Ethereal voices

It is approaching one month since the online community I spend a great deal of time in was convulsed by the shocking loss of two smart, articulate and wonderfully snarky women on one day.

It was evening in Yangon, and I was already in a rather fragile frame of mind as it was only a few days since my father had taken ill.  I was just checking my email for family updates before sleeping that Monday evening, 6 February.  After checking email, I flicked quickly through news and updates from my online friends for the last news of the day. I caught sight of a few tweets which stopped my heart – they were messages of loss and condolence.  With a sense of dread mixed with a need to know, I scrolled down through the tweets, my fingers trembling.  My heart stopped.  Right across the world, in New Jersey, where it was early morning, our dear friend Rachel had been taken by cancer.  I was unable to read the flurry of tweets, and the Facebook tributes which were flooding in, because of the tears in my eyes.  I knew she had been very ill, but how could this happen when her online voice was so strong and full of vitality?  The words on her blog posts, her Facebook updates, Tweets and other online interactions told clearly and factually of the toll which metastatic disease was taking on her body.  But her voice was another matter.  A combination of humour and a feisty spirit formed a voice belying the gravity of her illness.  It was simply inconceivable that such a voice be silenced.

Sleep eluded me that Monday night, unsurprisingly as I tried to rationalise and process this.  Still I headed for my dawn swim on Tuesday morning, ploughing up and down the pool, my mind on Rachel, my father, before returning home.  After breakfast, I opened up my window to the world, my laptop.  Because of the time difference, it was approaching time in my corner of the globe for the weekly #bcsm Tweetchat, which takes place on Monday evenings in the US.  I knew that we would have an emotional discussion, as Rachel has been a vocal and lively participant in the sessions and I steeled myself as I signed into the discussion.  Nothing, however, prepared me for the tweets in front of me. Tweets full of pain, disbelief and anguish broke the news to me of the unbelievable loss in one day, of Susan as well as Rachel.  The discussion was dedicated to these remarkable women, both of whom advocated tirelessly and tenaciously on the subject of metastatic breast cancer.  How on earth could these women, whose words were written with such passion and vitality, be taken?

This transported me back over a year in time, but to a similar emotional space. That of a crushing disbelief when I learned that my friend Bad Fairy had been taken by metastatic breast cancer in October 2010.  Bad Fairy and I had been diagnosed a few weeks apart in 2009 and started blogging around the same time.  Our experiences were very different but we connected through our blogs.  She would call by my blog and leave a sprinkling of fairy dust, and I would leave a classy gecko calling card when I visited her blog.  Her writing was refreshing, her ideas original and although she was dealing with metastatic cancer her voice was strong and full of life. At the time I did not realise that I would read her words, not truly comprehending the gravity of her disease.  The words told me how ill she was, but told with such a bright voice I missed signals that she was terribly ill.  I was unable to access blogspot at that time, and missed the last couple of posts she wrote.  When I learned finally through her husband’s post that she had been taken, I was bereft and utterly unable to comprehend her loss.  I could not equate the strength of her voice with the frailty of her physical body.

Another contradiction in my connection with Bad Fairy, was that I did not even know her name.  This reminds me of my friendship with Rachel.  We initially knew her as Anna, Anna Rachnel.  And then one day, I read her post about chest pains.  I was so caught up in her account of the investigations, fear and trauma of the chest pains that I almost missed her revelation.   I had to read it through more than once to catch the enormous step she was taking.  This was when we learned that her name was in fact Rachel, and not Anna.  Her footnote to that blog posting, written some time after the event, talked through the big step she had made of opening up and revealing her real name.  it took me quite some time to make the shift, but now I find it hard to think of her as Anna.  And I only learned Bad Fairy’s name in the last comments on her blog. There are so many complexities in our online relationships.

That sense of disbelief and even misunderstanding does not abate.  That disconnect between the voice and what it reports.  It compels me to question why I have difficulty in relating a voice with the actual language and content of the story.  Why is it that the unwritten elements of our communications convey such a strength and vitality and how can it be that they override the actual words?  I cannot pretend to understand why, but I most definitely know that it is so.

That contradiction between voice and body brings us something tangible though and that is a powerful and enduring legacy left of and by our voices.  The words have been written and cannot be erased.  The voices of our friends live on, in the online and other spaces storing them, but more than anything else, those strong voices live on in our hearts and minds.

17 thoughts on “Ethereal voices

  1. What a beautiful reflection, thank you.

    I know what you mean about voices – that’s one of the reasons I have been and continue to be such a huge fan of the medium of blogging. It is not just words – it is voice, energy, spirit, connectedness, love. It is legacy.

    There is something strange about how the words stay physically on the web though, after people have gone. Traces of their voices. Facebook throws this up sometimes – I saw it last week, someone updated a photo album, which in turn highlighted a comment left by a friend, a year before, a friend who was now gone. It was sad for her, but I felt it was also some kind of sweet whisper from the other side, like a kiss, like a flower blown softly in the wind.

    • Thank you J for your beautiful comment – yes, the voice is just so powerful and I am so thankful that it lingers.

  2. Yes, Gecko, I completely agree with you. Even as a person who knew how much Rachel’s condition deteriorated, I still thought this would just be another weird Rachel thing that she’d get over.


    • Thanks Katie – yes, that is it, knowing the facts is one thing but the strength of her voice kind of overrides just how ill she was.

  3. Dear, dear FBG, your description of February 6th mirrors my own, as I’m sure it reflects the day for many of us, reminding all of us of so many we’ve lost.

    It’s a remarkable thing, isn’t it, how the indomitable spirit of a writer can belie the miserable reality she is writing about. It tells us a great deal about perseverence, as well as the limits of language. It also points up why the incomparable voices of these women engendered so much love and affection for them, and why they will forever be acutely missed.

    Hugs to you & prayers for your dad, my friend.

    • Thank you so much for your kind and warm words, yes it was an incredible day – one of loss alongside enormous solidarity and support.

      It is so true – the power and strength of writing can really deceive in fact. How on earth can someone who is cracking jokes on Twitter, lively updates on Facebook one day, be gone a few days later? It just does not compute in our minds.
      As well as the love and affection in our hearts for our friends, we also have access to their words for ever.

      Hugs and prayers very warmly received – thank you so much – dad is doing ok, recovering slowly and well looked after. I will get back once we have a clearer idea of his longer term options. Sigh.

  4. Oh, FBG, how beautiful. It’s funny, isn’t it, how just the words or an ongoing exchange of comments and email make a person real to us. We truly care for each other without ever having met in person. I’m always startled these days when someone asks me if I had ever personally met Rachel. In our world, it didn’t matter to me. I knew her, she meant something to me and our cyber world has a big hole in it where her voice was. I’m glad you’re there, even though so far away. xoxoxo

    • It is such a new world we live in, in so many ways, but we are still human and emotional beings and these connections are so strong. I am also so thankful for our friendship, it feels deceptively close 🙂 xoxox

  5. I remember so vividly that post from Rachel last July where she came out as Rachel. I had had chest pains and went to the ER about a month before she did. As a result, I could completely identify. I’d known her as Anna so it took a while to recreate her in my mind as Rachel, but now I believe she has always been Rachel, our beloved Rachel. Thanks for this beautiful reflection on what she meant to all of us. XOXO

    • Yes, I still remember it vividly too – I remember it took some time too to think of her as Rachel. What a privilege to have known her, and to make so many friendships. xox

  6. Philippa,
    The losses are so hard to take aren’t they? That February day was unbelievable. Your words, “I could not equate the strength of her voice with the frailty of her physical body,” are so powerful and meaningful to me. This makes the losses even more difficult to comprehend. I guess in some way this is also a blessing since, as you also said, their strong voices will live on. I am comforted by that somewhat. I hope you are too. Thanks for the heartfelt post.

    • Thank you so much, N – yes, you highlight the very contradiction for me – it is so inconsistent and impossible to rationalise. Yes, I am comforted by the fact that the words we all write are immortalised.

  7. Philippa,

    A stunningly beautiful posting. I remember being part of that bcsm chat and feeling less alone. I agree that Rachel and Susan and so many others have such strong voices. Their voices will live on in us and in the blogosphere.

    • Thanks B – yes that #bcsm chat was an incredible experience, such raw grief, mingled with support, love and respect. What a privilege to be part of it. Long live the voices of the bloggesses 🙂 Thank you

  8. Pingback: In praise of my fish pickling flair | Feisty Blue Gecko – a tail of the unexpected

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