In Writing

The news of Bob’s death found its way to me on Facebook.

It was probably appropriate, although it felt not so much so. I hadn’t seen him in years, and dated him only a few times. But due to the uniquely vulnerable time during which we met, we had once been emotionally close, talking for hours, sharing fears and hopes. It felt strange to know he was gone. He was 48 years old.

I met Bob during one of my first fitful forays into post-divorce dating. This was even before I felt light enough to start my dating blog, to poke fun at the whole wacky process. Divorced about a year, I needed a new husband, stat. I was enveloped by a sense of failure, and freefall.

My feelings were complicated by the fact that I was in love with someone else, a totally-wrong-for-me/never-gonna-commit guy I’d gotten involved with during my separation and with whom I’d just broken things off (temporarily, it would turn out). So I wasn’t exactly giving Bob a fair shot. The part of me that wants to be the hero of this story longs to tell you that I was too messed up to know that, but I probably did know. I just assumed the “right guy” could pull me away from the dead-end hopes, from the stark terror of being alone with two grammar-school-aged children.

So we were doomed before we began, yes. Our first date was at a Japanese restaurant on a mountain, notable for my very first taste of sake. Bob beamed at the thought of introducing it to me. He was handsome, (“sooo your type,” my daughter would say when I showed her a picture last night, in shock), former Navy, smart, and so eager. We’d gotten divorced around the same time, and he was also hurting, stuck with a house he couldn’t afford alone, upside-down on his mortgage, parked in a job where he felt under-appreciated. His need radiated off him, and it made me queasy.

He asked me for my full name, which I’ve always been reluctant to offer on a first date, images of the Dateline episode of my murder dancing before me. I kept it to my first name, and somewhere in the conversation I must have mentioned my town, which is small. We parted ways and I gave him a chaste hug goodbye. By the time I’d driven to the bottom of the mountain, a notification popped up on my phone. Bob wanted to be Facebook friends. He’d Googled my first name and the name of my town, and found me.

But Bob wasn’t trying to be creepy. He was just a well of bottomless need. It was a thing I’d observe again and again in my dating life: the stark, tragic loneliness of middle-aged men. I was ashamed to see it, like I’d inadvertently caught a slip of the back of the hospital gown. He was vulnerable, afraid. As someone who was aching for strength to prop me up in my own weakness, I didn’t have the capacity to observe and be with such vulnerability in a man.

The other guy – the non-committal one – came back a few weeks later. By then I’d gone out with Bob a few times, kissed him some (he was an excellent kisser), had toyed with the idea of sleeping with him, but hadn’t.  We had talked for hours. But my heart was elsewhere, and I told him so. I was extraordinarily bad at breakups (if you can call it that) and asked Bob if we could stay friends, like I was offering him a consolation prize. He agreed.

We talked regularly, mostly during the “off” portions of my on-again/off-again, doomed romance. Time and again, I was struck by Bob’s abject loneliness. About a year after we stopped dating, he invited me to a party, but I felt funny about going, so I didn’t. Later, he told me no one came and how rejected that made him feel. “But not by you,” he quickly caught himself. “You told me ahead of time you weren’t coming.” He told me about reaching out to acquaintances but not being able to make plans because everyone was busy, paired up. We shared dating horror stories (when I was dating). When my book came out, he bought it and posted about it. He asked me out to lunch so I could sign it for him. Sitting at Red Lobster with him, I noticed his hand shake and he told me he was on some medication that had that side effect. I didn’t ask for more details because I didn’t want to pry.

But he tried. He tried so hard. He went to after-work trivia. He moved to a new town and became involved in the community. He dated, and found a nice woman. He biked, and rock climbed, and pursued his passion for scuba diving. We stopped talking on the phone as life took us in other directions, but I saw him on social media. In September, I wrote a piece about what it feels like to be undocumented. He reposted it, saying it was by his “friend Maria.” I was glad to see him call me that. A couple of weeks ago, he posted one of those “nineteen things you don’t know about me” on Facebook, and I read it. He was right: I didn’t know most of them.

Yesterday, a post popped up in my feed by someone with his same last name, tagging him. It showed pictures of a younger Bob, holding a baby, smiling sweetly into the camera. “I can’t believe I lost you,” said the post. I guessed they’d lost a relative they shared in common. I clicked through on his name. Facebook had already changed his name to “Remembering Bob [Last Name],” the way they do with dead people.

I couldn’t understand: what could have happened? I read on, looking for clues. A few posts down, I found it: he’d gotten tangled on a dive, and hadn’t come back up. His girlfriend had called police when he failed to show up at her house as expected. Police divers brought up his body the next day.

We hadn’t been lovers, or even particularly close friends, but the news hit like a blow to the solar plexus. This was a person I knew narrowly but deeply, who’d told me his innermost wishes and listened to mine all those years ago when I really needed it.

I went to sleep thinking of him, then woke up at 5:00 am, heart pounding, a dreadful feeling nipping at the edges of me. What was it? I picked up my phone to self-soothe (a terrible habit, I know). I checked Facebook, and remembered. Bob was 48 years old, having a regular Sunday, and he was dead. He was diving an abandoned mine shaft to look at submerged, rusty cars and bring up old cans in a spot that had become a dive attraction but had killed 13 miners when it first flooded in 1895. I loathed the place instantly.

I scrolled down his feed. His brother had been the first to post the news. Up from that post, a niece, the one who had first come up on my feed, the baby in the old picture of Bob, now grown. Then an old co-worker, and another. A dive buddy. His hair dresser. Everyone had a tale of kindness, a fond memory, a recent party they’d been to together, picture upon picture of Bob smiling. Here in a suit. There with a breeze in his hair. So many pictures of him in his dive gear. He was an experienced and responsible diver. I remember him regaling me with tales of safety checks and advanced rebreather classes. He’d been diving for twenty years.

I scrolled back down to the time before the accident. The day before, he was tagged by a buddy in a post at the site of his death, something about the subfreezing temperatures making the water feel like a sauna. On the Thursday before, unknowingly 3 days away from the end, Bob tagged himself as “feeling relaxed.” “Remember to take your Soma,” he joked.

I scrolled back, like the carefully constructed social media presence was going to give me a glimpse of meaning. A tag of a movie he watched. Pictures of him and his smiling girlfriend at a wedding. A vacation in Maine with her and a young boy, presumably her child. It was voyeuristic but I felt compelled to scroll further. Squirrels fighting with light sabers. A post in Spanish, a language he was trying to learn, and which he sometimes practiced with me in the early days of our friendship. Political rants, so common for my liberal friends these days. A reference to a sequel to a book my current boyfriend bugs me to read.

A perfectly ordinary life, snuffed out.

But here’s the other thing I noticed: gone was the isolated man I’d felt a little sorry for when we met. The guy who owed more than his house was worth, who was distant from his family, who couldn’t get people to come to his party. Divorce had knocked him down, but not out. Everywhere I looked, I saw clues of how he’d painstakingly built a satisfying life through community involvement, pursuing passions, and offering friendship. I know social media is not an accurate reflection of someone’s life, but the recent pictures and posts, before people put on their In Memoriam glasses, showed him surrounded by people who seemed to genuinely appreciate him, having fun, being involved and engaged. I was beyond glad.

I have no claim to sadness at Bob’s passing. I hadn’t been great at keeping in touch. And yet I am filled with a strange longing, like I wish I could let him know that for that small slice of time, he mattered a lot to me. And, beyond then, he gave me a glimpse into how one rebuilds a shattered life.

Many people who posted their memories of him said that at least he went doing something he loved. That doesn’t offer me much comfort. Instead, it underscores the randomness… a dive to a slightly different spot, or a few hours later, might have meant that Bob was still just a guy I dated a few times some years back instead of a meditation on mortality. No, what makes me feel a little better is the smile on his girlfriend’s face in his profile picture of the two of them together, the many people who thanked him for his advice as they said goodbye, the family who claimed him with love. He was imperfect, and ultimately someone whose life just glanced mine, but he was here, and that’s what matters.

In memory. Thank you, Bob.

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