Not really a food post this time, just something that’s been kind of haunting my mind.

Today I found myself thinking of my friend Kevin, who passed away this spring.  Kevin was a fellow NPR Kitchen Window contributor, and one of those friends one makes so easily and casually these days thanks to social networking.

Over the course of maybe 3 years’ acquaintance, we had just a handful of exchanges– a few phone and email conversations and a bunch of Facebook interactions.  We posted food haikus on each other’s Walls.  Mine were mostly absurdist; his, more heartfelt.

I found Kevin interesting, a little funny, always game for some chitchat about a pretty wide range of subjects ranging from food to politics to technology. I thought his haiku was OK, if a little callow.  On occasion, I caught a glimpse of a more sensitive nature.  If I happened to disclose some waves breaking in my emotional life, I was always surprised that Kevin was so quick to respond and try to shore up my outlook.

Over the phone he seemed strangely grave, and in his written messages to me I sometimes felt he was trying to prove something about his life experience, or maybe his smarts (not that his smarts needed proving).  He mentioned his health problems in passing, the way people do, and I thought that the way he mentioned and then minimized them was also just, you know, what people do.

I didn’t hear that he had died until a couple of months after it happened.  It was only then I discovered that he had been desperately ill through much of our acquaintance, and though his death was always before his eyes, he never spoke of it to me.  I found out what had been stalking him–acute liver disease–only by digging deep into search and finding some posts he had filed on a non-food website.

When I learned he was gone, it was as though I suddenly had to re-interpret everything I knew about him.  Things he’d said that maybe seemed overblown in a casual acquaintance suddenly made every kind of sense in an acquaintance whose every day was tinged with the formality of death.

That he had a really profound sense of humor, was essentially modest, was private enough not to share his burden of trouble, and yet was empathetic enough to help others share theirs, were things I only later understood.  But now I saw why he seemed to take things so seriously.  Why shouldn’t a man facing the end at any moment feel the need to prove the things he’s done right in his life? Why shouldn’t he write earnest haiku? Why shouldn’t he seem grave on the phone?  Why wouldn’t he reach out and find the humanity in other people he scarcely knew?

It was like one of those movies where a sudden shift in perspective makes you realize you have to review the whole thing from a new reality baseline.

Alas, a friendship can only be reviewed in memory once death has put an end to it.  And Kevin, merely a somewhat like-minded acquaintance when I knew him, has transformed in my memory into someone who might have been a dear friend if I’d gotten to know him better.  Yet that would have taken getting-to-know-you time, a kind of time that social media makes you feel you don’t need.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t have ever gotten to know him even a little if it weren’t for that very mode of communication.

The only thing I can conclude is that you never really can be sure you know a person, and you might as well give them the benefit of the doubt.  Chances are they contain multitudes, and among those multitudes there just might be someone very dear.