Death Call

"Procession moves on, the shouting is over,
Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone."
-- Eternal, Joy Division

Saturday afternoon. It's a little cold outside, the blue sky sucking the last of summer's heat up into the heavens. Ferns are still deep green, but their tops are starting to curl in, turn brown. I try and spend the day outside, chasing my kids. I have a migraine again. So I spend some time in the dark and quiet of the basement, trying to will it away.

Browsing my usual artificial worlds, I find a Myst-cryptic note, just sitting out in public.

"Julian, it's James. Need to get in touch with you. If you can't remember my last name, track Walt down and ask him. I'm in the book in Seattle."

It took me half an hour to realize who it was, dig around old files, find his last name, make the phone call, leave a message, and wait.

I know, somehow, what this is. It's a death call. Someone from the old crew is gone.

20 years ago, I was a scared college kid. Too young to know better, I'd shipped myself off to college, running away from high school, parents, old friends, and the country town where I'd grown up. Too young to drive. Too young to drink. Lonely as hell. A geek surrounded by 20,000 strangers. So I lost myself in the geek. I discovered the thing that saved my life and kept me from the spiral of despair that ends in a mother's tears: the net.

See, even way back in the mid-'80s we had the seed of it on campus: mailing lists and proto-Internet relay chat. The dorms were even wired, if you cared to bring your own 300 baud modem and had an Apple 2 or Commodore 64 and could make it sing. I hopped into the chat rooms as soon as I discovered them. With the amber monitor between me and the other people, I was a different person. Stronger. More confident. Less afraid.

It was perhaps a month after I discovered the chat rooms and mailing lists that I had the courage to meet these folks face to face. It happened because there was a hiccup in the wiring to my dorm. Addicted to the human contact, I ventured into the terminal room in the basement of the Computer Center, only to find most of my "friends" sitting at VT100s, chatting. 20 people, sitting in a room, backs to each other, chatting. All too shy to turn around and speak to each other using the vibration of air.

We grew up a lot in the coming years. The intranet would still be our watering hole, but we met more in the meatspace. We shared pizzas, swapped stories, played games, told jokes. I discovered girls, and thankfully some of them discovered me. I got in shape, losing the puffiness of disconnected youth. In this froth of hormones, bad glasses, and questionable haircuts, a few mentors kept the crowd sane. One of these was mentors was John. He was several years older than most of us, quite a bit older than me. He was a social lubricant. Much of our vernacular -- the shared jokes, inane stunts, and collective stories -- came from John. He had an uncanny ability to take a room full of people too scared to talk and turn us into a private army.

He lead us on expeditions. He woke me up at 4AM one morning and dragged me into his car, already full of friends. We drove for an hour. He pulled over at an apparently random turnout on the side of a local mountain, and told us to hop on the roof. We drank hot coffee from his thermos, shivering silently, until the reason for the trip became self-evident.

He'd wanted to see the sunrise.

But while he helped the rest of us feel OK about ourselves and the world around us, he was always a little distant when I looked him right in the eye. He seemed to be looking at the world through Vaseline-covered glasses. I knew of, but didn't witness or was too self-absorbed to notice, his lifelong struggle with depression. I never got a sense of who he really was. I was just glad he was there because he made me feel like I belonged.

I never kept in touch. For all the reminiscing, college was brutal. I did things I'm not proud of. I'm not proud of who I was. I tell myself now that we all made mistakes when we were young. When I finally finished my last course credit, I loaded up my Pontiac Phoenix and I drove west as fast as I could the very same day. I left most of those friends behind, closing a door on the first act of my life, hoping to start again, as a person I'd be happier knowing.

The headache fades by the afternoon. James calls. It's awkward from the first syllable.

"Hey, so, what's up James?"

"John's gone. They found him out in the woods in Colorado."

"Aww sh*t James. sh*t."

"We'd kept in touch. We talked almost every week. I knew he'd been having a rough time lately, but I never thought..."


I didn't know what else to say. Profanity seemed our only lingua franca.

"Anyway. I thought you should know. I've kept in touch with a lot of folks from back in the day, but didn't know if you knew some others."

"Yeah, a few..."

We laundry list our address books. He's a clearing-house of connections. I've kept in touch with two people.

We quickly run out of things to say. James and I were never all that close, even back then. We were just part of the same community. We hang up. I don't really feel sad. I feel empty.

In the coming hours, I will realize that it's not that I miss John: if I did, I would have kept in touch. What I miss is how he made me feel when I needed it: safe, belonging, part of something.

We talk about virtual communities a lot around here. Over the last 25 years, I've been part of dozens, from that first one to this one. The most often heard refrain is that these virtual communities aren't "real." They're not the same as the face-to-face, sitting-watching-football, church-on-Sunday communities we have away from the zeros and ones. I've argued hard against that, because if it's true, then I'm so much more alone than I feel.

So here's the thing. The sad part of virtual communities isn't that they're ethereal.

It's that they're so easy to leave, so easy to lose.

Thanks for stopping by John. Sorry I missed you.


I had a university friend that killed himself during my second or third year. I was very upset. Eventually I reconciled my sadness with the theory that, in all likelyhood, I wouldn't have kept in touch with him after I left uni. Looked at like that, his suicide ended 'just' our friendship one or two years early.

RIP John, and all those that have enriched our lives through chance contact.

Hey Rabbit,

Sorry to ask this... But... How do you, how are you going, to deal with John dying? Presumably writing about it helps a bit, but... As you say, you're missing how he made you feel, but presumably you have other people to do that for you now. Other things that make you feel safe, and that you belong. So, are you mourning the sense of safety he gave you then? Empathy for the younger Rabbit that needed John's influence?

I ask because (and I'm not sure about this), but I think if I were in that situation, I'd be glad that I'd had a friend like that, and the lessons I'd learnt, but I'd try to think that, really, I've not lost anything. The relationship had passed, the opportunity for the relationship to do something was no more.

Maybe that reveals some kind of paucity of the soul on my part.

Yes. Yes, I think it does.

Honestly, I feel a sense of loss for that feeling I had back then more than a loss of John. Those years, while full of their own issues that caused me to leave it behind, were also full of people. I'd see 20-30 people on a regular basis with whom I shared a weak bond, but a bond nonetheless. It was a real community of people I saw every single day, and talked to into the wee hours of the night.

And of course, it was at an incredibly formative time in my life. So a lot of it, in retrospect, has the quality of peak-experience (likely out of all proportion to what it really was).

So how do I deal with it? I guess the cathartic act of writing helps, but I tend to think that somehow the idea that exposition=expurgation is flawed. It focuses, it doesn't remove.

I have made some reconnections -- in a good way -- and I think John would be pleased with that. And it's made me appreciate the bonds I do have a bit more than I did last week. I think he'd be pleased with that.

Weird. This really touched me for no obvious reason.

I'm now feeling melacholy & nostalgic for this place & I've only been hanging out a few weeks?!

Baggz wrote:

I'm now feeling melacholy & nostalgic for this place & I've only been hanging out a few weeks?!

Just wait.

Great article, rabbit. I was just thinking about virtual communities yesterday. I have a fantastic group of friends from home, but most people have moved off to different places. Those who have stayed live across town, with houses, wives, and kids. I spend most of my free time with my fiancee, and I have other friends that live around me, but I've come to realize that playing games with the Goodjers has likely replaced most of the "guy time" that I would otherwise have.

Beautifully done, rabbit. Your college experience sounds so hauntingly similar to mine that I found this article a little difficult to read.

I find it amazing how many of these articles reflect back on how I've felt or experiences I've had. It's so nice to know there are so many more people than you thought having such similar experiences. Definitely gives me a sense of connection to so many people I haven't "met".

This is one of those articles that makes you want to break out your real and virtual address books. And if that doesnt work, googlefu is your friend.

This was probably the best thing I've read from you. Beautifully phrased.

Rybowl wrote:

I find it amazing how many of these articles reflect back on how I've felt or experiences I've had. It's so nice to know there are so many more people than you thought having such similar experiences. Definitely gives me a sense of connection to so many people I haven't "met".

It's a shame that all of us are guilty if this. It takes a death in the family to reach out to those friends who we haven't talked to in months or years. So take some time tonight to pick up the phone or send a few e-mails.

Jonny, I raise a Gin, Gin Martini to you!

Rabbit, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for John, sorry there wasn't another way.

I've lost a past friend once or twice, a guy i played D&D with regularly, a guy I played football and baseball with in high school. Both were to tragedies, senseless and perhaps self-inflicted. We can only look back and think of the time we spent with them and value it for what it was.

What you said about leaving college and trying to start over, I felt that the hardest. We've all done things we regret, been people we weren't proud of, some more than others.

My mother used to curse the fact she married my father. Every time I'd tell her, "Mom, if you hadn't married him and had me I'd be someone different, and you might not love me as much as you do." John helped make you who you are, Rabbit, and you helped make his life a little better when you knew him. There's no regret there. Thanks for sharing with us and be well.

Again, rabbit, some very moving thoughts. Like some of the others, I find this piece more touching than any of your others, and that's saying a lot.
What is it about that melancholy nostalgia for college, one of the most (truth be told) brutal times of our lives? I've come to think of it as emotional memories. Not clear, video-playback-clear memories suffused with emotion (though they are that), but the ghosts of those powerful emotions I was feeling at the time. Ghosts that when called up out of memory have this unsettling ability to inhabit me again. And then I find myself feeling, really feeling, that emotion: that same sense of loss, or hope, or anger, or embarassment, or infatuation.

Knowing that they're only memory, I find myself both relieved at their unreality and mourning the loss of such strong feelings. Because, for good or ill, there were so many firsts during that time in my life. And in addition to first love, I think firsts have a way of staying forever in your mind: first fit of jealousy, first feeling of righteous indignation, first community of friends that felt like adults.

I'm fortunate enough to still be very close with an extremely tight circle of friends from high school and college. Ben and I got on the topic of playing D&D in our basements most Saturday nights in high school, and I let it slip how much I missed those days sometimes. He shot me a look. "Really? Why?" I couldn't give him an accurate answer. I could only stumble through that catalog of ghosts, talking about how strong the bonds, how braced I felt by those friendships against the new terrors of the adult world, how grateful I felt to have a place to be myself. He listened attentively, as he always has, and answered, "dude, we're all still here. We see each other regularly, we name our kids after each other, we've built houses together, sit on school boards together. 'We' never went away. What's changed?" The only thing I could think of, and that I didn't dare say, was that their were no new ghosts.

I hear you Jak. I hear you.

The only thing I could think of, and that I didn't dare say, was that their were no new ghosts.

You might be wrong there Jak. Since you have a tight circle of friends, I think that ten years (or so)from now, you will look back and see some new ghosts that are being created now.

At least that's what I have experienced. I can look back on several stages of my life to see/feel the different ghosts of each period (a melencholy mood and glass of red wine helps induce this).

I rember when I first really was on the net, on mIRC. I talked to so meny people, but never met them in real life. I had romances that failed, and friendships that I left. In real life when I've moved and had to leave freinds behind its more sad then on the net, yet the freindship is just as real, yet somewhat removed.
The times I have now in my adult life met with people online that I know from my gaming community were very great, I wish I could hang out with them more offen, the first time I got to meet everyone will be a memory that I will cherish forever, I was at a very low point and it was just great to meet everyone that I had only known the screen names of. I think when that sad day comes and someone passes (I hope is meny years away) that I will have keeped in touch, even if I leave that online community.
Thanks for this story, brought back alot of memorys, some good- some not so good.

I'm finding it hard not to cry right now.... my family suffered a loss recently, too. On September 4th, my nephew died. He was only three days shy of two months of age. He just... stopped breathing. The medical examiner declared that he died of sudden infant death syndrome.


I am so sorry for your loss. I remember sitting in the room while my daughter slept the first few months, just listening to her breath and praying. My prayers are with your sibblings.

I'm so sorry to hear that, dhelor.