Tara and I hadn’t spoken for 16 years but when she friended me on Facebook in 2009, clicking “accept” was a no brainer. I messaged her immediately.
Do you ever age? Bitch.
p.s. Hi Tara!
p.p.s. You look lovely!
I am timeless.
p.s. Hello Nicole!
p.p.s. Wish you were next door…
Tara was my next door neighbor in the dorms my freshman year of college. She liked Cat Stevens and the Violent Femmes. She smoked clove cigarettes out of her window and played the flute. She was 6 feet tall (or 5’12” as she liked to put it) and was asked so frequently about her height that she posted it on her nametag at a waitressing job because she got tired of people asking.
Tara had taken me to my first “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and taught me when to throw the bread. She introduced me to my first pot dealer, though Tara never smoked weed. She once had driven me to hunt for Benadryl during an ice storm because I was allergic to her family’s cat. I had only good memories associated with Tara.
After accepting her friend request, I lost track of her, seeing pictures here and there on Facebook, noticing one of Tara in a hospital bed and assuming a torn ligament or minor surgery because of our age. Then one day I clicked on a photo and learned she wasn’t in for minor surgery. Tara was in for a brain tumor. From there I found a blog she’d been writing since her diagnosis in 2009 shortly after my mom passed away. She’d been fighting a life-threatening tumor for three years, and I hadn’t even noticed. I don’t even think Tara was in my News Feed.
If this had happened in another decade, Tara would have remained out of my social circle. And maybe years later I would have heard about her condition while reconnecting with an old college friend. But now I was personally connected through a few mouse clicks, watching this woman, now 34, go through chemotherapy, brain surgery, and physical therapy, wearing the brave smile that people facing their own mortalities sport so you won’t worry about them or their positive “gonna beat this” attitude.
I wrote Tara a snail mail letter (it seemed more personal) apologizing for not realizing what she was going through for so long, blaming Facebook but at the same time knowing it was the only thing that had enabled me to learn of her condition. Pictures of her with a cane digressed into photos of her strapped in a wheelchair, her left side paralyzed, a smile on her face, puffy from steroids.
As I watched her body deteriorate, I witnessed the misguided bright-sided Facebook wall posts from Tara’s friends who had never experienced cancer. Comments like, “Boy, I wish I could get out of going to work like you” and “Wow, rehab looks fun. Is it like the dorms?” I wrote Tara asking her how she handled all this asinine commentary. She understood the intent but admitted, yeah, she’d love to be well enough to go to work — and no, struggling to learn how to walk again was nothing like college.
I mailed her a “Fuck Cancer” hat similar to the one I’d purchased for my mother. She posted an Instagram photo of it with a “This gave me a laugh, thanks Nicole!” to her Facebook wall. During a late night Facebook IM session, Tara admitted that as an only child, she was aching for alone time but couldn’t get it — her parents were her caregivers 24/7. She couldn’t go to the bathroom by herself because of her mobility issues and the only time her folks left her with a friend she had a life-threatening seizure that “really freaked everyone out.” Tara joked that she was now on lockdown and as an “HSP” (highly sensitive person) this change in lifestyle had been even more unnerving.
Her HSP reference reminded me that in college, Tara and I had bonded over the “Highly Sensitive Person,” a book by a therapist named Elaine Aron who knew my mother. I wrote Aron for advice about what Tara could do to achieve alone time. Elaine advised Tara to use silence to achieve solitude. Tara said she’d try it.
I sent Tara a mix of folk music that made me think of college. My music choices reflected what I thought her music taste would be now. I learned on Facebook that she had a fondness for Justin Timberlake. I lamented making her CD so unhip and Grateful Dead laden. She sent me a postcard with familiar handwriting that I remembered from notes she left on my door in the dorms. She asked me to visit.
I was afraid that seeing Tara in person would bring up all of my memories of watching my mother die, memories that after three years I had finally been able to relegate to the background of my thoughts. I learned that a short film I wrote and produced would be screening in Seattle four months into the future. I told Tara I would visit her for a weekend then but told her to warn me if her health rapidly declined I’d find a way to visit earlier, knowing full well that I couldn’t get days off my television production job. Though Tara must have known she probably wouldn’t be healthy enough to see me by then (she was on Hospice) she emailed me that she was excited about the visit and said we could have a dorm reunion.
I’d had drama with almost all of the girls from my freshman dorm and the thought of seeing them made me feel nauseous. One had sent me an email that started, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you…” when I didn’t make time to visit her in L.A. 10 years ago. Another had been my roommate who went back and forth between our apartment and her boyfriend’s leaving messes in both locations then trading them out before cleaning either up. Another was a straight girl I had slept with Spring Trimester who broke my heart.
Worrying about myself in awkward social situations while Tara was dying made me feel selfish and petty. I went for a hike with my friend Cheryl and told her about the situation, that Tara wanted me to visit, that I had reservations about seeing her so ill, from seeing people from my past and revisiting the Pacific Northwest for the first time since college — a place I’d intentionally never returned to because college was such a hard time for me. But I had to somehow overlook these bad associations, I told her. Who was I to deny a dying friend’s wish? Cheryl asked, “Would you even have reconnected with this person if it hadn’t been for Facebook?” I admitted I probably wouldn’t have. Tara hadn’t been a close friend through most of college. We lost touch after our softmore year and before that we’d been mostly acquaintances. I had completely lost track of Tara after graduation and only lamented that fact after I realized she was sick.
Part of why we’d never been closer was that Tara was an extrovert who loved hanging out in groups, while I was more of a one-on-one person. Small talk with people tossing cigarette butts in rain-filled glasses was the only way I ever was around Tara, and even then I always felt like I never saw enough of her. “Not to discount your relationship to this person,” Cheryl said, “but there are probably a lot more people who are much closer to Tara vying for her attention right now.” Cheryl was right. I was seeing myself as the center of Tara’s universe, overrating my importance in her life like people are bound to do when someone they know is dying. I had watched this happen with my mother as acquaintance after acquaintance showed up at our door, preventing her from getting much needed rest. I knew the visits were more about their guilt, their feelings of helplessness than about them giving my mother what she needed.
I was going to visit Tara and yet in all of this time we hadn’t even talked on the phone. I emailed her to see if I could get her phone number but she didn’t respond. In our last correspondence, I suggested we Skype so we could see each other. In an email laden with spelling and typos so severe I could barely decipher it, Tara said it was a great idea but had no idea how to set it up. It was clear from her writing that she had gotten much sicker. Then she grew silent. I sent a few emails saying I hoped she was getting the alone time she needed and that she was in my thoughts, but received no response. Her Facebook account had gone silent as well. People posted photo after photo of Tara when she was healthy at parties, dinners, outdoor fairs. I didn’t have any photos of Tara to share.
I felt helpless and guilty, like I should have done more, like I should have gotten over my differences with those girls from the dorm and reconnected with them. If I had, I would have been able to stay connected to Tara in some human way off-line.
Then out of the blue I got an email from one of them — the girl who had broken my heart. She said she realized that Tara and I had reconnected in recent months and wanted to let me know Tara was now bed-ridden and losing her vision from the tumor. She could no longer swallow. It wouldn’t be long now. She said she was going to visit her that weekend and said she’d give Tara my love.
I was so grateful. A few days later, I heard back from my friend that she’d given Tara my sentiments and that Tara had said, “Tell Nicole I love her. She’s coming here soon, you know.” She had never received my email saying I had canceled my trip to Portland because I couldn’t get the days off work. I was relieved that disappointment wouldn’t be my last gift to Tara. The panic that had overtaken me while waiting for news had abated. I had gotten some form of a goodbye, some form of closure.
The girl who broke my heart promised to email me when Tara died, but she didn’t. I learned about Tara’s death on Facebook from a Community Page that had been created to keep people in the loop about Tara’s condition.
For weeks after her death, Tara was still listed as online on Facebook, the symbol of her mobile phone next to her photo and name in my IM contacts. I visited her page frequently to see her friends’ comments about how much they missed her, about the little things that made them think of her. I had nothing to contribute, no memories to recount, because Tara hadn’t existed in real-time for me since 1995 when we both were 18 and considered our foreign language requirements and the Japanese exchange student’s cardboard box of hard liquor going dry “real problems.”
Last week, the icon of Tara’s cell phone disappeared from my online contacts. The relief of no longer seeing her name evaporates each time she shows up in my list of Facebook friends or when Facebook recommends pages she liked before she died. Whether she wants to or not, Tara no longer has a say as to whether she will exist on Facebook. Those disturbing photos of her when she was sick could be online for the next 30 years. Whether her continued online presence haunts us or comforts us, Facebook is indifferent. The social network has always functioned as a double-edged sword, bringing us closer together while accenting how far apart we really are. To the Facebook logorithm, Tara and I are just as close as she is to her other friends and she’s just as alive as when I accepted her friend request four years ago. The only difference now is she’s in my News Feed.