On a cool October night in 2005, my close friend Mike told me that our friend Orlando was dead.
We were standing in our narrow hallway in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and I could sense his effort to keep his voice steady. In that awkwardly fixed tone, Mike told me that Orlando had died of a brain aneurysm the previous morning after spending six days in a coma. He had just received an email from Orlando’s manager and close friend in Chile, which had been sent from Orlando’s account. The sudden news explained why Orlando had mysteriously disappeared that summer — a question that had remained in the back of my mind ever since.
All I really knew about his past was that he came from Chile and grew up playing the drums. I didn’t know what to say to Mike at the time though. I knew words wouldn’t help, so I asked him if I could read the email. The sender had written that she was able to speak to Orlando the night before he passed away.
“I know you were a good friend to him and we all thank you for that, he told me those were his best years of his life,” her message read. “Orlando is buried in ‘Cementerio do Sao Paulo’ under the grave of Orlando Batista Dariabolo.”
She also mentioned that he had left behind an apartment in Rio de Janeiro for Mike and our friend Brian to share. The two of them had been much closer to Orlando than I. They had all gone to the same college, shared an apartment in West Philadelphia, and spent most of their time together making music and trading bizarre stories.
For me, hearing about the loss of a talented musician who treated friends and strangers with equal sincerity left an indescribable feeling between frustration and sorrow. Seeing my closest friends lose their closest friend simply hurt.
What intensified that feeling was that no one knew whom to reach out to in order to find out more about Orlando’s death. Mike repeatedly called his phone and sent replies to the email, but he never received a response. Other friends who had received similar emails sent replies to the sender as well, but without any luck.
Everyone wanted the chance to say goodbye, or at least find closure in the sudden loss of a close companion.
So a few weeks after the news of his death, 50 or so of Orlando’s friends, colleagues and former professors held a memorial service for him at Drexel University. Some told stories and showed videos of Orlando in his most candid moments. Others quietly shed tears. The feeling shared by everyone was permanent loss.
At a dimly lit bar in Queens a year later, Mike, Brian and I touched glasses to memories of Orlando at his best: a lovable weirdo who once claimed “Who’s the Boss?” was the best TV show ever. No one outwardly mentioned his absence, but the feeling hung over us like a broken light fixture until we finally walked out — with Mike and Brian for days after.
Then, nearly three years after the news of his death, I got the real news: Orlando wasn’t dead. I found out in the summer of 2008, while Mike and I were visiting Brian’s parents in New Jersey.
“Can I tell him?” Brian asked Mike in a hushed voice.
“I’ll tell him,” Mike replied as he anxiously pulled on his cigarette.
Mike had received a cryptic voice message from Orlando that week. In his message he told Mike that he was hiding out in Brazil, and asked that he avoid trying to contact him because it wasn’t safe.
Even though he had already heard the news, Brian looked completely stunned. I’m sure I did too.
After that night, random calls, emails, and Facebook requests gradually confirmed what Mike had told me. Orlando is alive and well. He’s even doing concerts in South America, according to his status updates. But none of us have seen him since his falsified death.
I recently contacted Orlando to let him know I was writing about his reemergence among dozens of friends and colleagues who believed he was dead. As we exchanged messages about his disappearance, he told me he had been kidnapped for reasons he couldn’t mention and that he had indeed fallen into a coma back in 2005.
“I don’t remember too much. My memory is all fucked up,” he told me.
According to several of Orlando’s friends and relatives from Chile, his illness was a reality, but none can vouch for his kidnapping or the obituary email that was sent. They all say that Orlando is living safely with his family in Copiapó.
“Well, he’s not dead,” his cousin, Julia Veronica Cruz Rojas, wrote to me. “He’s doing just fine actually.”
According to several of Orlando’s friends and colleagues from Philadelphia, Orlando occasionally spoke of people who were after him and his family. But there was never any proof of that. On both sides of the equator, no one can say that Orlando was ever in any real danger beyond his own ailments. His active Facebook page adds to that doubt.
What’s left is a lingering sense of bewilderment among those of us who were at his memorial service in 2005.
“It all seems blurry looking back,” said Felicia Wong, who had also lived with Orlando in Philadelphia. “Maybe that’s because it wasn’t real in the first place. But I do remember that he loved his friends, so I can’t imagine him consciously putting us through that and letting us believe it for so long. Even if it was a momentary lapse of reason.”
Orlando allegedly died for three years and then reappeared out the blue. It was if he had used death as a way to say farewell to his friends in the states.
When I found out that Orlando’s brain aneurysm was a facade, it took me a little while to make sense of it. But as the peculiarity wore off with time, what seemed as equally astounding as hearing about his reappearance was how he so casually resurrected himself online soon after — like nothing had ever happened.
For Facebook’s living users, it’s natural to overlook the countless ways the site resurfaces random photos and bits of information tied to its dead account holders. More often than not that realization takes the real death of a loved one.
Last summer my sister and her friends were impacted by the loss of their friend and neighbor Andre Donald, a sociable 36-year-old who loved to cook snapper and went by the nickname Squinty Don. At four in the morning on August 26th Andre slammed his Honda Accord into a government dump truck on the Brooklyn Bridge and died on impact. The news station WPIX reported his death within the hour.
I had talked to Andre for the first and last time a few weeks before his collision, and his death left me with a feeling similar to the one left by the news of Orlando’s. Except Andre’s death was no illusion and his Facebook page has become a virtual tombstone because of it. Dozens of friends and acquaintances continue to post semi-public R.I.P. messages that can be viewed by anyone else linked to Squinty Don on the social networking site. Some even post messages as if he were still alive, including Happy Birthday wishes.
“I think it’s nice,” my sister’s husband, Ben, told me. “It provides a place for people to go when they want to remember him.”
Appropriately though, if you weren’t friends with Squinty Don before he passed away, you no longer can be.
I asked my sister what she thought about his active Facebook page and she voiced a clear concern. She said she was worried that his page could also become a too-frequent reminder for those who were closest to him, especially if a living friend were to receive an automated message saying: You haven’t connected with Squinty Don in a while, say hello.
That was a shared concern among dozens of bloggers who were quick to point out a big oversight when Facebook began automatically generating suggestions for its users to reconnect with one another on October 23rd, 2009.
Three days later, Facebook’s head of security, Max Kelly, wrote a blog entry about how to “memorialize” an individual’s page, meaning the page will be taken out of public searches and no longer appear in a friend’s suggestion box. But nowhere in his post does Kelly mention a way to completely remove a dead user’s account. As of now, it takes a court-issued subpoena to do so.
A large part of that has to do with the value of those pages. Both Orlando Rojas and Squinty Don remain a benefit to the social networking site, dead or alive. Advertisers on Facebook are able to generate fresh revenue from the site’s dead account holders, so long as their pages continue to receive clicks. As Facebook’s users pass away, while the number of advertisers on the site grows, that ad-revenue also inevitably grows.
“If you have a friend or a family member whose profile should be memorialized, please contact us, so their memory can properly live on among their friends on Facebook,” Kelly wrote at the end of his blog post. “As time passes, the sting of losing someone you care about also fades but it never goes away.”
Even more so, the sting of losing someone can also become painfully numbing when it’s mechanically triggered… and then triggered again. That’s a ubiquitous story. Media has always found ways to keep death in limbo, too often sterilizing its natural affect on us. And even some of the best writers and reporters have failed to capture the most visceral feelings of those who have suddenly lost a loved one.
Florentina Williamson-Noble, a 22-year-old New York University graduate, lost her younger brother Andrew when he committed suicide on November 3rd, 2009. Andrew took his life by jumping from the 10th floor of the NYU Bobst Library that morning. At the time Florentina cursed the reporters who had exploited her brother’s death without considering her and her family’s grief.
“I realize it was a big story to them,” she said, “another NYU student commits suicide. But I was so angry with the journalists who had used his Facebook page to get information about him. Of course Facebook had no way of knowing, so we were fortunate that a friend of Andrew’s was able to go into his account and make it private. After that we had his page memorialized, which has been nice.”
Florentina’s mother, Esmeralda Williamson-Noble, has written about her family’s loss on several occasions. Since her son’s death, she has kept a personal a blog called Forever Invictus dedicated to Andrew, and has also written about his suicide for the Huffington Post.
In one piece titled ‘Michael Blosil — Death by Suicide’ Esmeralda wrote, “Although not famous, my son’s death was all over the internet and the media before we had even made it home from the hospital. A picture of Andrew, taken from his Facebook home page, was splattered everywhere.”
For those who have had the death of a loved one immortalized on the web, the best path is too avoid any stories or images that will arouse unwanted pain or numbness, Florentina told me one evening..
But despite the discomforting reality of it, there will always exist personal channels — under the surface of what we see, hear and read in the open — that allow us to stay connected to the loved ones no longer in our lives.
“I still send emails to my brother Andrew,” Florentina told me in a surprisingly peaceful voice. “It helps me feel close to him. Every once in a while I feel the need to ask him ‘Why did you do it?’ But most of the time I send him messages to let him know how much I miss him.”
Nothing has changed in the way we yearn to stay connected to those who have left us; what has changed is how we deal with that yearning. Florentina and her family, Mike and Brian, and those closest to Andre Donald can all attest to that.