The older I get, the more dread I feel when I think, “I wonder whatever happened to…”
Naturally, my friends are getting older, and you just never know. Times like these, I wish the internet didn’t exist. Before that, when you had that question, you had a much harder time tracking down the truth. If you were curious enough, you’d go to the library and pore over the microfiche, looking for news or obituaries, and then you’d flip through census records and phone books. Usually, you’d eventually give up and accept the fact that you probably weren’t going to get an answer.
I straddle the internet age and the non-internet age. I was in my mid-twenties when the world wide web first gained traction, so some of my friends are very internet savvy, and some find computers befuddling and mystifying on a good day. Because of that, some of my friends, usually the younger ones, have a big internet footprint, and others, usually the older ones, can barely be found at all.
Before the internet, most of us walked around blissfully ignorant of the passing of people we loved but had lost touch with. Now, it’s sort of a mixed bag. Some of my Google searches yield instant results. Some make me wonder whether a person had been a figment of my imagination.
Once, when I looked up an ex-boyfriend whom I remember fondly, not only did I discover that he had passed away, but also that he had left behind 19 children! Good grief, talk about losing touch. That was a shock to my system. But is it better than blissful ignorance?
I kind of long for that blissful ignorance on days like today. Because today I thought of someone and I Googled his name, and now I’m sad. Not surprised. Just sad.
I have no idea why I thought of Max today of all days. Just reminiscing, I suppose. Max and I go way back. We met 35 years ago because we both worked for the State of Florida, in different departments, both of which had burdened its employees with client caseloads about 10 times larger than they should have been. It was a windowless building that was a warren of individual offices. It was like a white collar prison. The stress levels in that building are impossible to adequately describe.
Max and I would cross paths in the lunchroom, and we bonded over our mutual burnout. As we got to know each other, though, we also bonded over our politics, our love of reading and writing, and the unspoken realization that we were both able to address issues in more depth than most of our coworkers, as much as it pains me to say that.
We kept up with current events. We enjoyed history. We read for pleasure. We loved to talk of our travels. Our horizons were broader than those of our peers. Max, for me, was like an oasis of nerdiness in a desert of monotonous groupthink. I always looked forward to lunch.
It may sound as though I had a romantic involvement with Max, but nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, he was 29 years older than I was, had children my age, and had completely different cultural references than I had. As much as we enjoyed each other’s company, we knew we were two entirely different types of primates, so to speak, and that was fine. We each, in our own ways, could be a bit much, so sometimes we’d get on each other’s nerves and have to take a step back. But it never lasted long.
Max was full of fascinating stories. He remembered nearly starving to death in the Philippines during World War II. He had been 5 when the Japanese occupied his country, and 8 when they were cast out. During that time, 500,000 of his countrymen died. He remembered having to hide from the Japanese. He remembered eating anything he could. Those experiences shaped him. I ache for that little boy.
In particular, Max was interested in reading anything he could get his hands on about José Rizal, one of the greatest heroes of the Philippines. Rizal’s writings helped inspire the Philippine Revolution of 1896, and he was therefore killed by the Spanish Colonial Government that same year. He was only 35. The country gained its independence from Spain two years later.
It was nearly impossible to have a conversation with Max without hearing about Rizal. I think he was intrigued by the idea that someone who had only lived a few decades could make such an indelible impact on a country. Max also sometimes lectured about Fil-Am History at a local college. He wrote many book reviews. He had been a teacher before coming to this country, just like his father, and I think he remained a frustrated academic for the rest of his life.
After a few years, his department moved to a building across town, but we still did our best to get together for lunch at least once every few weeks. At a time when I was struggling to figure life out, I’d ask him for advice, and sometimes I’d even follow it. And he’d speak of his family with such pride. I admired that about him. He knew what was important.
And then the lunches became once a month. And then a few times a year. By the time I started writing my blog in 2012, we had almost no contact at all except for the occasional email. But he would read my blog, and that meant a lot to me. Now it means even more.
One day, Max emailed me and asked when we could have lunch again. I had to remind him that I now lived 3,100 miles away in the Seattle area. And then I had to remind him of that every time I responded to his emails. It made me sad. For someone who had always lived a life of the mind, it must have been really hard to lose cognition, if he even knew it was happening.
Eventually, when he’d post a comment on my blog, it would be gibberish. Word salad. Impossible to comprehend. The first time it happened, it scared me quite a bit. I could tell he still really wanted to connect and communicate, but his ability to do so was gone. I never quite knew how to respond to those garbled comments, so I have to confess that I didn’t. But I’d think to myself, “Hello, old friend,” and I’d reach across the miles and years and squeeze his hand virtually.
Eventually the comments stopped coming. Ours was a friendship born in the workplace, so I never met his wife or family, never went to his home, and I doubt any of his loved ones knew I existed beyond being some lunch friend. Max was a very social person, so I’m sure I was one of many. I didn’t know anyone I could contact to inquire about him, and I didn’t want to upset anyone, including me, if he no longer knew who I was.
So today I Googled him, and found nothing. Then I found a half written, unofficial, only partially accurate obituary about him, posted by someone anonymously. I found no newspaper obituaries. Feeling slightly sick, I searched for him in FindAGrave. Nothing. I found an old Facebook page that he started halfheartedly in 2015, but never followed through with. On there, a niece had posted something recently that said, “Happy Birthday in Heaven, Uncle!”
I nearly burst into tears. And then I researched property records and discovered that his house had been transferred from his and his wife’s name to just his wife’s name, and the document she provided to do that was a death certificate.
There it is, then. The opposite of blissful ignorance. Sorrowful awareness?
I’ve been walking the earth for about a year and a half under the illusion that Max was out there somewhere, in body, if not in spirit. Perhaps his body finally went to that place where his mind had been dwelling for years. Who knows.
It occurs to me that we never discussed religion. Why didn’t we ever discuss religion? There’s never enough time.
If Max were alive now, he’d be 86. It’s exceedingly strange to only begin to mourn someone long after their passing. It feels wrong.
Goodbye, old friend. Thank you for the much-needed oasis. I’ll miss you.