Friday, October 05, 2007

The Mixed Bag Of Google

Tracking down long lost friends on Google is one of my favorite time killers. It's kinda like playing Nancy Drew from my desk and cheaper than hiring a P.I.

Blog readers may remember earlier scores like finding my old friend Cynthia up in Seattle. Conveniently, she came complete with a picture and email address at the place she worked. Then there was my childhood friend, Diane. She took a little more effort since she goes by a married name, and it's changed a few times because her husband's a radio personality. I emailed him at the station and voila! Diane responded minutes later.

On both occasions, a flurry of emails ensued, catching up on a lifetime of marriages, divorces, kids...even (gulp)...grandkids.

Sometimes, like adopted offspring discovering birth parents who didn't wanna be found, locating people who somehow slipped from your life doesn't work out so well. Take my ex-boss, for instance. Susan and I worked together for a couple years in the late 70's/early 80's. I was in my twenties, Susan was in her thirties. Both of us just starting out in life. We produced several TV shows together and practically lived in each other's back pockets. I mean, seriously. One time, we worked in a darkened editing room for three solid weeks, only taking off to run home, catch 3 hours of sleep, shower, and return. In her acceptance speech at the Los Angeles local Emmy awards, she said we spent more time together than most married couples.

Cut to thirty years later. I tracked her down at some obscure political website she'd signed a petition on. Off went the email.

A month went by.

I finally decided the address must have been old, when lo and behold, there it was: a response from Susan. Reading between the lines, I detected the unhappiness. The frustration. A career begun with so much potential in the 70's somehow stalled and faded away. Still with the same guy but seemingly mired in a relationship now cracked with age and unfulfilled promise. She didn't seem happy at all.

I wrote back, suggesting we get together some time.

I never heard from her again.

C'est la vie, y'know? No biggie. More importantly, I was glad to have caught up with her. In a sense, I felt (cliche alert) closure.

Which brings me to the other kind of Google search. The one that leads to unexpected places.

Over the course of the seven years I spent in Irvine (college days), I shared apartments with an assortment of roommates. Most I'm still in touch with, but one of them slipped the noose. Naturally, she was on my Google radar, but I'd never found anything.

Until this week.

I clicked on the site without really noting what it was. Even when the Duluth newspaper showed up, I didn't pay attention to its content because--hey, I'm no rookie at this--I know Google's spiders catch the oddest things in their web.

Using "find on this page" to zoom to her name, there it was: Val's obituary.

I was stunned.

I had to read the opening line several times to confirm what it all meant. She'd died nine years before at the age of 45. Married, the mother of four children, and a faithful member of her local Catholic church. Employed for ten years at a beauty salon. Preceded in death by her sister, Gabrielle.

How. Could. This. Be.

To put it mildly, the news blew me away. I shot off an email to our third roommate (another Susan) instantly. Over the years, she'd been looking for Val, too.

Moments later, my phone rang. Sue calling from Houston. We commiserated, expressing a sense of bewilderment that didn't stop with a phone call. For several days, we exchanged emails, trying to get to the bottom of our emotional response to the death of a woman we hadn't seen in nearly thirty years. It felt odd to mourn 9-year old news.

She died so young, we lamented to each other. Was it suicide? Alcoholism? The fact that both possibilities surfaced in our brains says a lot about the Val we knew in our twenties...which made us sad in itself.

Sue suggested calling the hair salon where Val had worked to find out what happened. Meanwhile, I tracked down an address for her surviving sister. I think mostly, we wanted to know what sort of life Val had gone on to live.

Was she happy?

Did we really want to find out?

It's funny how some people exit our lives, and we could care less. Others we don't mean to lose--who, no matter how many years go by, we figure to catch up with one day.

Only, we don't and then it's too late. Suddenly, they're forever frozen in our memory--like the vision I have of Val in her faded purple shorts, high-heeled sandals, flawless complexion...the Nordic beauty belying a severe case of low self-esteem. I remember how she worked a full-time department store job while attending beauty school at night in order to make something of herself. I remember her shame when our apartment managers discovered Val's alcoholic parents living in our parking lot and using the rec room facilities to shower in.

I remember her laugh. And her unquestioning help if you needed her. Sounds trite, I know, but it's true.

I'm still not sure whether Sue and I should delve for more information. Maybe it's better not to know.

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