Shortly after I graduated from Chico in May 2001, I moved back home to my parents' place to start working on my teaching credential. It would be a hectic, busy year, and while I had a couple of local friends to do things with, a good chunk of my social life sort of died off for me.
In July, I got hooked on NASCAR, and because most of my friends were giving me the side-eye over my new Sunday afternoon hobby, I turned to the Internet to find like-minded souls.
Find them I did.
It started at The Pit Board--a message board set up at the Dale Jr. Pit Stop, a web site run by a mega-fan. There were discussions galore about Junior's wins and losses, the funny Budweiser commercials, the scandals, the hijinks...everything.
Inevitably, the discussions became personal. Who are you? Where do you live? What do you do? You like this band too? The Friends Board was born, and there were some of us who migrated there more often than the actual racing board.
As happens when you have so many people in one online place, drama came along. I hardly remember the details, only that suddenly, several of the women I had been happily posting with were suddenly banned from posting, or leaving in solidarity. I left with them, and a private board was born.
Over time, the numbers dwindled a bit as people moved away from it, but there has been a core group of about eighteen women who remain in contact on a private Facebook group...women I've known for going on fourteen years. Women who posted to our long-abandoned message board on July 7, 2005: "Has anyone heard from Meg? There's a bombing in London! Is she okay?"
We've had weddings...and divorces. There have been babies, and children who were suddenly driving, graduating, having children of their own. There have been rifts in some of the friendships, which have been mended. We cover a broad range of ages, locations, backgrounds, personalities. Most of us hardly even watch NASCAR anymore...but our friendship is defined by more than that.
I've met a few of these wonderful women, but not nearly enough of them. It would be easy for someone who doesn't know me to dismiss them as "only internet friends," but there is nothing "only" about them.
Last week, one of our own, Becky, posted to our small group that her husband, JJ, had had a heart attack that morning, and was unresponsive for a long time. Today, the terrible news came back: JJ died this afternoon.
The messages have been firing across Facebook like rapid-fire. How can we help Becky? Who is able--geographically--to get to the funeral? (I wish I could, but Becky is in South Carolina.) What will Becky need in the immediate and in the long-term?
I'm reminded that just because we're scattered all over the country, it doesn't make our friendship any less real, or important. If we were "only" internet friends, our hearts wouldn't be breaking for Becky tonight, and we wouldn't all have JJ's fireman's gear as our profile pictures. If we were "only" internet friends, I wouldn't be devoting a blog post to them, or feeling genuinely crushed for a dear woman in South Carolina who had her heart broken and her world irrevocably changed this afternoon.
Friendships are dear, and no matter where they come from, they deserve the same nurture and care as any more "typical" friendship in your life. This was driven home in a new way today, and I hope I won't forget it anytime soon.