Over Easy: Living and dying from a distance

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 4/3/2020 9:16:06 PM
Modified: 4/3/2020 9:15:52 PM

It was a social media first for me, and it hit my heart with a thud: Last Saturday a childhood friend announced on Facebook that he was in the hospital. His post, which included a digital map of Plymouth, N.H., was brief and startling: “Dying here.”

Some of the first comments were of the “Wait? What?” variety, but family members, near and far, started sending urgent messages of love and regrets that they couldn’t be with him. COVID-19 had already made that impossible for many.

Mike died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer that had metastasized. He revealed his condition matter-of-factly on Facebook a short time ago. When someone asked him how he was doing, he answered “not so good” and offered up the diagnosis. Before he died, his son read him the Facebook comments of prayer and praise.

Mike didn’t post a ton online, where he’d come back into my life as a virtual friend. His posts were usually short, funny and accompanied by photos with family, food or craft beer. He was always smiling. His mischievous humor was so constant I thought for a moment he might have been saying “I’m dying here’’ as a joke.

We were close friends, best friends I guess you’d say, for a time in the 1960s, when we explored the world — our little world — on bicycles, and on long, meandering summer walks. With a changing cast of friends and siblings, we jumped on steps and walls, threw acorns at each other, invaded stores and looked at comic books until they threw us out. We sat in a soda shop booth and shot paper covers from straws at each other until they threw us out of there, too. I’m sure we were thrown out of other places, but they don’t immediately come to mind. The nuns who taught us at school were resolutely unimpressed with us.

There was no malice in our hearts, but we were nettlesome and noisy. In Boy Scouts we formed the Bat Patrol (with sly rebellious intent), so named because Batman was a kitschy TV hit. I guess we were 11 or 12, when among the best things in life is seeing a shaken soda “explode” on somebody. Boys that age are full of action, their heads empty of thought. It’s a delightful state to be in, living in the moment, masters of mischief mindfulness.

Mike and I went to different high schools and colleges and adulthood sent us off in our own directions. I’m glad we had our Facebook connection, but his death left me thinking about the world as it is just now.

We are trying to stay linked through social media posts and videos, but despite our best efforts we are still apart, six feet and more. The other night we simultaneously watched a reality show with my son and his wife in Connecticut, both of us video chatting on laptops. I was missing them, and missed them a little less afterward. But I still missed them.

Some people take pretty well to Zoom and other video programs, but I find the experience odd, disorienting. We are together but not quite together. As a member of the introvert tribe, I find the sound hiccups and the confusion over who’s speaking next awkward as hell. OK, I think, if this is how it is I’d just as soon crawl back into my shell.

Fortunately, my life here in West Lebanon hasn’t been one of severe isolation. There are three of us at home, and we get along. We take turns getting snippy for a spell; we haven’t made an official schedule yet. I walk for an hour each day, and I’ve had a series of pleasant conversations — always at a respectful and medically prescribed distance — with people I know. We agree that we have to take breaks from the news. We look into the great unknown and hope for the best. I’ve heard it said again and again that “this is crazy.” It is.

Then we go inside our homes, all of us on voluntary house arrest, working as best we can and fretting as little as we can manage.

Not so long ago, we all worried about how screens were isolating people, but now they are something of a lifeline. The online memes are pretty good, about homeschoolers being suspended for fighting and the parent/teacher drinking on the job. People mock the toilet paper crisis, or ask for insider information about sources. Some post inspirational sayings, others music and dance. They share pictures of flowers, cats, dogs, birds, grandchildren, mountains, sunrises, sunsets and on and on.

As an old newspaperman, a cynic by trade, I have my limits for such sentiments. But I realize they are all posting variations on a theme, two words to share with suddenly distanced friends and the puzzling universe. They need to declare: living here.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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