My friend Bill died this morning. We’d never met face-to-face, but that doesn’t matter.
It’s a curious quirk of the modern world that it’s become possible for us “meet” people with similar interests through our computers, even across distances of thousands of miles. Bill and I first encountered each other on Usenet; I’m not precisely sure when, but it was more than fifteen years ago. I’m not precisely sure, either, why we started emailing each other – it possibly had to do with a shared aversion to the vocal stylings of Bernadette Peters – but I’m very glad we did. He loved all forms of theatre, and particularly musicals, and so do I. We’re from different countries, but shared similar politics. We told each other jokes, shared photographs, made fun of bad grammar, talked about theatre and books and films and television and comedy. I introduced him to British comedian Victoria Wood, and he prodded me to start watching ‘Arrested Development’. I encouraged him to check out the Pet Shop Boys, he convinced me to get hold of a copy of Galt MacDermot’s musicalisation of ‘The Human Comedy’. Via Usenet, then via email, then via Facebook and (less often) Twitter, we began to make each other laugh, and we never really stopped. The fact that we’d never met was irrelevant; gradually, we became good friends.
I’m told he didn’t want a fuss, and he didn’t want people to mourn; since we never met “properly”, there’s a great deal, I’m sure, that we didn’t know about each other. Neither of us was (is) inclined to blurt every detail of our lives online – but still, we shared a great deal. The last few years were not kind to him; when he talked about his health, he did so with unfailing good humour, even though I know a lot of what he had to go through was difficult and painful and very unpleasant. I know, too, that he wasn’t done. There were a lot of things he still wanted to do, with moving back to Michigan, his home state, right at the top of the list, but sometimes life is incredibly unfair.
And, of course, the thing about friends is that we think, or we hope, that they will be around forever, so we don’t always thank them when we have the chance. I know Bill was grateful for his friends, both those he had met and those who, like me, he knew only via correspondance. I’m grateful too – for the depth and breadth of his knowledge, for his keen intelligence, for his kindness, for his incredibly finely-tuned bullshit detector, and above all for his spectacular sense of humour. Bill has made me laugh – consistently and often loudly, between several times a week and several times a day – for at least the last fifteen years. I’m careful, usually, to maintain some distance between my online life and my real life, but Bill was an important part of both, even though we lived thousands of miles apart. I can’t let him leave without saying thank-you.