The last thing I said to Sammy was, “I’ll write you soon because I love you,” prefixed by my full name in bold blue hyperlink, suffixed by a smiling yellow emoticon. It was Nov. 24, 2012, and I never lived up to my Instant Messaged promise; I never wrote to Sammy. Little over a month later, on Dec. 29, I was home in Oman when I received a text message saying that thousands of miles away in a hospital bed in Boston, after a year of holding on with a failed heart, Sammy had let go. He was 20 years old.
In the weeks that followed I had a hard time falling asleep. If I was ever alone my hands would automatically find their way to his Twitter feed, which I would scroll down for hours until I’d read every tweet, savoring his stream of consciousness, hearing his voice. I would find my way to his Facebook profile and look through pictures for hours, rereading old conversations, reliving everything.
There we are, slouched against lockers in our high school hallway; and there, poised onstage in our formal best, being conducted together through hundreds of measures of jazz. We’re sitting around a table at the Times Square Café, and we’re laughing in my living room, both of us 16 years old, neither of us thinking this is important, and it will outlive us, and it will mean something someday.
In my last column, I wrote about embracing the memories we make at Columbia. That same week, I wrote a story for the Eyeabout social media and our love-hate relationship with it. In the days since, I’ve thought about the intersections of those themes because I’ve thought about Sammy. We’re college students in a digital age memorializing ourselves constantly, but what does that mean for our mortality? Is a friend ever really gone? Can we grieve someone if we can still instant message them? Can we grieve someone if we can still post on their walls and like their pictures, forgetting that these are notifications nobody will receive?
Blurry-eyed and heavy-hearted, I scrolled through months of Sammy’s life—prom, plays, dates, college–trying frantically to memorize him, nursing a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach, both here still. It became clear that I wasn’t the only one. From Sweden to Australia to the U.A.E., from North Carolina to Central Park West, from Muscat to Boston, Sammy’s world converged in one place. His profile flooded with tributes. My newsfeed became a eulogy.
I miss you, brother. You have my heart. Rest in peace.
In a Facebook message he sent me last April, Sammy attempted to explain what it felt like to nearly die. “I realized that life is about memories,” he wrote. “Memories are the foundation of love, of respect, and trust. Memories force us to adapt, to grow stronger and cleverer. Stranded, but awake in the sickbed that might become your deathbed, it’s only the good memories that accompany you during sleepless nights. You long for nothing more than to recreate those memories again, the travel, the dinner parties, Disney World.”
I asked Louise, who had dated Sammy for several years at the time of his passing, what role social media had played in her mourning. “Knowing that his profile was there–all the pictures, everything he had written, old messages from high school–was a comfort, at first,” she responded in an email. “Much in the same way that having certain keepsakes (t-shirts, books, etc.) is comforting, even if they are stashed away out of sight. But then that’s it. You realize that what’s there is all that there will ever be—there won’t be any new messages, no new photos uploaded to the collection. And that hurts, that’s hard, because you want more–you want to make more memories.”
“A few weeks after his passing, the fact that his Facebook was still up was probably a reason I was finding it so difficult to process his passing and my grief,” she continued. “In the real world, you can recognize that somebody is gone because they are physically no longer present–no longer sitting in the same chair, laying in the same bed, calling you. You are able to feel the absence. But you can’t really do that on Facebook ... Because they are still there.”
Eventually, Louise deactivated his Facebook and deleted his Twitter, paving the way for hundreds of us, all around the world, to take steps toward real grief and–maybe eventually–real closure. It was only when searching for “Sammy” led to a stranger’s profile that we began to register the loss we’d been dealt.
Sammy, although the grief will never go away, there was some relief–however minor–in preserving all of the memories, just as you said we should. Although the loss will never blunten, Sammy, there was solace in knowing that you live on in thousands of people in thousands of places, and that you always will. There was comfort in watching the world shrink to mourn you. There was joy, albeit feeble and short-lived, in seeing you render all of the realest distances virtually irrelevant by calling, instead, on our realest love.
Rega Jha is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. Rega-rding Columbia runs alternate Thursdays.
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