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Love, Death and the Internet

How going online transforms relationships

Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Every few years, I check out the website of the last man I loved before I got married. I haven’t seen him since 1979, but technology has allowed me to track, anonymously and unobtrusively, the trajectory of his life. Although I’ve certainly thought about him, I’ve never written to him; our lives diverged so radically over the years that to do so would feel artificial, like the unsolicited Christmas newsletters people send to acquaintances. He is no longer a part of my world even though he was once the center of it; it is enough that he is engraved on my memory, as I feel certain I am engraved on his. But when I was researching a book on love, he naturally came vividly to mind because ours had been one of very few passionate relationships in my life that had not left me devastated.

In the photograph that epitomizes my fondest memory of him, I am 30 and he is 34, and we are standing on the beach in Ipanema in bathing suits, our arms around each other, looking into each other’s eyes. There were other photos too, including a discreet series of beefcake selfies he took using a tripod (and sent out to be developed), long before the era when cell phones made such things effortless. These contrasted dramatically with the videos on his website years later, in which, clad in overalls and sitting astride bales of hay, he welcomes visitors to “come and touch the earth” at the educational farm he created and presides over. Decades of separation melted away, and he came alive for me once more, when I saw his image and heard his voice.

His dancing eyes were as beguiling online as they had been the night we met at a party in my hometown when I was visiting my parents, and I decided then and there to take him up on his invitation to meet him in Rio de Janeiro the next summer. Propriety required me to decline his request to go to a hotel with him that very night, though I was sorely tempted; I hadn’t met anybody so appealing, mentally and physically, in years. He told me he had a PhD in sociology and was teaching at a local college. He also told me that he had been a Franciscan monk well on his way to becoming a priest—“Up to my neck in vows,” he said—and that he had left the monastery only two years earlier. He had originally studied Portuguese (his fourth language) because he intended to be a missionary in the slums of Rio, and was going there to take a refresher course for his demographic work. Afterward we could spend two weeks in August together. Until that moment South America was not even on my list of places to visit, but I was deeply intrigued.

I had serious second thoughts later on—after all, his credentials were good, but he was a perfect stranger and I had never in my life considered doing anything as bold as this. I felt somewhat reassured after we spent several delicious weekends together before he left for Brazil in the cities where each of us lived. My women friends threw me a going-away party and my boss gave me excellent advice, cheering me on: “There are planes back to New York from Rio every day,” he said. “You can get on one if you want to,” and gave me twenty dollars for a bottle of Vinho Verde. As it turned out, once I arrived, leaving was the last thing I wanted to do.

We ended up seeing very little of Rio outside our hotel room, other than taking a tram to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain at dusk late in our stay. There, sitting at a café watching the lights of the city come on in waves beneath us, I felt happy for the first time, truly happy, with a man, and I told him so.

At summer’s end we returned to our disparate worlds. Although we were compatible in many ways, there was no denying that at heart he was an ex-New Yorker who rejected city life, and I was an ex-suburbanite who had always wanted to live in Manhattan, where I had my psychoanalytic practice, and never intended to leave. I knew the end was near when he told me he had bought an abandoned farm miles from anywhere, intending to create a demonstration ecology program there; he had also decided to leave academia and make the farm his life’s work. I thought of it as his private secular monastery—minus the vow of chastity—and I knew it wasn’t for me.

Soon after, I went to see my newly-minted farmer to tell him I was engaged to a writer. I kissed him goodbye, and shed some private tears to have to lose him. He got married the next year himself, to a woman who had been raised on a farm.

Rio and our samba-inflected interlude remained a touchstone for me, even as the details naturally morphed and faded. However, when I re-read my diary from the period that I loved him as part of my research for my book, I found that I had considerably smoothed over the edges of his personality to preserve the idyll. Signs of selfishness, coldness and insensitivity had worried me then, and seeing the evidence in my own handwriting took some of the shine off my memories. I felt retroactively disappointed when I noted, for example, that he hadn’t offered to come and console me when my analyst died suddenly because he was working on a paper; although he eventually did come, his reluctance seemed ominous to me, as did his numerous references to other women he was attracted to. Even if I had been willing to move to his farm, it was now absolutely clear to me that our relationship never could have lasted or satisfied me in the long run. Nonetheless, I still was curious to see the most recent video on his website, since it had been quite a while since I checked in.

What I found instead was his obituary: “Farmer Frank leaves a lasting legacy,” it read. He had died a year earlier, after being ill for a year. The internet was the bearer of belated tidings that I otherwise would never have received.

At first I simply could not believe he was dead. It seemed unreal—since he was still so alive to me, how could he actually not be in the world anymore? Lovers—at least those who were worth loving—live within us in an eternal present.

I felt bereft in the strangest way. And all kinds of unanswerable questions occurred to me: What was his last year like? Did he return to the church? Did he die content? I was glad to see that he had retained the best of his vibrant personality until the end; his last words, the notice reported, were “Expand the programs.” Now I am the sole custodian of the experiences we shared.

The shock that I felt made me realize that access to his online image had abetted my fantasy of his continuing availability on demand. I had harbored an assumption that he would always be there, suspended in memory, ready to be contacted again in the outside world, seen in the flesh again, any time I wished. That ours was such a physical relationship made it especially poignant that he no longer inhabited the body I had known so well.

As I processed this shocking piece of old news, something unexpected and profoundly comforting happened: The wonderful memories I hadn’t thought about for decades, that were tainted and lost to me since I had become disenchanted by re-discovering his flaws, came flooding back. My experience of him was suddenly transformed, and I was overwhelmed by joyous recollection and gratitude for having been loved by him, even though I would never be able to share my feelings with him again as I had done on Sugarloaf that August evening. Perhaps the impossibility of ever contacting him again protected me from further disappointment, and I was able to recover the original thrill in a pure distillation, untainted by expectation. My perspective changed before my eyes—the things I didn’t like shrunk, and the delights of his company and his remarkable personality expanded, in the alchemy of loss. I remembered details large and small: his habit of going around in the altogether indoors (and out, when possible); that we had had two beds in our room in Rio, one for lovemaking and one for sleeping; that he had an exhilaratingly adventurous spirit and boundless curiosity; and that he exuded sensual delight. I was also moved with profound appreciation for his contemplative side, which he had retained from his days as a monk—how he could spend a rapturous afternoon watching the snow fall. He created his own world in which to share his love of living and of living things.

The bitterness and disappointment I had felt were not forgotten, but become unimportant. What mattered most was that he had really loved me, and given himself to me. Knowing him added precious dimensions to my life that nobody else could have given me.

I got him back by losing him forever, even if the only way I could express it publicly was to send a donation to the fund on his website to expand the programs.