A family friend recently died. I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is. The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind. The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died. By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried. He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance. In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.
Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home. Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh. News traveled more slowly. Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter. The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close. Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there. The death had occurred days or weeks ago. There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life. Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately. New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.
We move swiftly and slowly at the same time. I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around. Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough. Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home. Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car. Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse. The shock is immediate and visceral. But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in. Our family friend had been suffering for some time. Now he’s at peace. I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.