There have been a lot of ups and downs in the 16 months I’ve spent in PC cyberspace. One of the pleasures — and ironically, the miseries — was connecting with my first penpal — no, beloved friend — Hugh Kearnley. Who could have thought my internet soulmate would turn out to be a big, fat bawdy Scotsman?
I said there was pleasure and misery in our relationship. The pleasure was simply in the communication. Hugh was smart, funny, knowledgeable about a broad range of subjects — and extremely gifted. But I think what drew us together was, as Hughie put it, we were both hopelessly romantic and sentimental.
For seven or eight months Hugh and I wrote each several times a week. You would think corresponding with a dying man would be depressing, but it wasn’t, most of the time. There was a lot of laughter.
Hughie was diagnosed last December with advanced PC that had spread to his bones. And he already had heart trouble and diabetes. So what got him in the end was not the PC, but a heart attack he suffered on September 24, 2007.
I already described the pleasure in my relationship with Hughie. The misery was — simply — losing him. AND what came after. It was so bad that I found myself wondering: “Is it better to have befriended and lost, than not to have befriended at all?”
I was almost embarrassed by the intensity of the feelings I had for a man I had never laid eyes on, whose voice I had never heard. When I first realized Hugh had died (I mistakently thought it was his father), I was searching for the right words for the occasion . . . and what I came up with was this:
“By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat and also wept, as we remembered Zion. On the willows within it we hung our lyres . . . ” (Psalm 137:1-2)
These verses are well-known, but for me they carried a specific meaning. Because in a childhood marked by religious rituals, this psalm was recited only on Tisha B’av, a fast day which marked the destruction of the two Israelite temples. So these words were associated not just with sadness, but with catastrophe.
Nevertheless, they seemed to fit just right, because of the part about the lyres. Hughie had not literally “hung up his lyre,” but he was a very talented musician, and his organ was going to remain silent forever.
Even so, I wondered if my reaction to Hughie’s death was extreme. The truth is, there was almost nothing I knew about him — he was a foreigner in a foreign land. A mutual friend referred to Hugh as the “Unknown Stranger.” But I soon changed that wording to the “Unknown Soldier,” because Hughie was a warrior, as we all are in our own way. This point was critical to our relationship, and what frustrated me the most is that so many people didn’t get it.
For example, when Hughie died, I was taken by surprise. We all thought he had some more time. True, Hugh’s PSA had started to rise, slowly, but he had not exhausted all remedies. So when I found out that Hughie was gone, I felt as if we’d been cut off in mid-conversation — no, mid-sentence. The line suddenly went dead. I was informed that the party at the other end of the line was no longer there — but that’s all.
Internet grief turned out to be a miserable experience, a unique artifact of the Computer Era. In spite of our shared intimacies, I found it almost impossible to find out anything about the circumstances of Hughie’s passing. Or even the details of his funeral — which he had discussed with me. Did they end up playing “The Old Rugged Cross” or not? Was Hugh cremated, as he wished, or did he give in to the family’s desire for him to be buried?
I was grateful that Hughie’s eldest son, R., wrote me a brief but very feeling note to inform me that his Dad had passed. He also posted a notice in Hugh’s favorite PC newsgroup. I then wrote R. a condolence note and asked if he could take a moment to fill me in on the details. I never received an answer. I didn’t take that personally, but it made me feel angry and helpless. Because, to the family, I, and Hughie’s other online intimates — many of whom loved him literally to death — were all but invisible.
Then there was the loneliness: No funeral to go to, no family to console, no one to sit around with and fondly recall the deceased. There were some heartfelt tributes in a newsgroup, but that wasn’t enough.
The next step was to try to contact Alan, Hugh’s youngest son, the one who had been living with and caring for Hughie after he got sick. I had been hearing about Alan for months, but I’d never actually “met” him: he was Hughie’s zealously-guarded treasure. I hesitated to contact Alan — thought maybe Hughie would want the kid to be left alone, you know, so he could put the whole thing behind him.
And I had some concerns about Alan. Hughie was always worried that his son would come home needing some “patching up”. The kid was getting into fights. I knew that Glasgow is a tough place, not quite quite corrupted by civilization. Supremely macho. But at the same time I wondered: Was Alan some kind of street thug? (I later found out that the answer is a resounding “No.” I believe it when the kid says he “hates intolerance,” particularly gay-bashing. He’s a formidable fighter and fears nobody, seemingly.)
In any case, I just had to share with Alan some of the many loving, even worshipful things his Dad had written about him. So I wrote him a long letter and pleaded for some information. I immediately got a very detailed response.
Alan explained that his father’s e-mails were password-coded, so that he had no way of communicating with his Dad’s online intimates. But he asked me to pass on the information to whomever might be interested. And he said he was pleased to learn — overwhelmed, really — that there was a “group of outsiders who loved his father very much.”
Talking to Alan fixed everything. It gave me some “closure,” not literally, because it marked the beginning of a new, wonderful relationship. I don’t think Hugh would be insulted if I said that Alan has everything Hughie had — the soul, the eloquence, the humor, the brains — plus a healthy dose of maturity. A new and improved version, maybe?
What follows is a funny and very moving piece written by Alan. I think I can say with confidence that the title, “Bard of Glasgow” has been passed on from father to son.