The first time it happened, it stopped me (pun totally intended, in her honor) dead in my tracks. I had just gone to see her one last time, and she’d looked like a stranger in her coffin. The image was still with me. The funeral home had turned her the dreadful color of theatre makeup mixed with bruise. Her hair was neater than she would have worn it in life. Her dead face bore the signs of suffering she had not let me see the final months of her sickness. I was sorry that this would be my final memory of her.
I sat by her a long time, remembering her kooky jokes, the Grendel puppet she used to engage bored teenage girls in the wonders of literature. I’d been one of those girls over 20 years before, and it had worked on me. She made me cringe with her unselfconscious strangeness, wearing costumes, making voices, speaking Middle English. She would do anything in the service of literature. When she called on me to read a part in a play – the play is long forgotten, but I still remember the line: “The boy’s gone daft!” – I wanted to be nothing and everything like her. She was freer than I ever imagined myself being. It would be a decade at least before I realized that when she was my teacher, she was only 12 years older than I was.
As I looked at her in death, I felt the grasping loneliness, the inscrutability of death, the mystery of understanding this biological entity before me had once housed a person I loved deeply, and kept in touch with long after high school was over. Looking at her, I saw that the spirit I loved –whatever and wherever it was – was no longer there. She’d given me some of the words to ponder it, my Shakespeare and Romance poets, and I ran the “out, out, brief candle,” speech in my head as I tried to find something of the woman I loved in the lifelessness before me. I found it only in her hands. They looked exactly like they had in life, a little creaky at the joints (even in her twenties when she had been my teacher). I turned away, finally, overcome at finding something familiar in her corpse. I went to speak to her sister and saw the same hands gesticulating as she told me about my teacher’s final days. It was too much, this creepy familial resemblance, two people with identical hands. Suddenly I felt claustrophobic and I had to go.
So imagine my shock when, not too long after that, my teacher changed her Facebook profile picture. After a moment’s horror I realized that a friend of hers must have her password and was at the wheel in her profile.
Every once in a while she popped up in my newsfeed. She Liked something or other. She posted pictures. Sometimes her posts made me click through to her profile. I was surprised – and something else of which I’m not quite sure – that people were posting on her wall as if they were expecting her to read it. “I heard the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack and it reminded me of you,” one said. Someone else apologized for not wishing her a happy birthday on time. They loved her, as I did, and yet their grief was different than mine, foreign and a little macabre to me. Perhaps they thought they were celebrating her. I felt they were misrepresenting her. I tried not to turn my grief into judgment.
Finally, one day she Liked something pretty inappropriate. I forget what, exactly, but it was an article about big booties or some such thing. I briefly considered unfriending her. It wasn’t her I’d be unfriending anyway, strictly speaking, but the friend who was logging in to her profile and acting like her. I clicked through to her profile to do it, but something stopped me. She belonged to me as much as to the person logging in as her. I wasn’t ready to let my dear friend go quite yet. I wrote her a Facebook email. “I know you loved her as I do,” I said. “Can you please watch what you do in her name?”
Today, after a long while of inactivity, she changed her profile picture again. I clicked through to realize that last month made 2 years that she’s been gone.
I looked at her freshly updated Facebook profile and she was my Yorick, the skeletal memory of the person I once loved. I held her in my digital grasp and remembered the line she once explained to me,
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?”
Like Hamlet remembering his dear Yorick but holding only his skull, I gazed at her new picture, unnaturally alive and intruding on my Facebook feed. I studied the stunningly clear green eyes that had run with tears of laughter at our lunch dates while we shared our misadventures with men and life, at the nose she’d crinkled up in a funny way, at the collar bone that had become too prominent as illness overtook her. And those hands. Alive in this new picture, but very much gone. I thought again about letting her go. I unsubscribed to her updates but stopped short of unfriending her altogether. I’m closer, but not there yet.
In this new, digital world, death happens like it always has, but fading away happens in a new and unfamiliar way.