We didn't live in the same city. We didn't even live on the same side of the country. Aside from the first six months when we both lived in Massachusetts, the entire decade of our friendship had been on the Internet.
For over 10 years, Ray and I talked almost every morning. We would catch up about what was new, or what our plans were for the day. Our conversations often broke off into sharing new music, or the books we'd been reading. If we had time, we would venture into deeper philosophical discussions. Other days, we only had a few minutes to complain about the weather before logging off and leaving the house. Sometimes we would talk on the phone, but the vast majority of our conversations were via instant messenger.
Even though we had thousands of miles between us, we spent better quality time together than friends who live in the same city. He would tell me about his treks through nature. He offered encouragement as I started my writing career. We played Scrabble and wrote poetry together. He affectionately nicknamed me "Katers."
There is a constant criticism that suggests social media is making us depressed or anti-social. Is it because we are drawn in to our digital lives when there's a lull in our "real" lives, or interrupted during in-person conversations by a sudden chime? Of course there are some who take their device usage to an obnoxious extreme, but weren't there people who behaved in obnoxious extremes before the digital age?
The Internet is a place, just as real as your favorite coffee shop or local bar, where we can stop by and catch up with friends as often or infrequently as we want. We can use social media to make arrangements to meet in real life, or simply hang out online. Life can be lonely, but the way we connect with people is evolving.
Sometimes, Ray and I would talk about what we would do if we were together in person. But I don't know what it would have been like if Ray and I lived in the same city. One of the things that made our friendship special was the fact that we could share our thoughts without being self-conscious. Since we weren't facing each other, there was no sting of shame when the other person frowned or flinched at what you said. Not that we didn't disagree, we did, but our keyboards kept disagreements conversational. The distance is one of the things that kept us close.
I never felt like I needed to justify our friendship until he died.
I learned about his passing the same way we spent all our time together: digitally. I was sitting at work, and received a text message from him. But then when I unlocked my phone, I read―
"Hi, this is Ray's brother. Is this Katie?"
I knew immediately that something was wrong.
The distance between us and the mode of our communication suddenly felt cheap, not as meaningful as other friendships in real life. At least, that's how I felt as I sunk into grief.
That's the thing about having a digital friendship, you trust that they are always there. You can send them a message, and even if they don't respond right away, you know they received it. They will respond. They exist. They are conducting their lives, and believing in you.
That was the hardest thing about coming to terms with Ray's death ― he wasn't just not here, he wasn't there either.
I didn't have the money to fly across the country for his funeral ― the same reason I hadn't bought a ticket to Seattle to visit while he was alive. But his brother found a solution: He set up a webcam so I could attend virtually. I put on a dress and slipped on a bracelet that Ray had made me. Through the webcam's blurred connection, I could see the flowers that I had sent the funeral home next to the casket.
I was there.
Maybe it's not so hard to imagine "virtual funerals" becoming more common. Already I've seen once-active Facebook profiles become memorials, places for friends to grieve and remember the good times. Coping with loss is one of the things that makes us human, and it can be really hard. We have to use whatever tools we have, virtual or in real life, to learn to live without the ones we lost.
What defined my friendship with Ray, and I dare say, what defines friendship is not the proximity between friends, but the impact of our interactions. These interactions―small gestures and chats and likes, all acts of sharing―are just as legitimate in cyberspace as they are in person. Their impact is still felt, even as the cursor blinks, with nothing more to say.