To Live and Die in Two Worlds

15 Nov

The other night we watched this documentary, which had just arrived from our Netflix queue. I had a read a review of the show in the New York Times and added it without much thought. Ironically, the disc arrived just in time for Veterans Day, so we watched it that night, fully expecting to be enraged at the cost of this war. What I didn’t expect was to be turned on to a new concept that strikes right to the heart of my current ache. I can’t call it a paradigm shift, but my eyes have definitely been opened to another possibility.

The concept of an Alive Day is this: For a person severely wounded in combat it’s a day as significant as his or her birthday; as it represents the day he “should have” died, but didn’t. The psychological benefit is that it frames that day in positive celebration. It emphasizes the survival and not the brink of death, the recovery and not the wound.

What is different about this war, and perhaps why it is easier to ignore than the historical accounts of the World Wars and Vietnam lead me to believe they were (I wasn’t alive, so I’m only guessing that they were all-encompassing), is that 90% of the injured Iraq War veterans survive their wounds. That means that 3800+ men and women who have been killed in action represent only 5 to 10% of the people who would have died in previous wars.

Our technology makes it possible for these men and women to survive. Through the various stories told in the film, however, we learn that survival doesn’t mean you come back whole. And it’s that wholeness, or rather the lack of wholeness (holeness, perhaps?), with which I identified so strongly.

Right now it is hard for me to not think of July 9, 2007 as the day my daughter was born and the day I almost died. The duality of that day has been clear to me since they pulled the breathing tube out of my throat and I sucked in air to my lungs for the first time in twenty hours. I hate that my recovery, my pain, the vomit, the diarrhea, the constipation, the bleeding, the…I hate every negative thing that is forced to be part of my birth story.

I want to tell people about how she looked on my chest, all wet, grey, and disgruntled. I want to talk about the rough first few weeks at home, when she refused to sleep ever and was miserable from being overtired. I want to tell all the normal new parent survival stories, the ones that get you the knowing smile and nod from the ones who have been there before you. What I have instead is a story that sends chills down people’s spines, frightens women, makes them say, “Birth is scary, dangerous, and is best left to a medical professional.” I hate that I had a natural birth, but feel I can’t advocate for a natural birth, because I’m only here typing this not through the kind and patient guidance of a midwife or a doula, but because I was in hospital and twenty people ran with my gurney to an operating room a couple hundred feet away.

Every pain, every piece of stretch marked, flabby overhang, and (sadly) mot photos are a reminder of what happened to me. A year ago I spent my days preparing blog pieces about Second Life fashion. After my close call, I couldn’t find writing about that any more silly. Meanwhile, I can’t log in a single day without someone asking (sometimes begging) me to write again. I just can’t do it. My real life is too real and my virtual life is just too fake. Yet, in an odd way both of my lives have intersected.

Last week, the Second Life fashion blogs were all run abuzz with the shock and multiple levels of scandal surrounding the real life death of the man who controlled an avatar known as Ginny Talamasca. There are many mysteries surrounding who Ginny atually was and her death was greeted with multiple levels of disbelief—some of the grieving kind, and some of the celebrity-bashing, dancing on the grave, “I’ll believe it when I touch the corpse for myself” kind.

You see, when it comes to a virtual world such as Second Life, the avatar can die at any time. Close your account, all data associated with you is gone. Poof. It’s as though you never existed. In that same vein, the typist behind the avatar has the ability to resurrect again and again, assume a new form as many times as one might wish. It is easy to lead a second life that has no intersection with your first life; and unless your first life friends and family are part of your second life, it is likely they have no clue how big or how small you are in this virtual world.

But Ginny, she was big. She ran one of the most sought after clothing brands in Second Life and was rumored to make $200, 000 (yes that number of zeros is correct) a year from her business. Were it not for the sudden passing of her typist, that might have been the end of the story. But this where the death of a human being is so much bigger than the death of an avatar can ever be. The death of Ginny’s typist revealed that there was more than one creative force behind the avatar we all had assumed created all those beautiful, virtual clothes. For some, it was news simply to learn that the person behind that beautiful, buxom, character, was in fact a man in real life (others had known for a while). For others, there was shock in the destruction of a virtual myth in which they wanted to believe: one person is capable of producing that much content. It’s a desirable myth, because it means that all any of us needs a little more talent and time, and the fame and fortune can be ours as well.

And with the crushing of all his mythology came the hurt feelings and the vengefulness. Those closest to Ginny were accused of secrecy and “not handling things right.” Stores closed and reopened. Oblique blog postings made everything appear normal. Then, a post from a widowed partner that seemed more business than grief. Certainly, there were those who posted obligatory condolences, only to post anonymous snark on an infamous SL gossip site. As well as those genuinely aggrieved who wondered why they weren’t told sooner, who felt excluded, and like the British public after the death of Diana, they wanted to be in on the death. They wanted to share it with those people who actually were close to Ginny, even though they themselves were not.

I recount these events, because I know most of the five people reading this have no idea what I am talking about when I discuss Second Life, and this enormous amount of background is necessary. Outside of settling of his estate, I’m certain the family of Ginny’s typist have little idea what his death means to those who knew him (or simply of him ) in his virtual life. That he’s left behind a shocked or grieving virtual public is I’m sure an absolute mystery to them. his virtual friends, whom had become his real life friends, are no more experienced in dealing with the death of a virtual public figure than any one else. They failed to address the needs of Ginny’s fans. It was a mistake. The friends of the next SL celebrity who passes will learn from it and do better.

The thing is, when I was in the hospital for that week, I was greeted by strangers who stopped by my room just to see if I was alright. I saw ghost-faced anesthesiologists amazed to see me three days later smiling and holding my baby. I saw nurses with tears in their eyes. I heard the voices of my friends crack on the phone, just happy to hear my voice. People said, “you have no idea how glad I am to see you,” and for the first time in my life, I knew that they meant it. I was hugged tightly, prayed for by people I will never meet. The weight of their grief burdens me. I don’t know how to deal with it.

None of us really know who will miss us when we are gone. I have never felt so loved as I have since I almost died. If I had died on that operating table, no one in my family would have logged into Second Life to tell my friends I was gone. I would simply have been a missing avatar, mysteriously vanished from the grid. And yet here I am, living a real and a virtual life thanks to technology and forces I will never understand.

Some day I will come to terms with the fact that July 9th is it just the day I almost died. I t was the first day I was gievn a chance to live, again. I’m not there, yet. But I hope to get there. I really do.

Note: I didn’t link to any of the blog articles regarding Second Life simply because  I didn’t want to generate a traceback to this site. People who have the anonymity of writing vitriol on the Internet love to have a place to come and play, and I’m just not willing to do that here. however, if you are so intrigued by all this virtual sociology feel free to drop me a comment or an e-mail at yolanda at webcodeart dot com and I’ll point you in the direction of some source material.

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