The e-mail arrived last week. It was from my closest friend, and the subject line contained one name. A sense of dread filled me.
As quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. It must simply be an update on our mutual friend who was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago.
It was an update of the worst kind. At age 36, Andy had died of cancer.
As another mutual friend put it best, he wasn’t supposed to die. He was supposed to beat the disease. After all, I know three people who recently conquered cancer, and two of them were older than he.
Andy was a typical “British bloke.” He’d spent his life in England, unless he was off doing things like scuba diving off the coast of Florida or grilling burgers in San Diego.
He’d had a few career switches, for a time working in customs and occasionally seeing people busted for trying to smuggle drugs. But one of his passions was computers, so that was a big part of his life.
When I met him six years ago, I knew him as “Beasty.” He had wandered into an Internet community I called home, and before long he was making daily appearances. Like most of us, he used a different name online.
His name, though, belied his personality. For some reason I don’t quite understand, Beasty didn’t mind giving computer help to the most ungrateful, clueless people — and on his own time, too.
If complete strangers complained about a computer problem, he’d instantly offer to help.
But that was Beasty, the carefree guy who once got a kick out of recording words on his computer and sending them to me, simply because I liked his British accent.
Many people are scared of the online world. When they hear I’ve met “Internet friends” in person, they’re shocked.
Even one computer-savvy friend of mine recently remarked that the crazed, scary people online outnumber the decent people.
I challenge that assumption. We only hear about the psychotic situations; people like Beasty don’t make headline news.
As in all walks of life, there are crazed, scary people. We’ve all heard of horrible abductions and rapes and murders.
The Internet world is just like the physical world. Sure, you can’t see the people you meet, but that’s sometimes an advantage. When I meet people online, I’m not distracted by the surface appearance. I look deeper, and I keep looking until I find the real person.
When Beasty first wandered into that Internet community, I had no idea he was a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy with an intriguing accent. I didn’t know his age or marital status.
But I did learn those things later. Like many other people I’ve met online, I gradually got to know Beasty, eventually coming to know him by both his online and real names.
When he attended one of our annual gatherings in San Diego and we met in person, Beasty was how I’d thought he would be. What none of us had expected was for him to voluntarily take over the barbecue duties and continue cooking until there was food for more than two dozen hungry people. He loved doing it, too, and got a kick out of the fact that he’d traveled all that way to grill burgers
Over the years, people come and go from our lives. Bur Beasty mad an effort not to lose track of people. Every year, he’d send me a birthday greeting, one time with the news that I now share a birthday with one of his closest friend’s babies.
When he was diagnosed last year with Deep Vein Thrombosis, we wished him well and didn’t worry too much. After all, he was so upbeat that it didn’t matter.
(According to the National Institutes of Health, DVT is a condition when a blood clot forms in a leg. It occasionally happens to people who take very long airline flights that require sitting for hours on end. Beasty didn’t know why he got it, but figured it was hereditary.)
For Beasty, one of the biggest concerns about having DVT was that he had to go on medication that would halt his blood donations. He’d donated 34 units by last year, and had wanted to reach some kind of record.
Then in the fall he went to he doctor to find out why he had a lump in his neck. In December, tests revealed it was cancerous.
His upbeat British humor dominated every new medical event, and Beasty resigned himself to radiation and chemotherapy — even apologizing in advance that he might miss my recent birthday because he’d be in the hospital then.
He kept us updated, and in late January came this line: “Well, I get to be a bigger enigma to the medical profession every day it seems.” In the lighthearted update, he also mentioned that he had diabetic symptoms and had developed a brain tumor.
After finishing radiation in mid-February, Beasty knew his blood donor days were over. “Annoying, but life goes on. I, for one, intend to make sure it does,” he told us in an update.
Then, on March 10, he awoke to find that his leg was’t working. None of his Internet friends, myself included, knew that would be his last message to us.
Five days later, he died.
His updates had come by Internet, and news of his death also came that way. It may sound impersonal, but in a way it’s not. The Internet has given all of his grieving friends a place to gather and remember him.
The tributes have been steady since we got word of Beasty’s death. Many, like myself, have been going through computer archives, recalling conversations and digging up photos to pass on to his grateful family members.
In each photo, there is Andy’s grinning face, a tribute to the person who was as genuine in person as he was online.
Layla Bohm is the assistant city editor and police/courts reporter at the Lodi News-Sentinel.