Social Media tells you “everything” these days. What someone ate for lunch, how old their kids are, where they went on vacation—it’s unapologetically honest in a crafted way and eschews life’s disappointments and struggles in favor of “likes”.
We know the omissions are calculated and we accept them. We might even consider them polite since we’d rather invest in people’s fantasy lives than ask how they’re really doing.
But then someone goes and breaks the social contract.
It was a morning just like any other. I was late for work and had to sprint down a 45% grade while my backpack and gym bag slammed against my body and I tried not to spill my coffee.
Lucky for me, Peet’s makes a lidded to-go mug that’s almost indestructible.
I whooshed onto the bus and snagged the last seat, piling the luggage on top of my lap. An endless stream of humanity followed me and eventually stood two rows deep in the aisles, pushing against each other like popcorn on a stove.
I sat, sipped coffee and marveled at my luck. It was the day before a three-day weekend so everyone wanted to be somewhere else– a somewhere that meant, “vacation”. But alas, they had to work and so did I, so we were all stuck in this tin can grumbling into each other’s crotches. Only I had a seat.
Normally I’d be listening to my favorite Stitcher podcasts but I’d already heard everything Rachel Maddow and the BBC had had to say that morning, so I was left two options: check social media or stair at the zipper in front of me.
I could have pulled out my Kindle but that would have meant juggling two bags, my coffee and my phone within a centimeter of personal space. Wasn’t gonna happen.
So I chose social media. I scanned through a few pictures of kids and feet (some of kid’s feet) on Instagram and within minutes I was on Facebook. When I opened the app, I noticed a red “1” bubble hovering above “Messages,” so I clicked and read a note from my cousin.
“All of my thoughts are with the Hargraves today.”
Huh. That’s a little odd.
If the message had come from almost anyone else in my extended family, red sirens would have sounded, “WARNING, WARNING, something’s wrong.” But my cousin’s a creative writer, which means she’s deeply soulful and has a flare for the dramatic. Actually, the dramatic part isn’t quite accurate but for some reason the message didn’t seem completely out of left field.
So I gave her a mundane response.
Then I clicked out of messages and my newsfeed refreshed, pulling my cousin’s status to the top.
“My grandmother died today…”
Her grandma died, that’s sa—wait, my grandma died?!?
The bodies around me started to close in—their heat and smell pulling at my skin.
Blue Grandma’s dead? Wha- how?? We had a deal!
My forehead started to sweat and my throat to close as I dialed my dad.
She’d been ill for years but my dad had promised to give me a heads up when things started to go south. I figured I’d have at least two weeks to get a plane ticket and say goodbye.
But there had been no phone call. No plane ticket. No goodbye. As far as I was concerned she couldn’t have died; it wasn’t possible.
This is so unfair!
Blue Grandma (she had blue eyes, a blue car and was pretty much always in blue, so that’s what my brothers and I called her), was not your absentee, see-ya-once-a-year grandparent. She babysat us every Saturday, she would pick me up from school when my parents couldn’t and we even lived with her for a brief period.
She was also one of the funniest people I’ve met.
When I turned 13, she told me I was going to become a terrible person for a while because all teenagers are assholes. “But it’s ok,” she said, “I love anyways.”
When I complained that my boyfriend didn’t know how to wash dishes she told me to stop being such a control freak. “Do you want him to help you or not?”
When one of my brothers walked into her house wearing the loudest boardshorts ever created, she laughed and asked, “Did you pay money for those?”
The line rang and tears started rushing down my face. I tried to cry quietly, so the other passengers could ride unmolested by my emotion, but pressure was building in my chest. I couldn’t breathe.
“Hey honey.” The heaviness on the other line caused a fissure in my voice so deep I could barely squeak.
“Did you talk to mom?” His words were like a quivering lip and turned what had been a controlled cry into a torrent of pain and confusion. My lungs groped for air but none was available. Passengers two rows away started to stare while those in my immediate vicinity pretended the spectacle wasn’t happening.
“No!” I moaned, “I found out on Facebook!”
I sobbed into the phone while my dad tried to console me and apologize for not telling me sooner, “We didn’t want to bother you at work.”
Work?! WORK?! Who gives a shit about work? This is LIFE!
The bus stopped and the crowd thinned to the point where I could see the faces, blurred by salt and mascara, focused on my every heave.
“I have to get off the bus.”
I stood up abruptly and teetered under the weight of my two bags.
“Whoa!” I heard someone say from the ether. I threw my weight against the voice and forced my way to the back door.
“You’re on the bus right now?”
“Back door!” I yelled. When the bus continued, I sobbed, “BAAAACK DOOOR!”
I could see the driver’s wheels turning as he looked at me in the mirror—This chick is a situation waiting to happen. The bus screeched to a stop in the middle of an intersection and I tumbled from it onto the pavement.
I watched the bus accelerate away, leaving me in a cloud of burned rubber and exhaust. This was the same route I took every morning but I couldn’t recognize my surroundings– there were houses and cars; color and noise and none of it made sense.
“Sis? I know it’s hard but she’s in a better place.”
“Well you sound like you’re taking it well.” The comment cut and I knew it. I wanted it to. I wanted someone else to be swimming in the shit with me.
My poor dad. He’d lost his mother hours before and there he was, trying to console me. Empty of words, he sat silent on the other end. A minute passed, then another and eventually the shapes around me came into focus and the static started to clear. My tears slowed and my breath returned. After about five minutes I found my voice.
“I’m sorry dad. It was just…a surprise.”
“I know honey, no one should have to find out on Facebook.”
Later, I got the logical response from my mom, “There’s nothing you could have done. Telling you earlier wouldn’t have changed the outcome.” And she’s right. But I still felt lied to.
It wasn’t an active lie– more of an omission than anything–and yet I felt betrayed. Like I was a child and my parents couldn’t trust me to process my grief responsibly, so they took the option away.
But isn’t that the nature of all omissions? We don’t trust a receiver to react the way we want, so we control the situation by disseminating half-truths (or no truths at all). And maybe that’s why people present fantasy lives on Facebook—they don’t trust we’ll like them if we knew what really went on.
At first, I thought it ironic that I heard of Blue Grandma’s passing on social media—platforms all but designed to hide the truth of things. But now, I see it was fitting. It was sad, but fitting.