pick up the pieces.
And then there’s Christine.
From the Outside In
My senior year of high school, I ran with a group of punks. Real punks – at least, as real as they could be in the suburbs.
We lived in middle-class homes but listened to the Sex Pistols. Spiked hair, mohawks, ripped jeans, safety pins. And those weren’t retro or cool yet.
We wore black on the outside because black was how we felt on the inside (yes, we listened to The Smiths, too).
I didn’t know Christine, then.Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity. - Khalil GibranClick To Tweet
She was the older sister of Justin, my dear friend and the heart of our group. He was magnetic north.
We gathered at his house after school more often than not. Most of our funny group stories somehow revolved around him.
One day, he and a couple other friends were teasing me and I got pissed off and stormed away. Next thing I knew, Justin was on his knees, asking my forgiveness.
Christine was out of the house already. She was a few years older than Justin. I don’t think I ever met her until his funeral.
You see, on Aug. 8, 1987, Justin took his own life in the early morning hours. Broke the locks on the garage doors, turned the car on and died. His was a closed casket.
It was one of the seminal moments of my life and changed me forever.
Loss and Gain
The group of friends who surrounded Justin stayed tight for some time.
The following summer, when I came back to Long Island to work at a weekly newspaper, we had parties and hung out many weekends.
Some were still in school, some were home from college, some were about to head to college for the first time.
During my sophomore year, my parents moved from New York to California. As happens in life, I gradually lost touch with that group of friends.
I kept in touch with Justin’s mom for several years, but after I moved from Florida to Arizona and then she moved and her phone number changed, even that faded away.
Still, every Aug. 8, I awoke with a pit in my stomach, which wouldn’t go away until I remembered why.
You’d think after a decade or so, I might remember why I felt so bad around that date every year, but something in my brain switched off – almost as if it was trying to protect myself, but failed because now I felt crappy and couldn’t figure out why.
When Facebook came into the picture, I started getting friend requests from people I knew growing up on Long Island, at the Connecticut summer camp where I was a CIT, in college, in Florida, in Kentucky, in Arizona – all the places I’d lived over the years.
One such request was from John, my closest friend in that high school cabal, and Justin’s best friend.
It was so great to be in touch with him again; he posted photos of us from high school, some with Justin and some without – all reminding me of the joy and the pain.
We messaged privately sometimes, to catch up on people without discussing them publicly.
He said he was in touch with Christine, Justin’s sister. Would I want to connect with her?
Duh. Of course.
I reached out tentatively, saying I didn’t know if she remembered me. I hadn’t realized how connected she was to Justin’s life back then.
She knew damn well who I was and was happy I’d reached out.
Strength Through Adversity
We chatted on Facebook, discovered we had a lot of likes and dislikes in common and though we’d never spoken since Justin’s funeral, began building a friendship that sprang from a mutual loss but was built on mutual respect and common interests.
John died suddenly, unexpectedly, about a year later.
We consoled each other. I sent Justin’s mom a prayer card from John’s funeral.
We mourned again, this time as adults grateful for the time we’d been back in touch with John rather grieving the years we knew we’d never have with Justin.
It wasn’t easier, per se, but we were older and we understood grief better.A natural death at 40 is different than a suicide at 16. Not better, just different. Click To Tweet
And a natural death, even unexpected and sudden at 40, is different than a suicide at 16.
Not better, just different.
At 40, we’ve had more experience with death and know that, in time, the pain can subside and become tolerable.
Still, Christine and I had never talked on the phone. We emailed back and forth and were so grateful for John having put us in touch with one another, because it brought some meaning to his loss, in a sense.
I know how much his death rocked his family – his mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter — but for me, I think of John and I quietly thank him for bringing Christine back into my life.
A couple years back, on Aug. 8, I posted something about Justin. Christine responded almost immediately.
I realized she didn’t really know how much Justin’s friendship and death had meant to me. The next day, I breathed deeply, picked up the phone and called.
For about an hour, we talked. We cried.
I mean, we SOBBED.
We laughed. I finally had the chance to tell her how amazing her brother was and how his death had changed me for the better, despite the searing pain I still felt.
The next year, as the anniversary came up – the 25th anniversary – my brain did what it does, and I forgot. I had thought about it a couple weeks earlier, determined not to forget for once.
And yet, I did.
Then, sitting at my computer somewhere around midday, I remembered. I looked at my Facebook mail and saw a message from Christine.
Despite the fact that reading her message made me cry, I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.
The last couple of years, we’ve let the day go by quietly. But a couple days later, one of us will ping the other, letting both of us know that we remember.
And that we’re thinking of each other.