Live like you are dying

“Hey, did you hear the news?”  Tanya, my long-time friend, texts, referring to a social media post.

It is peculiar (even perplexing) we get our news this way.  “In a relationship,” engagements, weddings, buns-in-ovens.  Baby pictures, white beaches, sunsets.  Those are happy news.

Then there are the break-ups, the “not-in-a-relationship,” the I-hate-my-job rants.  These posts are intense.  The need for drama goads me into wanting to know more about the people’s not-so-secret lives in our circle of friends to look into their world without being intrusive.  Perhaps this is a way of self-consolation.  At least my life is not that bad.  Misery loves company.  Or perhaps, it is the uneasy sense of coveting.  Gosh, I wish I could quit medicine and retire at 43.  Is my cup half-full or half-empty?

There should be an ICD code for what I have.

This is good for humanity, social platforms tout.

It brings us “closer”; we can connect with people we would otherwise not have the opportunity to connect with.  High school classmates, hometown friends, yesteryear people, family.  Such a lure.  It validates the fact that humans are social beings.  The darker side of this is that we are just dang curious, even nosey.  We feed on those around us.  Our emotions ebb and flow, our knowledge increases, our visions expand—the more “likes,” the more affirmation that all is right with the world. Growing up in a culture where there was an unsaid code to “one-up” the other, social media was my crack.

That is until the moment I am reminded that sometimes, viewpoints collide.  It’s not all love and honey, and we don’t always get along.  We take certain liberties on a faceless platform that we would not otherwise have taken had we had the same interaction in the flesh.  And before I knew it, three hours had passed, and I had accomplished absolutely nothing.

The penultimate action before the final step of ex-communication is the “unfriend.”  I spent nights, days, precious moments agonizing over “will the person know I am unfriending them?”  Silly.  It gets complicated when there is an actual physical relationship to these virtual ones.  It’s easier to break up with someone if you didn’t have to do it in person (Ghosting is such an appropriate term).  These new-fangled human interactions befuddle me.

As social media life rolled on without me, I missed this announcement.

“Sarah Wilkenson is dead.”

Sarah Wilkenson was one of our chief residents when Tanya and I were interns.  I said to myself I was too young to be hearing news of people I know dying!  This is what happens to my father, born in 1931, not someone who started life in the ’70s.

Pancreatic cancer.  That’s what Sarah Wilkenson had.  Sadly, one year earlier, pancreatic cancer had also taken the life of another friend I knew in medical school.  Most recently, I hear on conventional news Alex Trebek had died, also from pancreatic cancer.  “There has to be an epidemic” came into my mind, followed by who will now host Jeopardy?

I had followed Sarah Wilkenson’s public-private life on social media; her life as a geriatrician, watched her daughter grow up, saw the wonderful life she had lived after her divorce.  I remember I was at her backyard wedding almost a decade earlier.  Reticence fell over me and was quickly replaced by nostalgia with abject sadness.

Instinctively, I went back to stored photographs and searched for a picture of Sarah Wilkenson.  Somehow, I felt the need to solidify into memory what she looked liked, where we were when our paths crossed each other’s, where we had touched in the time continuum.

She was gone.

Yet, I found that picture.  Trance-like, I entered my social media account, dusted out the rooms, surveyed where I left off.  Quietly, I placed my tribute to Sarah Wilkenson, even though it was mainly for those still living.  It was then that I saw others had done the same.  We had all grieved.  Separately and together.

The human condition.  Perhaps social media does have its place in modernity if taken in moderation.

The other day while baking, I heard this song by Tim Mcgraw (yes, I am a little country and a little rock-and-roll).  Sarah Wilkenson was in my head.

(S)He said

I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull named “Fu Man Chu”
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’

And (s)he said: “Some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin’

Believe it or not, this was an actual Alexa attempt to cheer me up when asked to “play me partying music.”  Amid the flour, sugar, and eggs, I sobbed uncontrollably, shaking violently, sad and angry at the finality of death.  The unfairness.  In this light, the pettiness of social media’s “unfriend” is laughable.

Time is fleeting.  In the twinkling of an eye, a decade had passed.  This is time that cannot be recovered or purchased.

Thank you, Sarah Wilkenson.  I am resolute to find that bull named Fu Man Chu and live like I was dying.

Edna Wong McKinstry is an internal medicine physician.

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