Whenever I’m coming home from a trip, I always experience an internal tug of war between wanting to know the status of projects left untended and not wanting to know out of the fear that something bad happened while I was gone. This particular October I was even more anxious than usual. Maybe it was because I had been out of the country. Or maybe it was because it was Halloween.
Getting home required hopscotching across four cities: Rome, NYC, Dallas and finally Austin. With each leg of the journey, my mind increasingly turned to matters I had successfully ignored for the past seven days. There was one thing in particular I really wanted to know but was afraid to find out. Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I posted the following on Facebook:
“Boarding a plane from Rome to JFK. Almost afraid to ask, but what was the outcome of the Notre Dame game yesterday?”
When the plane touched down in New York, I turned my phone back on and scrolled through my messages. My friend Sheila had posted a comment, gently delivering the bad news.
“I think it was 28 to 27 Tulsa… :-( ”
I was grateful that the news came from Sheila. If you have to get bad news about how your favorite team fared, better to get it from a fellow fan. After all, Sheila and I were friends from our days at St. Ignatius the Martyr Catholic School. Naturally we both loved the Irish.
I wanted to thank her for letting me know, but it was time to get off the plane. I didn’t want to be Inconsiderate Girl, absorbed with her phone, oblivious to the fact that she’s holding up a whole planeload of people. I would send her a message later. But when I got off the plane, I needed to clear customs, grab something to eat and go to the restroom. Before I knew it, it was time to board the next plane and I hadn’t responded to Sheila.
But Sheila was on my mind. Not only did I want to thank her for giving me the score, I needed to get back with her about when we could grab lunch. We had Facebooked back and forth before I left for my trip, but things got really hectic and we never nailed down a date. The ball was definitely in my court.
Sheila and I had met in first grade and were friends all the way through eighth grade graduation. But after leaving St. Ignatius, Sheila’s family had moved way far away to North Austin, while my family remained in South Austin. In the 30-plus years that followed, I think I saw Sheila only once — and that was when I bumped into her at a ZZ Top concert. (Stop judging me. It was the ’90s and I had free tickets.)
In 2009 we reconnected. Her dad had seen a story I had written in our local paper and told Sheila about it. Shortly after that she tracked me down on Facebook. We talked on the phone one afternoon, filling each other in on the important ups and downs over the past few decades. She was the same old Sheila I had known and loved from my childhood. Funny, dry, a little sarcastic (my favorite flavor) and always upbeat. Before we hung up we vowed to get together for lunch so we could catch up in person.
In the meantime, Facebook enabled us to pick back up with our friendship. Over the next several months of 2010, Sheila always posted positive comments about my stories when they appeared around town in one form or another. One time I posted that I was looking for a teepee to photograph in connection with a story I was working on, and she was right there with a tip on where I could find one. We scheduled lunch once, but she came down with the flu and had to cancel. No matter. We would reschedule as soon as she was well. Until then, we still had Facebook. It made being friends so easy.
A couple of delayed flights later, I was finally back in Austin minutes before Halloween was officially over. By the time the airport shuttle dropped me off at home it was after 1 a.m. I fell into bed exhausted. The next day was Monday and I hit the ground running. Monday bled into Tuesday, which somehow became Wednesday. It was about 10:30 p.m. and I was sitting in bed with my laptop editing a story I had written on the trip when I got a Facebook message from Tracy, another friend of mine from my days at St. Ignatius. The subject line was “Sheila.”
“I’m afraid you haven’t seen or heard the news of Sheila’s passing since you just returned from Rome. Her service is tomorrow morning at St. Ignatius.”
I couldn’t believe it. How could that be? Sheila was fine just a few days ago. Had she been in a car accident? My mind was reeling. I messaged Tracy with my questions, and her answer came back almost instantly.
“She took her own life on Halloween. She gave you the Notre Dame score earlier that day.”
I could not wrap my mind around this news. I immediately searched all my messages for Sheila’s name. I was looking for the message she had sent me with the ND score just three days ago. Maybe it would contain some clues that would help me make some sense out of this. When my search results popped up, I was surprised at how many messages Sheila had sent.
The first thing I noticed was that the last message Sheila had sent me was at 4:02 a.m. I thought of my friend, not being able to sleep, bumping around on Facebook. I wished I had taken the time to post even a two-word response: “Thanks, Sheila.” I was so worried about being Inconsiderate Girl to a planeload of strangers that I became Inconsiderate Friend instead.
The next thing I noticed was how many times she had reached out to me in the last few weeks compared to how many times I responded. On October 12, she commented on several photos I posted of my recent trip to Notre Dame to visit my son, who is in law school there.
Sheila, in response to a photo of Notre Dame’s Golden Dome: “Wow. I’ve always wanted to visit Notre Dame. Sigh.”
Sheila, commenting on a silly photo of me next to the ND mascot: “You’re the same height as the Leprechaun!”
My response? Silence.
Sheila’s comment on a photo of my son and daughter at the Grotto: “Beautiful children!”
Again, I didn’t reply.
It’s not that I never responded. It’s just that the ratio was about five of her messages to every one of mine. And here’s the thing: If someone would have asked, I would have told them Sheila and I were about even when it came to exchanging messages. But when I actually went back and checked, to the extent there was any genuine effort put forth, it all came from her.
I used to think Facebook made it easy to be friends. And I guess it can if you use it correctly. But Facebook makes it easier to be a superficial friend. After all, occasionally “liking” something your “friend” says is not the same as actually being there. And if you’re curious about what kind of friend you really are, Facebook makes it brutally easy for you to scroll back and get an honest answer.
“Let me know when you wanna meet for lunch. I know you’re busy, but it’s pretty slow around here most days . . .”
That was the message Sheila sent me on September 8.
On the morning of November 4, as I rearranged my day so I could go to Sheila’s funeral, I found myself wishing I had cleared a little time on my calendar to have lunch with her a month or two earlier. Then, rather than sitting in the pews of St. Ignatius Church saying goodbye, I could have sat across a table from her getting reacquainted.
I’m not suggesting that my having lunch with Sheila would have cured her depression or prevented her suicide. (Trust me, my days of self-delusion are, at least for the time being, over.) I just wish I would have made time to catch up with her when I had the chance. More to the point, I wish I would have realized that I actually had the time instead of letting mundane tasks that don’t really matter take priority over people who do. I always thought that I didn’t have time then, but I’d have some later. I was wrong on both counts.
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Earlier this evening my sister, who lives in Houston, called. She was having a bad week. Someone had hacked into her bank account, her husband was going to be out of town on business and her weekend plans had fallen through. “I wish you could come to town this weekend,” she told me. I wish I could, too, I replied. Then I rattled off all the reasons I couldn’t. My weekend was shaping up to be very busy.
After I hung up it hit me. I didn’t need to search my Facebook messages to know that my sister had always been there for me. When I was moving to Notre Dame for law school and married student housing didn’t allow pets, she volunteered to babysit my cat . . . for three years. When, as a college student in New York, my son landed in the hospital with an acute case of the chicken pox, she dropped everything and drove to town to stay with my 4-year-old daughter so I could go take care of him. When my marriage imploded and I was scrambling to furnish a new house in a hurry, she spent her day hauling an extra mattress to Austin so my daughter would have a bed.
“Fluff the pillows! I’m coming to town tomorrow!” I messaged her.
“Oh my gosh!!!!! I’m overjoyed!!!!!!!” was her reply.
I suspect I will be haunted by the events of that Halloween for a long time. I feel terrible about Sheila and what kind of friend I was (or more accurately wasn’t) to her over her last year. But since I can’t get a do-over, the most I can hope for is to do better. I’ve gotten it wrong plenty of times in the past. At least this one time I got it right.
Christina Pesoli is a writer in Austin, Texas.