Dying in the age of Facebook

It’s March in Hungary. It hasn’t rained, so the day holds both the warmth of the sun and the faint chill of a winter that is ready to let go. I am wandering along a bridge between Buda and Pest after climbing a hill over the city in the evening light. I’ve been thinking about someone who died. I am thinking about the lovers and the skate boarders. I’ve been captured with the way the river creases with the boats and the color of the sky, pastel and layered. I‘m forcefully content with the singularity of my existence as I wander the bridge, when I have nothing to do but wander the bridge and absorb the way the city feels. There is both backfire and birdsong. I cross the bridge four times between the bikes, along the groups of friends perched on the trusses over the water, which are wide enough for crossed legs and six packs. Before I settle on a place to sit along the river, I long to leap up into the midst of them, a simultaneously enticing and foreboding prospect, to invite myself into their companionship.


I’m still thinking about someone who died as I choose a seat along the river, and once I sit, I write about her. I write about what it’s like to die right now. Now, in 2017. I watched her post her last pictures and videos from hospice. The children were dancing around her, her face was laughing even though we knew her oxygen levels were low, and the window was open with the breeze. “There are worse places to die,” she captions. She has spent a year writing to us about how she accepted her fate, and we knew when she picked her last profile picture what it meant. She picked the one where she was laughing on a motorbike on an island in the Caribbean, one of the places she went with her husband, near the end. In the picture, she is skinnier than normal but her face is vibrant. She will always look like this.

After she dies, and I go to deactivate my own Facebook, I tumble onto the wrong tab. It asks me, do you want to designate an administrator for your page for after you die? I click back to the page I originally wanted, and I deactivate. Two months later, I am climbing a hill over Budapest with the bird sounds and the backfire at the end of March, in the warmth and end-of-day light. I take a picture of the path through the woods, with its flowering trees, low sun. I think, yes, you can look at this but you can never smell it. There is nowhere I can share the smell of the path up the hill over the city. I am thinking about landlines and cabins in the wilderness where no one can find me because I am outside, and I don’t need to be found. I’ve stopped wanting to be a millennial in the age where I am caught between wanting everyone to know that I am alive and wanting only to exist, to be here, to be forgotten.


I can’t stop thinking about Hemingway writing about the rain, sitting down to a difficult machine to type. I think of Van Gogh not knowing he’d be remembered at all but painting anyway, writing letters to his brother Theo in his solitude and quiet late at night. “Mon cher,” he writes, and I read his words on the train in a paperback book I later give to my father for Christmas. I visited Van Gogh’s grave one September long ago in the warm yellow fields of France after taking two trains alone to Auvers-sur-Oise. When I look up from my spot on the river in Hungary where I am writing about a woman dying, I look into the window of a bus that is passing by. A man is looking out the window, in a long stare so deep I can feel his thoughts, and I wonder what he sees out the window as I am looking back at him, the way I don’t wonder about the notification the girl on her phone beside him is receiving; I know she’s checking it, but she cannot smell or feel the life the people are in, as she scrolls by, just like I can’t feel the wind in Nina’s hair in her last profile picture on the path in the Caribbean – the one she chose before she died – but everyone is wanting to. Wanting to live forever, I mean, in a webpage, a living memorial. We want to feel life fully, so we madly seek to memorialize it.

I am in Hungary traveling alone, and I have no one with me to remember what I am living. No one will remember the smell of the river or the light on the path, and I am absorbing the city like it will die with me because it will. It will die with me, and that truth is why I go for a 7 am run up 82 flights of stairs until I am back at the top of the hill I climbed the night before, and I am breathless, reflective, passing only solitary wanderers who are out with their dogs in the cool woods, and later, I walk to a castle, and I sit on an island, and I outlast the Hungarian youth along the edge of the Danube. They wander away with their chatter and laughter, and I stay until I get chilled, as I watch the ducks splash and swim in the sun. They ride out the currents, and I am happy for them; they do not know how lucky they are to be swimming in the sun in the river in spring. I’ve watched the ducks all winter in Holland, chilled and quiet. They still are cold. I walk 18 miles around the city that day, and there is no one with me to say what about that, let’s take the train, I’m tired. I have to live my life fully because no one else will. 


After two nights, I take the train to Vienna, and after I arrive, I go down to the river again. After three days, alone has become a deep inward feeling, so I notice the currents, the pull of the water moving and the drift of the wind on the surface. This time, I am thinking about how I used to sail with my brother on the Mill River in Maine, and he would tell me, “See the wind there,” pointing to the surface ahead of the bow, teaching me to know where the boat would tip, and he eyed it, steered into it, and I hauled my body out over the high side as the boat hit the ripples and listed. My brother shouted, “Can you see the keel?” in an excited exclamation that was also a command to lean out further, so I leaned out further, over the water and twisted my body to see the belly of the boat, holding the sheet tight. Water lapped the low side, but I didn’t release the sheet until he said, “Ok, just a little,” and I let it out slightly. The wind on the river in Vienna looks a little like that, the way the river in Maine moved in the wind.

IMG_7358In the morning, I head down the stairs in the train station, on my way to Czech, and I am peaceful. I recall the trepidation I felt in December about moving abroad by myself. Thinking about how far away that December fear feels makes me feel full, content. Later, in Prague, I think about gezellig, the first Dutch word I learned. It doesn’t translate but it’s a warmth, perhaps, something cozy, an atmosphere or a feeling I feel when I come into a small café, shaking from the rain that falls in the Easter markets in the town square. I feel that feeling when I walk into the warm cafe from the rain in Prague, and I feel it because I am nowhere else, and I am not trying to be anywhere else. I am only here. I have only myself and the short space of the universe I exist in and for now, for that moment, the space of the universe was calm, warm, gezellig

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