Babbling

Relationships, Online Friends, and a Death Too Soon

Last February, I got a text late at night. “Dave, call me as soon as you can.”

The moment I saw it, I sat down in the hall where I was walking. That’s not a good message. Not at that time of night. It was never going to be good news. Bad news carries immediacy. Good news, for whatever reason, can wait.

I called. This woman, Alison, who I had met only once, was in tears. Brad, the man in her life, was dead.

We like to think that we know how we’ll react when tragedy strikes or a crisis hits. We imagine we’ll rise to the occasion; be the shining example of behavior, the one everyone else aspires to. I’ll acknowledge that I have done very well in situations like that before. But that night? I was utter crap.

I’d like to say that I said all the right things. That I comforted this woman, was reassuring, and set the situation right. The truth is, despite getting a pretty accurate read on the situation from the timing of the text, I was far from eloquent. I probably said “no fucking way” a dozen times. Maybe more. I’m not sure what else I contributed, but it wasn’t anything that added much. And the phone call went on a heckuva lot longer than it needed to, neither of us wanting to hang up, because ending the call meant we had to begin grieving in earnest. It’s all very trite, I know. Most of us react to death in the same ways.

Brad was a very close friend, who I interacted with almost daily. Outside my immediate family, there was no one else I chatted with more. I shared my deepest secrets with him, engaged in deep, intellectual conversations, talked business practices (and even employed each other in actual work!), and joked around a hell of a lot. We were kindred spirits. The unusual thing is I had only met Brad, in person, two times.

I had met Brad online years before, competing in Photoshop contests where competitors are challenged to adjust an image in a talented or funny way or to fulfill a specific visual challenge. Brad was much better than I was. But I injected a sense of humor in my manipulated compositions, which helped even the score a bit.

A group of the more talented among us self-selected and we all got together in chat rooms to discuss techniques and, later, other things we had in common. Brad and I shared a lot. Sports, politics, careers, racing, videogames, and much more. Soon, Brad and I split off into our own chat room. Here, we began to share our pasts, our opinions and deeply held beliefs with the kind of trust that brings people really close to each other. It’s all very unusual. Were this a regular relationship, one where people met in public, in the meat world, it’s hard to say if we had been this open with each other. Would we have had the same trust in each other? It’s very difficult to say. In the decade that I knew Brad, we only met in person twice. We talked on the phone once in a while, but most of the conversation was text on a screen, just like you’re reading here.

Some would probably argue that such a relationship isn’t really a relationship. That you don’t really spend time with people unless you are face-to-face. That a relationship online is without social ties and you can’t really be honest with each other. How well can you know someone from lines and lines of 12 pt Helvetica?

Quite well, as it turns out. Because we shared without reserve.

As it turned out, Brad was far from a model person. He had dealt drugs before and had done a lot of them, himself. We all make mistakes as young people and Brad had banked more than his share. The stories he told me made my jaw drop. Situations I could never imagine myself in, things I wouldn’t think of doing. As a result, his previous habits had weakened his heart. On a couple of occasions, he told me that doctors had told him that he was at risk, due to his previous indiscretions; a warning that would prove fateful.

But the past wasn’t what I knew of Brad, which probably made his revelations all the more shocking. The Brad I knew had one of the best attitudes about everything. Pretty much everyone he met became his friend and was happy to have met him. He was generous to a fault, giving of himself and his time, often without asking anything in return. “It’s all good, man,” was a common reply when asked what I owed him for some work.

Brad was a graphic designer and a very good one. He had worked at a print shop and I felt like his talent was being wasted. I’d urged him, jokingly at first and then with more intensity, to go out on his own and be his own boss. Eventually, he listened. He quit his job and started his own company. He was excited.

Business in California is far more complicated than it needs to be. There are no shortage of hoops to jump through and licenses to file. Nevertheless, Brad dove in, with a targeted purpose. He did the paperwork and crossed every T, dotted every I. He was on his way to get his last required license, on February 21, when it happened. Driving down a street in Lancaster, California he had a massive heart attack. He slammed into an empty, parked car, which, as fate would have it, was just outside a nursing school. People rushed out to help, but it was too late. Brad was gone.

We don’t like to admit it, but there is nothing special about dying. We all get to do it and, whether your day comes early or late, your day is coming. Deal with it. The best thing you can do is to try to live your life like Brad did; a guy who had really lived two lives. The former, spent in grey areas just outside the law, the second, in love with everyone.

And so, today, six months gone from that fateful text and phone call, I still miss Brad dearly. I miss being able to share a funny story or good news. I miss talking about sports and him being my confidante in life. I miss his good humor and positive attitude. I just miss him. Are online relationships as valuable as those we have in person? I argue they are …and sometimes they are invaluable and irreplaceable.

 

I was asked to write something short about Brad for his memorial service. That text follows:

For those who had the pleasure of meeting Bradley ___________, a local graphic designer, their requests were always met with a smile and a good-natured laugh, which served as a calming and positive reassurance, paired with a confident “No worries, we can get this done.” If he’d worked with you before, as he had with so many, his steady, trademark certainty that everything was going to be ok might’ve been punctuated with a moniker like, “brother” or “man” or “amigo,” words that carried the warmth of his friendship and, before you knew it, you were smiling alongside him.

He prided himself on his high-quality, precision work that he turned out with amazing speed. His designs were seen locally for the Jethawks, various Air Force units, and his clients at Sol Graphix, where he worked until recently leaving to start his own firm. He also created beautiful pieces that were seen globally, both in museum-quality art books and a wide variety of web sites — some of great importance, others just for personal pursuits. No job was too small for Brad.

Lacking a formal education, he was self-taught in many areas. From the design programs he used on a daily basis to the hobbies and interests that spurred his imagination. A student of the universe, Brad’s knowledge of the stars and their science was seemingly as immense as our galaxy itself. One of his proudest moments came when he had the opportunity to speak with a NASA scientist. With confidence and unbound curiosity, Brad presented his query, a question so insightful and probing, that the scientist had no answer for it. Yet the scientist was so impressed with Brad’s question, he asked where he had learned about such things. It was a story Brad told for weeks and months later.

He came from rocky beginnings, but built himself into a trusted and reliable member of the Valley community.  While his past life left him with a weakened heart, he still lived each day with a gusto and vibrancy that, in the end, presented a great irony: how a heart crippled by bad choices could provide such a positive presence to everyone he met. Brad was so full of love and joy for the world and appreciated every single sunrise and the opportunities that each day provided — qualities he shared with all of those lucky enough to know him.

Brad’s passing leaves a gaping void in the community, both here and throughout the world — his friendships extended far beyond Lancaster, across borders and around the globe. To Brad, everyone he met was his brother and his friend. His smile, his laugh, and his warmth will be missed, his generous and selfless nature will be remembered; not just as a fond memory, but as an example to which we should all pay heed.

A celebration of Brad’s life will take place at __________.

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