Friday, February 24, 2017

Facebook and Death

Last month, I was reminded what a very strange beast Facebook can be sometimes. As everyone knows, it can connect you to friends and family who are far, far away -- which can be a blessing when you live overseas from the place you were born. 

It also often connects you, in some sense, with the past in ways that would not have been possible even 15 years ago. It can bring you in touch with distant acquaintances and schoolmates you haven’t seen in ages, giving you a window into their lives, revealing more about them than you ever knew back when you actually hung out together or just saw them in the hallway between classes. 

For example, Facebook reminds you of the birthdays of long-unseen friends -- although that might be a bit of personal information you were not aware of back in the days when you sat next to each other in geography class.

In some cases, Facebook can also stop time, become a time capsule, make a friend ageless.

Every year about this time, Facebook reminds me to wish a happy birthday to my friend Tom, despite the fact that he died some years ago. It’s always a starling and somber notice.

And Tom is not the only one of the departed to be still listed as a Facebook friend of mine. But he was the first. I’m sure there will be more, sadly.

Tom and I had attended the same tiny junior college in the North Georgia mountains, Young Harris. In fact, he was a native son of the little town, just a village really, centered around the college that gave the its name. Tom was a few years older than me, however, and our paths never crossed there in the mountains.

Instead, I first met Tom at the University of Georgia in Athens in 1979, when we both attended an adult-education class (what in Finland would be called “työväenopisto kurssi”) in “Creative Writing”.

The weekly class consisted mostly of us students critiquing photocopies of each other’s early attempts at fiction, usually short stories. In many cases, they were probably not very good (speaking for myself here). Tom was one of the exceptions. The work that he shared with the group, chapters of a fantasy novel he was working on set in the Georgia mountains, stood out from the rest. I still have my copy of his typewritten manuscript hidden away somewhere in what my wife charitably calls my “archives”.

Those chapters Tom shared eventually grew into his first published book, “Windmaster’s Bane”, about a mountain teenager who was able to detect mystical realms of Irish fairies invisible to regular folk.

After I moved to Finland, Tom and I kept in touch through the occasional exchange of letters. Letters written on paper and enclosed in paper envelops. Old school. Or least, I think we did.

When I returned to Athens in 1987 to study journalism, we reconnected in person. By that point, Tom had published his novel, the first of some 18 books he eventually produced. He had a job working in the University of Georgia’s main library, in the Rare Books department, befitting a writer with a master’s in medieval literature. He was also still active, as he had been when I first met him, in the Society for Creative Anachronism (a legendary costume role-playing group), also befitting someone with a deep interest in medieval life.

We would get together now and then for lunch, often meeting first at his desk in the Rare Books department, one of the least-busy parts of the library (by a long shot) and ideal, as he pointed out, for someone seeking quiet and undisturbed time to work on his next novel.

When I moved back to Finland for good and started raising a family, Tom and I lost touch. Until late in 2008, that is, when he became my friend on Facebook. I had joined Facebook just a short time before, and it hadn’t yet become such a compulsive habit yet.

By that time, Tom had moved to Gainesville, halfway between my hometown and Athens, to take up a teaching position at the local university. We exchanged some messages before Christmas, and after the New Year discussed the drought that Georgia had been experiencing. We talked about Finland and travel. He asked about the typical models of cars here, as he was a big automobile enthusiast. I recall one of the first things he did after regular royalty checks for his books started coming in was to buy a vintage “hobby car” to restore and tinker around with.

I recall sending him a link to a video of Leningrad Cowboys, the wacky Finnish ensemble of musicians in pointy shoes and hairdos, performing with the Red Army Choir. Apparently, it was just his cup of tea.

He was interested in Finland in general and was one of few Americans I knew who had read Kalevala, as befitting a connoisseur of ancient myths. He mentioned he might visit Helsinki sometime, though not until after other upcoming trips he was planning to take to Ireland in a month or so, and later Japan.

Then, for a couple of weeks, silence. I wasn’t necessarily checking Facebook everyday back then, so I wasn’t sure what to make of that. In late March Tom re-emerged online, apologizing for his absence. It was clear something was up with his health.

Then he was offline again. A couple of weeks went by, then messages started appearing on Tom’s timeline from concerned friends. There was something about a hospital, without stating explicitly what was going on. Since Tom was only a few years older than me and as far as I knew healthy, I didn’t consider it could really be anything life-threatening. Optimistic, I know. 

A post appeared from a friend of Tom's in Georgia, informing that Tom would send personals messages to all his Facebook friends in the next few days. It was a desire that he was unable to fulfill. Two days later came the word on Tom’s Facebook page that he had passed into the “Undiscovered Country”. Tom died at the age of 57 from complications from a heart attack he suffered in January, about the time our Facebook correspondence suddenly dropped off. I hadn’t realized he’d had any health issues previously. It was deeply sad and shocking news.

Tom’s Facebook page lives on. Every year since I get the birthday notification on February 17th without fail. And every year on that date, a small online gathering of Tom’s friends posts their remembrances on his timeline. This year, I’m late in doing so. 

I wonder if Tom ever imagined how his memory would live on, not only in the fading thoughts and stories of friends, but also in the strangely permanent cyber world of social media, inside a sterile commercial Silicon Valley creation. 

I know that for many of us the question of what happens to our digital existence after we die is still unresolved. Who knows? Perhaps yearly online gatherings of surviving friends might be a legacy we can all look forward to. At least, for a while.   

1 comment:

  1. I often saw Tom Dietz' books on the shelves when I'd shop for books. I never followed his work, but I most certainly would have in an earlier time when I read lots of fantasy novels. I had no idea he was a native of Young Harris!

    I have lost count of the FB friends that I have. It has to be in the dozens. I still get birthday notices for them all, and a couple of those dead friends I wished a "happy birthday" to, not knowing that they had recently died.

    FB is a weird contraption.