I have trouble with Tuesdays. They’re supposed to be better than Mondays, right? So why do I have such a dreadfully hard time with them? This coming Tuesday is Tuesday the 13th, which seems like a decidedly inauspicious day for the state primaries, but there we are.
Last Tuesday, I received a text to my email account that contained a few short sentences informing me that an old friend and colleague (old in terms of friendship — not very old at all in terms of years) had passed away in hospice near me. I did a wee bit of research and found the obituary. This old friend — let’s call him M — was only 53 years old when he lost his 10-year-long battle with colorectal cancer. As someone whom other friends have described as a “Facebook dilettante,” I did not even know he was sick. Did he post about this on FB, over the years? Was I simply not listening? The heartbreaking eulogy read by his sister, a registered nurse, talked about how M wanted to write his own obituary — one of the paragraphs he wanted to include mentioned how he would have made it if he’d only gotten more “Likes” on Facebook. I knew M well enough to know that this was just one joke among many that he made over his lifetime, but guilt is still rearing its ugly head this morning.
I am now afraid to go back and look at his Facebook wall. Was M posting about being sick? Did his pleas for help not reach me because of some BS Facebook algorithm? From what I know of M, I suspect that his wall was, in fact, devoid of complaints. I suspect that he made very few posts, if any, about being sick. But he was a chef who loved history and travel, so I’m guessing that being a Facebook dilettante means that I missed years of really amazing food and travel and fishing photos, as well as links to interesting historical articles and music videos of new bands, because these were all things that M loved.
Nothing can change the fact that I missed huge portions of M’s life since 2008, when I left the establishment where we both once worked. But one of my #FavoriteFormerBosses let me tag along to M’s Celebration of Life on Saturday, and I had the privilege of meeting more of M’s family and friends, and getting to share stories of M with them. We also shared an incredible meal that M had helped plan, which was prepared by M’s friends and fellow chefs.
M’s sister actually gave the eulogy in two parts — the first eulogy was full of memories of M, memories from childhood and beyond, of her and M as children, and of M interacting with her own children. The second part of her eulogy was motivated by the fact that she had forgotten to tell us about M’s last days. The end, as it always does, came sooner than expected. M saw his last chance at a cure come and go, and faced it with only a tiny bout of swearing before facing the darkness with his customary good humor. He did not go gentle into that good night — he spent his last days doing things he loved surrounded by the people that he loved. He managed to avoid the dreaded “H” word — hospice — until the very end. His sister shared that he passed within two and a half hours of arriving at the hospice center.
The thing I learned that surprised me the most? That M was a Republican — that fact had somehow escaped me, in spite of the fact that I thought I knew him well. We shared the same staff house at the lab for the summers of 2007 and 2008, and we each had an apartment in the same ramshackle old building over the winter between those two summers. M’s apartment in the main house was beautifully decorated, while the “girls” apartment was a wee bit more ramshackle. K & I wanted a two-bedroom apartment, since we didn’t have enough furniture for two one-bedroom apartments. We took a really dreadful apartment in the 1960s-era Carriage House rather than one of the grander apartments in the main house because my allergies just go nuts in buildings constructed before 1900.
In other words, that makes two summers of hanging out together every evening watching TV and playing whatever board games we could find. One winter where we worked in the same office and M would come over regularly to our apartment because K would give us all haircuts to save us trips to town in the dreadfully snowy weather. K and I would play the “hide all evidence of cooking & baking” game before M came, shoving our own creations into cupboards. Why? We used to joke it was because M was such a fancy chef that we didn’t want him to see our own paltry efforts. But I, at least, was always secretly hoping he would feed us if there was no evidence of food in the apartment, because he was such a talented chef. And the fact that M was a die-hard Republican and I was a die-hard Democrat was not mentioned once in those two years. Or if it was mentioned, it was mentioned in passing, and it went in one ear and out the other.
At his Celebration of Life, I learned that M was such a staunch Republican and so dedicated to politics that at one point he was selected by the Romney campaign as the “typical American.” This meant that M got to spend an entire day with Mitt Romney, at Fenway Park and other great Boston locales that M loved. Apparently when the Romney campaign called to tell M that he had been selected as the “typical American,” M thought it was a practical joke and hung up the phone. Fortunately for M, the political junkie and huge Romney fan, they called back. M’s uncle — for M is survived by his parents and most of the generation that came before him — told us that M laughed at the idea that M was in any way the typical American, but M was also incredibly pleased and proud to get to spend the day with one of his political heroes.
This story of M’s day with Mitt Romney, in addition to being hilarious, allowed me to pinpoint the time when M and I were separated by a Facebook algorithm. He is, and has always been since 2007, my Facebook friend. So why have his posts not been appearing in my timeline in recent years? In 2012, when M was bombing around the City Upon the Hill with Mitt Romney, I was walking around Austin TX, listening to angsty feminist rockers, attending graduate school, and posting about my support for President Obama. And so some helpful algorithm decided that since M and I had so little left in common, we didn’t need to see each other’s posts anymore. We could fade into the background of each other’s lives, just one friend lost amongst hundreds of other Facebook friends. Just one more signal lost among the noise of social media.
I have a million more lovely memories of M, but I shall save them for a letter to his mother. My question for this blog is: when did we stop talking to each other, America? Why did we let a few poorly written social media algorithms pin us into the trap of talking only to those who agree with us?
A house divided against itself cannot stand. We cannot wish the other 50% of our country away. We are what we have always been — a country of both liberals and conservatives. But if the conservative half of the house is supported by people like M, then it is a house that is worth living in. A house that is worth fighting for. A house that we should all vote to defend from the forces of hate and intolerance and general impatience.
So raise a glass, tonight or any night you’re enjoying good food and good company, to our best-beloved M. He was kind and witty and good-natured; and he loved his family and his friends. I truly hope that M was the typical American, in spite of his objections to that characterization — because if M was the typical American, we have nothing to fear from this election cycle or any other. He was a gentleman, a scholar, and a chef. He was a Red Sox fan and a fishing fanatic and a historian and a fan of U2 and My Morning Jacket. He was our friend, and cancer stole him from us far too soon.
Rest in peace, M. You will be missed.