Parting shot: Facebook friends

How should you respond when a Facebook friend reveals that he’s dying? I couldn’t, and I didn’t.

Computer keyboard [illustrative]. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Computer keyboard [illustrative].
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
How should you respond when a Facebook friend posts that he’s dying? Mark (not his real name) and I went to high school together, we were friendly but not friends. He was part of the clean-cut theater performance gang while I was an iconoclast burnout on the fringes of the “cool” kids crowd.
But three decades later, thanks to social media’s talent at leveling the “friends” playing field, we reconnected.
And I discovered what a delightful guy he was – a professional choir and barbershop quartet singer, an antique collector and possessor of a great sense of humor and joie de vivre. I always enjoyed seeing his updates on his performances, his travels with his life partner, Steven, and his droll witticisms and asides.
Then over a year ago the posts took on a more somber tone as he began to chronicle his diagnosis with throat cancer. But they weren’t sad by any means.
Full of upbeat sentiment, a fighting spirit and always forward- looking optimism, they thoughtfully presented his state of mind as he thoroughly and candidly described the treatment, complications, victories and setbacks, without ever descending to veiled pleas for pity or sympathy.
His Facebook friends offered their support and encouragement, and a new community emerged surrounding this brave soul who was facing what we all dread. Some members were able to interact in person, helping with rides, meals and a shoulder. The rest of us were virtual ghosts – able to offer only words, advice and diversion.
Like another episode of Serial, we awaited his next installment – hoping for the best but braced for the worst. And that’s what happened last week. Amid terms of “metastasize,” “growth” and “hospice,” Mark’s latest update doused the outside chance of recovery.
It was his bravest post yet.
“For those of you who have visited and been in touch, thank you so much. You have brought much joy to my life. I’m not sure what is coming next or how this Cancer is going to proceed. Only time will tell, but needless to say, this recent news has really taken the wind out of my sail.
Sorry it couldn’t have been better news today. But I wanted to keep you all up to date while I still have my facilities about me.”
Here he was, apologizing to us, this person who lived to sing and who cruelly was stricken in the part of the body that he valued the most and gave others so much joy.
How should you respond when a Facebook friend reveals that he’s dying? I couldn’t, and I didn’t.
Until now.
“My dearest Mark. I’m sorry that we didn’t spend more time together in high school when I had the chance to really get to know you. You clearly possess those qualities that everyone hopes to find in a friend – empathy, humor, good cheer and deep insight.
Reading your posts these last couple of years, I feel like I was granted the gift of being part of a special club of people who cared about you and were touched by your amazing outlook on life.
We’re not usually blessed with knowing what our purpose is on Earth, but I think you were put here to send all of us – from far and near who have connected thanks to amazing technology we’ve been granted – a wake-up call that we should stop, feel, love, appreciate and grasp life with both hands while we can.
For that gift alone, you have enriched the lives of your friends everyone that came into contact with you. All I can say is ‘Thank you.’ And I hope that I can call you a friend, without preceding it with the word ‘Facebook.’” Bob Dylan once wrote “May your song always be sung” and I reckon that those who have been following Mark’s journey will continue to sing his song, a tune that everyone would do well to memorize.
It’s especially relevant to those of us in Israel and it goes something like this: Don’t be hurtful to one another – words do count; appreciate the people around you and the wonders of life; don’t get caught up in the trivial matters that tend to fill up our days; avoid petty vendettas; and most important, learn how to live together.
How should you respond when a friend tells you that he’s dying? By forgetting that you’re separated by Facebook and reaching out to embrace him – and letting him know that by any measure of the word, he is an inspiring mensch who will live on in the deeds and actions of those who were privileged to know him.