SUPERHIGHWAY: Searching Online For A Loved One
By Dayanti Karunaratne
My mother’s voice broke through the morning grumbles of my two year old in the backseat. On the radio: a mother talks about a missing son, a body found, questions unanswered. Curiously, she was looking online for answers — she was trying to access her son’s Facebook and Google accounts. She was going to court that day. I remembered the name of her son, Dovie, and Googled him later from my desk.
Of course, that wasn’t my mom — it was another mother looking for her son in the online world. But it brought to mind my own family’s struggle for insight into the life and location of my brother Nagita, and how we search for answers in the world wide web.
Dovie was born and raised in Ottawa and moved to Toronto for university. But shortly after his 23rd birthday, he went missing. His mother notified the authorities but eventually, it seems, they stopped looking. His mother kept up the hunt; one day, about two years after he disappeared, she stumbled upon a page of the Toronto police website that listed unidentified remains. A few details matched, she pursued, and eventually she learned that Dovie’s body had washed ashore in Lake Ontario a few months after he disappeared. By then the body was too decomposed to attempt any real identification (foul play was not suspected). Unconvinced that her boy committed suicide, Dovie’s mother continues to pursue the mystery through his online communications, in hopes they will fill in the blanks about her son’s final days.
My mother has decided to stop looking. She hired a private investigator earlier this year and the PI immediately went online for clues to my brother’s existence, or lack thereof.
My brother Nagita was born in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, and moved to New Zealand shortly after his birth mother died. I guess he is technically my half brother, but we didn’t grow up with such labels. My parents met in New Zealand, where they married and had my sister Kumari. My half-sister Manjula was there, always on the periphery; photos often show her with a pony. I often wonder why they left.
And so did he. My childhood, at least the time I spent at home, involved listening in on a lot of yelling and violent tantrums. I would come home from school to find rooms destroyed. I’d go to sleep, eventually, to the sound of threats and the kind of sorrowful, wild crying that just makes you sad — that is, after you get over the fact that plans for the weekend were over. Pity came after I accepted that life — the food and books and calm that I had almost gotten used to— had been upended.
At least I found sadness, empathy, and pity for him. By writing through the crashing plates and hurtful accusations, I found a bit of calm in the closet of that house. But everyone in my family coped with it differently: my sister Kumari fought, jumping in the middle of matches that saw my brother painting himself as a pathetic, unsuccessful, doomed, black, crazy man. My half-sister flew — to Kenya or Quebec or a high school on the other side of town. My mom was usually in the thick of it, trying to defend herself or calm the situation so we’d all feel safe. My father? He was a psychiatrist, so of course he played the therapist.
But me, I was too small or weak or torn between all sides to be a part of it. So I hugged my journal (and probably my dogs and cats) and just wrote. Of course I listened, but I didn’t want to hear. Of course I would get angry, but mostly I was scared. The paper was so quiet, and all mine.
(Even writing this, using buttons on a machine to open up a vein in my family’s history and let bleed this way seems antithetical. Wrong. For so many years I took to my journal, scrawling while bawling — or maybe not crying at all, because I was releasing the pain through my words. Typing is something I do at work, commandeering multiple projects in a way that I hope is educated and considerate but is a bit more calculated than I’d like to admit.)
On and on it went: the fighting, the suicide threats, the late night talks between my father and brother that no one was allowed to weigh in on. Family members moved across the country and back again. The internet was born, allowing for hatred and pity to come alive in pixels. The scariest part of writing an email to Nagita was waiting for a response, which rarely came.
And then my father died. I was there, so was Nagita. My mother too: all three of us went to the morgue and were civil with each other. I stuck around what we now call my mom’s place for a couple of weeks and I remember the hug from my brother when he left. He said: “You’re hurting too. I know that.” He was always a good hugger — the tallest of my family, he could wrap his arms right around me. They were maybe a little forced, a bit stiff, but I always felt a little leaning in on both sides. As if we shared something, a similarity in our relationship with my father, maybe, or at least something big that we couldn’t put into words.
That was more than 10 years ago. I last heard from him in 2009 when he responded to an email wedding invite — he said he’d be there. I was immediately scared: what if he really shows up? What if he doesn’t? Luckily, enough great things were going on in my life that I wasn’t too surprised, or devastated, when he didn’t show. And when I finally got up the nerve to reach out to him, almost three years after that, to tell him he was an uncle to my little girl, I wasn’t surprised at the bounce-back response. My mother had told me that he cancels email addresses often. So often that she now sends mail — Christmas money, news from Sri Lanka — as registered mail, requiring a signature.
When she first told me about the registered mail process it really hit home. I had trusted that he was alive, doing his thing (that could be called self-pity but is more likely a condition that should be diagnosed, that would provide him with mental and physical support, a government label that aims to prevent him from falling through the cracks). But to truly find out we’d have to look at the one place he was always looking: online.
That’s the first place the private investigator looked. For months, no news. During that time I wallowed in fear, shivering at the possibilities. Death, of course, was always among the fears. Could it be worse? I had just started to let my mind wander down that dark path when I heard that the PI had a positive hit. A chatroom comment. Chatrooms were something I, as a late adopter to the internet, knew very little about. But when it comes to early adopters by brother was a stereotype: a tech-savvy engineer and a loner, he enjoyed long hours in dark rooms, the only light coming from the desktop monitor. It completely made sense that a PI would find him there.
But now what? Should my mother pursue, beg for more of the violence and anger that soaked through our home life?
A few days after I learned this last development I woke with a question that never occurred to me before: maybe he’s better off. Maybe he really doesn’t need us, his family, any connection to his past. Maybe his online community gives him everything.
Without knowing anything else, I can only turn inward, and ask what this says about my own relationship with my brother — and the online world in which he lives. That perhaps I see that world wide web through a lens of fear: because it is where he lives, because he was so quick to flock to it, because it does hold the key to any future relationship I might have with him.
About six months after this essay was first published my mother let me know that she had made contact with my brother — that he was indeed alive. There was a long pause on both ends of the line as we let this reality set in. I personally observed happiness and relief, confusion and pain, all over again. I read her email correspondence with him, and there was clearly hurt on his side, too. There were searing accusations, but also notes of humility. Mostly there is an articulated desire to be left alone, and yet I can’t help but also pause at his pain and wonder if that really means I should really only contact him in case of emergency. Is it not an emergency when it’s Christmas Eve and I’m afraid he’s alone and no one cares about that? It’s easy to hide online, but now I have an email and street address (and a vow to keep my mother updated of any changes). Now it’s easy for me to find him, too. I keep thinking about something my 7-year-old daughter asked me the other day: “If someone is upset and says they want to be alone, should you really leave them alone, or should you make sure they’re okay?” I didn’t have a good answer, other than to say “if it’s been a long time you should go and check on them.” I think I’ll use that advice myself.