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.