She had Googled me.
Actually, she had Googled herself, and because we have the same name, it was me who popped up on her screen.
Curious, she went to my website and read some of my essays. Then Jennifer Graham in Lucas, Ohio, composed an email to Jennifer Graham in Hopkinton, Mass.
“This is going to seem weird,” she began.
It was late in August when I opened her email. Sitting at my desk, I looked out on a woebegone garden: bedraggled tomato plants with yellowing leaves, tiny green gourds that would be frost-killed long before Halloween.
Summer was wilting under my watch.
But in my inbox, this Jennifer was pulsing with life, cheerily explaining how she had found me, and that she, too, was a writer with four children, so how could she not reach out?
She was funny and self-deprecating, spelled everything right, used appropriate punctuation and — crucially — no multiple exclamation points. She attached a couple of columns she had written for her local newspaper, saying, “Yes, I am forcing you to read my writing, something I never do anymore. Thank you for your attention to my current neuroses.”
Fresh off a difficult divorce and living 900 miles from my parents and best friend, I spent most of my days attending to young children and their needs. This was long before Covid-19, but I already worked from home in relative isolation.
Moreover, I am shy and socially awkward, the sort of person who brings a book to the school musical to avoid having to make small talk during intermission. But write something nice to me, and I will write back. Make me laugh, and I’ll be your correspondent forever.
So of course I read her columns and then wrote to this other Jennifer Graham, who, at 51, was two years older than me. I told her about myself and sent her an essay I had recently published about how shocked I’d been to encounter a Jennifer in the obituaries for the first time, claiming that we Jennifers were too young for that indignity. Jennifers belonged on the sports pages, in weddings, the business section, maybe science and tech.
Within a few hours, she wrote back, joking, “Let’s stay out of the obituaries.” And soon after, a strange and wonderful Facebook notification appeared on my screen: “Jennifer Graham likes Jennifer Graham.”
Thus began a wonderful friendship enabled by technology and by parents who had chosen the same name five decades earlier, a time when your friends lived on your street, or went to your church, or were married to men who worked with your husband. It was a time when you could live your entire life without encountering anyone with the same full name as yours, unless you were a boy named after your father.
The internet greases conversation by freeing it from the awkward constraints of in-person interactions. When you live 700 miles apart, you are not going to run into each other in the cereal aisle or at the middle school concert. You can thunder past the niceties and start right in on your weight, your bunions, your writer’s block, your stomach troubles.
She quickly learned of my children’s birthdays, and I learned of her dislike for her daughter’s boyfriend. Before long, I knew how much weight she had gained since getting married, and she knew why I hated being an only child.
Before she and I started corresponding, Jennifer would send herself emails with reminders of things she needed to do. Soon she began mistakenly sending them to me. One morning I opened an email from her that said, “Schedule gutter cleaning.”
Our emails were a combination of stand-up routines, pep talks and confessions.
Then, in April, after we had been exchanging messages rapid-fire for eight months, she wrote, “I haven’t been feeling well. Most likely have an ulcer that has perforated posteriorly.”
But it wasn’t an ulcer. Nor was it gastritis, kidney stones or a kidney infection.
Two weeks later, she wrote, “There’s something wrong on the pancreas. Could be a benign cyst, could be worse … spots on CT scan. I’m being sent to Columbus for a biopsy.”
In the middle of May, she wrote, “I’m on the way home from the hospital. The report is bad. I have pancreatic cancer. It seems strange to type those words. Not sure what happens next. Damn.”
It seemed that we were not going to stay out of the obituaries after all. And the other Jennifer, who had insisted on being first — “I am the original Jennifer Graham,” she grandly wrote in her first note to me — was going to get there sooner than me.
Helpless, so far away, I thought all I could do was listen. I sent care packages, which she appreciated, and conveyed the requisite thoughts and prayers. We continued to email each other. But the one thing that mattered, I didn’t do.
I didn’t go to Ohio.
I had lots of excuses. We didn’t really know each other, after all. We were “just” cyber friends. I was 700 miles away, a 10-hour drive without traffic. Also, I was a single mother with four children still at home. Going to Ohio would have been complicated and expensive.
I told myself that she probably didn’t want me around anyway. She had a best friend there, and her family, church and community, which had rallied around her. What difference would my showing up make?
In June, she wrote, “Wanted to take a moment from my busy schedule of taking pain pills and accepting tuna casseroles at the door to write to one of my favorite peeps.” She was actively dying but still funny as hell.
By this point, she had stopped trying to write professionally. “I feel like I am moving in slow motion, in a very disturbing dream, from which I cannot awake,” she wrote. “I cried a lot at first and took my share of Valium and Xanax, but then decided a life of chemistry is not all that it’s cracked up to be.”
Throughout the summer, the emails continued, though there would be a change in their substance. We did not talk anymore about her coming to Boston with her son to see Cleveland play the Sox, or the fabulous book we would write together called “Dear Jennifer” (her idea).
Then one day, too quickly, I got a notification on Facebook from Jennifer’s daughter: “I’m Mackenzie, and I’m the other Jennifer’s daughter. I wanted to message you and let you know that my mom passed away this morning.”
It was the day before Halloween — less than six months since her diagnosis, 14 months since she first wrote to me. I got up and went to the refrigerator and ate whiskey pecan ice cream straight from the carton.
On my birthday, three months earlier, Jennifer had been in the brutal throes of treatment that her doctor had warned was mostly palliative. Still, she had managed to send me a box of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, which arrived from Ohio packed in dry ice on which my children later poured water to make a ghostly fog in the kitchen sink.
“Do your bestest birthday dance,” she had written.
She was, I later found out, doing things like this for everyone she knew. She had even bought her brother a motorcycle. She was furious about dying at age 52 with children not yet grown, but she wasn’t going to let that spoil her last months of living or keep her from spilling love onto everyone she encountered. Even someone she had never actually met.
Throughout our correspondence, Jennifer sent me other small gifts, including a jug of precious maple syrup painstakingly tapped by her husband.
Her best gift of all, of course, was letting me into her life. In the closed-off silos of modern life, an open door to another’s life is an astonishment, a block of gold that should be mined for all it’s worth.
The other Jennifer also gave me a mantra that will serve me as long as I live.
Always go to Ohio.
I learned from her — and from my regrets in the years since — that 90 percent of love is showing up, that we should not dally or rationalize when our friends are in need, even if they are “just” cyber friends. We should take every opportunity to make a cyber friend a real-life friend.
Life is short. Type fast. Then get in the car and go.
It’s good advice for anyone. Always go to Ohio. Or Montana. Or Georgia. Wherever your Ohio is. And when you get there, tell them that a couple of Jennifers sent you. The original Jennifer Graham — the best of her kind — would like that.