What It Feels Like to Lose a Distant Friend in 2014
On Sunday morning, I logged onto Facebook and received terrible news. My friend from Howard University, Shomari Marlon Small died on Friday, September 26 in his native, Jamaica. The cause of his death as of this time is still unclear, and I am waiting to hear more details, which I am sure will come to me similar to the way news of his death came to me: On social media.
Shomari and I met each other as freshmen at Howard University. Coming from California, I wasn’t exposed to too many people like Shomari, which is to say I could probably count on one hand how many true Jamaicans I met prior to arriving at HU. Shomari’s island accent was thick to the point where I chuckled the first time he spoke. I had a lot of growing up to do back then, but Shomari did too because when he heard me speak, he laughed and said, “Yo, where are you from? Why do you talk like that?” I had never been to Jamaica, he had never set foot in California, and both of us were living in D.C., away from our families and all that was familiar for the first time.
Seeing as we were equally alien to not only our surroundings but to each other, we hit it off immediately. Some days, we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. He hipped me to beef patties, I put him up on sushi and raw seaweed my mom would send me in care packages. In those very early days at Howard we became more brothers than friends.
By the beginning of the second semester, Shomari and I still acknowledged one another as close friends, but the dynamic between us wasn’t like the first semester. We grew apart, not in spirit, but socially. By now we adjusted to life at Howard, made more friends who we would be seen with more often, developed other interests that kept us busy. He was a business major, I was a communications major, this meant often times a whole week could by before we ran into each other, since most of our classes were taking place on different parts of campus. Our relationship with one another continued on that path right up until he transferred out of Howard in 2003. We never had a chance to say goodbye to one another.
I joined Facebook in 2004, shortly after I graduated from Howard. As is the case with everyone who joins, I can remember the excitement that came with becoming a member. All of a sudden, I would be able to reconnect with so many people from my past at the click of a button. This was at a time when a person still needed to have a college email account to sign up, so it’s not like the entire world was my oyster, but a big part of my own world was readily available.
Shomari was a part of that world. I looked for him on occasion, just to see what he was doing, but I could never find him on there. In 2009, five years after I joined Facebook, he sent me a friend request. Of course I accepted, but we didn’t immediately break into a long catch-up session with each other. I confirmed the friendship, he sent me a quick message to ask me, “Wah gwan on?” I replied back, “Shomari!” That short exchange was all we needed to acknowledge we were happy to see each other and in some way, be connected.
On Facebook, Shomari and I were similar to how we were on campus: Whereas I wanted to be cool with everyone and ended up with thousands of Facebook connections, Shomari stayed close to only a few and had less than a thousand. He didn’t post much, whereas I posted frequently, and to be honest, as my Friends list grew, it became more difficult for me to keep up with what everyone was doing. Shomari, on the other hand, was a lot less active on there. He never posted much on his walls, and wouldn’t update frequently with photos or status messages. We were outside of each other’s circle in real life, but that was fine because we knew we had our own circle, and on Facebook we always revisited.
Shomari may not have been the kind of guy I was on Facebook, but he was active on there in one way: He liked a lot of my posts.
This sort of thing wasn’t exclusive to just me. If you were friends with Shomari on Facebook there was a good chance he hit the like button for something you did. In the days since news has spread about his passing, I have been scrolling down his wall, looking at the messages of others who knew him and loved him. Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t share names, but here is an excerpt from one of the messages that stood out to me.
You liked every pic of my baby daughter that I have ever posted, and it warmed my heart, that’s what you did, you warmed hearts.
Another person posted a screen grab of the last conversation they had with Shomari. In it was an exchange about how they were glad he stayed connected to them on Facebook.
Someone once said, “liking” something is literally the least a person can do for another. When I heard about Shomari’s death, I thought about that statement,in the midst of all the other memories I have of Shomari. Yeah we were distant, but we had a tool that kept us connected and Shomari used it frequently
Even if liking something is the least a person can do, it can mean so much. Shomari’s likes meant a lot to me. If I had to give some real life equivalent to the gesture of liking something on Facebook, I would say Shomari’s were much like our very brief handshakes we would give if we ran into each other at the coco bread station right outside of the School of B or passing each other as one of us entered and the other left the Punch Out.
The day I received the news about Shomari, I was getting ready for a day filled with social engagements and errands. There was no gut feeling I had that made me sign onto Facebook, it was more a formality. I just finished sharing my latest post and I wanted to see if it picked up any likes or shares or comments. I saw I already had one notification, and if it was to tell me Shomari Small liked my post, I would not have been surprised. But it wasn’t, it was a message telling me I was tagged in a post, which brought me to the news shared by my friend Adam: Shomari was dead.
In real life, Shomari was a distant friend, but on Facebook, I heard from him nearly every time I posted something on my wall because he always liked my latest post or some random rant. He would even comment on occasion, whether he disagreed or not. On my birthday, he would of course leave a message, nothing long, but every year he would say “Happy Birthday, bro” and I always know that he meant it as literal as two men who weren’t blood brothers could mean it. We were brothers, distant, but we spent enough time being close to one another to know we would always be more than friends.
As we become a society whose real life world and online world become closer and closer to one another, it is often the case we will find ourselves using sites like Facebook as a de facto form of communication. I know none of it seems real, but the feelings we get from the things we learn and discover are very real. Don’t ever forget, behind these machines we talk to are people we love, people who were our friends, distant and otherwise. And when we discover those people are gone it’s going to hurt, in real life.
Rest in power, Shomari Marlon Small. Thank you for your friendship and for always checking in on me from a distance. You will truly be missed.