When Laurabelle posted the news of her best friend's murder to the newsgroup alt.fan.pratchett in March 2000, the a.f.p. community rallied round to offer support & consolation. I struggled to find some words of comfort to send by private email, but they seemed pitifully inadequate.
But I kept thinking and trying to put my own feelings into words and eventually, during the time when Emily's memorial service was taking place, I wrote this.
To find out more about the tragedy which prompted this article, visit Laurabelle's memorial page.
>From: <email address deleted> (Adrian Ogden) >Date: 25 Mar 2000 02:05:03 GMT >Message-ID: <email@example.com> >Newsgroups: alt.fan.pratchett >Subject: [I] "Is the net real?" -- For Emily Howell
It's 10:30. I'm sitting facing the TV, but it's switched off. Strange thoughts are taking shape inside my head tonight, and I'm trying to hold onto them long enough to write them down in some sort of order. The candles sit before me, waiting.
"The net isn't real," cry the sceptics, "it's just people sitting in front of screens, locked in a world of their own while the real world rolls by unheeded." "Not so," comes the response from the net community, "there are people out there at the other end of the wires, on the other side of the screens. They're not ignoring the real world, they're interacting with it in ways you don't understand, with parts of it they could not reach by any other means. These are real people."
All true, but to me there's something more. These are not just real people. These are people I want to hang out with.
On a.f.p. many people from different backgrounds, different countries and different beliefs come together, diverse and unlikely companions but bonded by a shared appreciation of the wit and wisdom of Terry Pratchett, and in sharing that bond discovering other things in common. And wherever they are in the world I can meet with them too.
I didn't grow up here, I didn't move here for the job. I am not here by the accident of birth, the constraints of geography or the necessities of finance. I am here because this is somewhere I can belong. I am here because this is where I want to be.
This is community, this is friends, this is family. And just as they do in the real world they share their hopes and joys with eachother. I've seen them forge friendships and marriages, and rejoice in the births of their children.
And I've seen death.
It's almost 11:00 here. Somewhere on the other side of the world the memorial service is beginning.
I reach out and light the first candle.
Laurabelle has posted to the newsgroup, telling of how she received the tragic news of her best friend's murder. She asks that we remember Emily, and keep her alive in this small way. Messages of support and condolence are appearing in the newsgroup; many more, I'm sure, are making their way by private email. I haven't written anything yet, I'm not sure I can find the words.
Some years ago I had a friend who was in need of support at a difficult time (a broken relationship rather than a death, but that's beside the point). I didn't know what to say to her, made more difficult by the fact that I still had some loyalty to the guy who had cheated on her, and we both knew it.
In the end I said nothing; I just tried to be there for her as a friend, as a shoulder to lean on or just a listener to hear her distress. It didn't matter that I said nothing, it was enough that she knew she could count on me. She told me much later that my quiet support had meant more to her than the righteous indignation offered on her behalf by some of our other friends. I was very grateful for that; given my reticent nature it was the only kind of support I felt I knew how to give.
But that won't work on the net. There it doesn't matter how much I feel for Laurabelle's loss, she's thousands of miles away; if I don't speak up she will simply never know I'm there.
It's been three days now, and I've finally managed to string a few words together. Clumsy perhaps, but they feel like they've come from me, not from some handbook of stock expressions of sympathy. She won't receive them now until after the service; hopefully that won't matter. I've promised that, while the service takes place, I too will take some time to remember Emily. But how to honour the memory of someone of whom I have no memories? I don't know, I only know I've promised to do something.
So I'm here setting out candles and watching the clock, waiting for the moment when I will light them. And conflicting thoughts are whirling in my head, the confusion bringing with it a weird sense of unreality:
I am mourning someone I have never known, never will, never can.
I am mourning a girl who had a life of her own, and who had that life cruelly and senselessly taken from her.
I am offering condolences and sharing in the grief of a total stranger.
I am offering my support to someone because they are in need, and because I can.
This has nothing to do with me.
This has everything to do with me.
A few days ago Laurabelle was only a name to me, albeit a familiar one. She may have responded to my posts in the past, or I to hers, I cannot be certain. But now I have visited her website, and the page she has erected to her dear friend's memory. I can put faces to their names, I begin to have some sense of the mourned and the bereaved in their own words. And I've had a lump in my throat all day, and as I light the candles I swear my eyes are damp.
Did I say unreality?
Is it the shocking and brutal nature of Emily's death? Is it the way Laurabelle has brought her friend to life for us through her words? Is it the sense of community/family I feel because Laurabelle is "one of us"?
Dammit, why has this distant tragedy hit me so hard?
It's late, and I'm tired. I have no idea where any of this is going, I only know they're the thoughts that are in my head now and they won't let go until I've written them down. Is there a point to this? I hope so; if there were it may be the best offering that I could make to Emily's memory.
Maybe it's this:
As I look at all the messages from people reaching out to offer their
support I think maybe the critics who say the net isn't real are not
merely wrong, but actually missing the point. Maybe they should stop
asking abstract philosophical questions about what's real, and instead
ask a more fundamental human question: what matters?
written longhand 23/03/2000
transcribed & posted 24/03/2000
Five months after I wrote the above article I finally set up my own
website, and since I wanted to include this article with a link to
her page I wrote to Laurabelle again to make sure it was OK with her.
This was her reply:
Yes, it's more than okay! I'm glad you've put it up, because I agree that it's very powerful. I remember reading it, though my memories of the last half of the semester are a bit psychotic. I think I cried, though that's not surprising. I've never heard of anyone getting dehydrated through excessive weepiness, but I think I must have gotten close. :-)
I still get occasional emails from AFPers seeing something on AFP, and looking at my web page. And I'm still bowled over by the emotional reaction I get. I guess I still feel so unreal, that this is the sort of thing that simply Doesn't Happen, even though on the corner of my desk there's the candle that I lit at her memorial service (Emily loved candles; she collected them and had them everywhere in her room; I sent her some beeswax candles from France for her birthday in 1997), and in my closet are the letters we exchanged, and all around are books and pictures and things that remind me of her. They're real, but I still feel like I'm living in a bit of a haze.
So anyway, thanks for sharing the haze with me, and for lighting a candle, and for writing about it. It means a lot to me, especially because I'm also clumsy with words and better at listening.
I've linked back from my page to yours. The link just says "Adrian Ogden's 'Is the Net Real?'" but if you think there's some more explanation I should write, I will. I couldn't think of anything more to say that would be usefully informative without becoming cumbersome.
P.S. If you want to put this email up, that's fine with me.
I'm not sure if you'd want to, but it's also for the rest of AFP.