AJC reporter Ellen Eldridge struggles
with the helplessness of watching
a tragedy unfold on Facebook
I saw the posts as I scrolled through my timeline, but I didn’t pay much attention.
My friends Tim and Suzanne Cooper Morris often posted items on Facebook about their preteen daughters, Abigail and Sophie. One day, Suzanne posted in her characteristically humorous way that Abigail’s left eye had become crossed.
Suzanne had dealt with a congenital eye movement disorder all her life. She thought Abigail’s problem might be related or perhaps the result of an infection.
They assumed Abigail would make it to school later that day, but after appointments with two optometrists and a specialist, Suzanne was told to take her daughter Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite in Dunwoody.
The doctor ordered an MRI. For 11 hours they waited to find out what was wrong. To pass the time and distract each other from the boredom, they posted updates on Facebook.
Then that night, my Facebook friend wrote a chilling post.
Suzanne didn’t even know what an oncologist was at the time.
Both parents kept friends and family updated on Facebook, but the posts flew faster than I could process as I buried myself in my work, writing concert reviews and other content for Target Audience Magazine, an online magazine I’d started.
Before I knew Suzanne, I knew Tim. He and I met in late 2007 at a poetry reading at a coffeehouse in Woodstock.
I felt like a saleswoman in someone’s home, trying to pick the best plush sofa to sit on without looking odd, as I adjusted my papers and mentally prepared to go on stage.
I was drawn to Tim’s quiet tone and the humor and wisdom he brought to his poetry, especially his poems about his daughters. I was single and childless at the time, and I was intrigued by the magical world of childhood he painted.
My daughter asked,
With an urgent sincerity,
“Daddy, when will we turn in to squirrels?”
Looking into, and seeing the conviction in,
Her eyes, I responded,
“In four years, sweetie.”
“Great!” she replied, and took off into the trees
As I continued to sharpen
Tim often brought his girls with him to readings.
The first time I met them, Abigail was 8 and Sophie was 6. I had no idea what to say to people their age. Was I talking down to them? My mind frantically tried to recall what I was thinking at their ages.
I ultimately scampered away awkwardly.
A small group of us local poets and artists began to meet regularly at coffeehouses in the area, but over time the group dwindled. Some friendships fell by the wayside, others became digital.
I didn’t meet Suzanne until a few years later, at an art event where she showed her paintings. I interviewed her for the magazine about the album art she painted for James Hall and The Futura Bold band.
Then Abigail got sick.
My chest ached and a growing anxiety gnawed at my stomach whenever I read a new post. But still I couldn’t bring myself to comment or even click “like.” Nothing I typed could properly express the helpless feelings I had.
Those early days in September went by in a haze for me. Now married and with a family, I’d recently left my job as a lesson coordinator for a local music store so I could focus on my 10-month-old daughter and the new baby on the way. I was buried under an avalanche of obligations with the magazine and freelance work.
“Does this mean Tim’s daughter is going to die?” I asked myself when I saw the next post.
I mentioned the status update to my husband and we lamented the thought.
Abigail began radiation treatments right away. I felt claustrophobic looking at an image of the radiation mask she had to wear.
Tim, who had recently started writing for the magazine, sent me a private message in late September about what was going on with Abigail.
Hidden behind my computer screen, I might have teared up a bit reading that note. By that time, I had miscarried my baby. I couldn’t even share the news with my closest family members yet, let alone a friend I knew mostly from my Facebook newsfeed. So I read about Abigail’s nausea and sent my most sincere “good thoughts.” But as my words traveled through the web, they felt inadequate. I felt nauseous, too.
Eventually, though, the desire to connect with the Morris family took seed. I wasn’t ready to share my own struggles; it would have felt like trying to one-up their pain. I didn’t know what to say, but I began to comment on their heartbreaking status updates just to signal I was there, on the periphery of their pain, a friend trying to look in from the outside and understand.
Making a connection
One day in early November Tim posted something about an astronomical bill from Emory Hospital for Abigail’s care. I was mired in my own money woes at the time, calculating the cost of being unemployed, uninsured and trying to have another baby.
I posted a comment: “How is your baby doing now?”
The radiation had shrunk the tumor, he said. Abigail had regained full movement of her eye and her double vision was gone. An upcoming MRI in December would tell them more, but things were going “really, really well,” he said.
After that, their lives appeared to return to normal, according to Facebook. Abigail tried out to play the saxophone in the marching band at Etowah High School. Suzanne was engaged in a 30-day art challenge. Tim posted photographs from hikes in the North Georgia mountains. They appeared to be living in the moment and enjoying their lives.
Occasionally I would see Suzanne’s “all clear” posts following Abigail’s “MRI days” as they monitored her tumor, making sure it hadn’t started growing again.
I didn’t interact much. I assumed all was well.
I was reminded of Abigail’s fight in March 2013 when Suzanne posted that her daughter’s Make-A-Wish Foundation request was approved. She explained in the comment section that the wish approval process had nothing to do with her daughter’s prognosis.
“Abigail isn’t getting a wish from the Make-A-Wish people because she’s dying,” Suzanne said. “Every child who faces a ‘life threatening’ illness is eligible for a wish.”
I clicked “like.”
Suzanne never mentioned on Facebook that Abigail’s modest wish was for violin lessons, which she started that year.
Suzanne started another 30-day art challenge that April and one of the first pieces she posted grabbed me. Titled “Walling Himself In,” it was a graphite and watercolor wash rendering on chipboard of a stone wall with four fingers reaching over the top. I connected to the emotion the piece evoked, as well as the blue and gray tones. I emailed Suzanne and told her I wanted to buy it.
I was starting to realize how unique digital friendships are. They’re less about face-to-face interactions and more about the images we post, the articles we share, the comments we exchange about life. We feel each other out from a distance and, without fully realizing it, relationships develop between people who never actually speak to one another or even shake hands.
I left my daughter, now 2, and my newborn son at home with my husband and met Suzanne and Tim at a Woodstock coffeehouse.
The three of us we hugged and caught up over a cup of coffee. We commiserated about how time is not your own when raising young children. We exchanged money for art, hugged and I left.
By the time my son turned 1, Abigail only needed an MRI every six months. When my son turned 2, Tim tagged Suzanne and Abigail in a picture on Facebook that had been snapped from the back seat of an automobile. Abigail’s hair had grown past her shoulders. She was driving the family car.
We rang in 2015 and another MRI day went by in February. All my attention was focused on my graduation in May.
Then everything changed.
About the same time Abigail got a bad result on her MRI, I started to have a strange and terrifying eye issue of my own. The cells on my eye were sticking to my eyelids while I slept so my corneas would tear during REM sleep. Months of incorrect diagnoses went by as I struggled with light-sensitivity and pain until a specialist suggested laser surgery to correct the problem. I posted about it on Facebook without even thinking about Abigail and the eye issues she had experienced prior to diagnosis.
Suzanne commented with a supportive post. I private messaged her, thanking her for her concern and sending good thoughts for Abigail’s recovery.
Later, I would learn that around this same time, Abigail had an intravenous port installed and had to undergo chemotherapy treatments.
By December, I’d had surgery on both eyes and I literally couldn’t look at Facebook.
“Abigail’s tumor has grown slightly,” Tim posted in January 2016. “She is also having some problematic symptoms that may or may not be related directly to the tumor. Because of this, the doctor wants to perform a biopsy to determine the molecular structure of it.”
The goal was to find out the exact nature of the tumor, but the biopsy almost killed her. The procedure temporarily paralyzed her; she couldn’t speak or eat on her own. She couldn’t get out of her hospital bed without help.
Two weeks after the biopsy, Abigail was moved from the Aflac Cancer Wing to the Rehab Floor at Scottish Rite.
On Facebook, Suzanne shared a fact sheet on Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), one of the most resistant of all cancers to chemotherapy treatments and it affects primarily children. According to thecurestartsnow.org, it is a “dismal” prognosis.
Tim struggled with his emotions.
“Angry. Frightened. Betrayed. In denial. Depressed. Lost. Hurt. Guilty,” he wrote in a private Facebook message. “No father should ever have to tell his daughter she is going to die.”
“Ellen, if you ever can do an educational story on childhood cancer, Abigail has a DIPG. The most deadly form. If what Abigail is going through could help anybody else, that’d be a good thing.”
Suzanne wrote me because she knew I’d started working as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I felt both profoundly saddened and flattered by Suzanne’s private message. It wasn’t until that night that I fully comprehended the severity of Abigail’s situation. It was as though I had suddenly surfaced from underwater. Every previous post and update felt like a movie that in an instant became reality.
After having watched their family tragedy play out online, Suzanne’s message invited me into the middle of their story, with an added responsibility to write about it.
I planned to tag along to Abigail’s physical therapy session so Suzanne and I could steal a few minutes together over lunch. She had taken leave from work and was caring for Abigail 24 hours a day since the biopsy had robbed her of her independence.
I arrived at the Morris home that morning last May with a pack of banana nut muffins from Kroger, but no one had time to eat. Tim had left for work and Abigail’s sister, Sophie, was waiting for the bus. Suzanne buzzed around the house while Abigail and I sat in the warmly lit living room.
Abigail wore a black T-shirt that said, “Cats are great” and a pair of shorts that exposed bumps and bruises on her legs. She sat in an armchair, leaning to one side. She didn’t look like the picture posted on Facebook two years ago of a girl driving her parents’ car. Her once shoulder-length hair was cropped short. A half-inch scar from the biopsy extended past her hairline onto her neck.
She was no longer just the daughter of my Facebook friends; Abigail was sitting in front of me, struggling to speak and fighting to live. She had come a long way through physical therapy and could walk with help, but used a wheelchair most of the time.
We talked about music. She reminded me of her love of marching band and listed the instruments she played. Saxophone was her favorite. She said her grandparents had bought her a new tenor sax “right before all this started.”
Our conversation lasted the 15 minutes it took for her sister’s bus to arrive. We waved goodbye and I climbed in my car as Suzanne helped Abigail down the wheelchair ramp and into their white Nissan Versa.
We stopped at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in Kennesaw first, where Abigail had her blood drawn. I watched as the nurse searching for a vein on Abigail’s arm tried nervously to make conversation. She said something about a bruise.
“Her bruises don’t heal,” said Suzanne.
At Scottish Rite, Abigail went to physical therapy and we moms went to a nearby café. I’d never been more scared of a cup of coffee in my life. I stared down at my plate, feeling more like a reporter than a friend.
Suzanne’s soft face always carried a wide smile in her pictures online, but in person she looked tired from holding back tears. Her shoulders slumped against the red bench seat across the table from me.
“I don’t even know who to be mad at,” Suzanne said. “I don’t know who to point at or picket.”
I had never clicked on Suzanne’s link about DIPG. I wanted to hear from Suzanne that the movie had a happy ending, but I realized she was preparing to lose her daughter, barring a clinical trial miracle.
Looking her in the eye, I asked if she believed there was no hope. The corners of her mouth turned down. I looked away.
She said the only hope was for a donor who could fund research.
“Why do we have to wait for the memorial to get donations for DIPG funding?” she asked.
Day of sorrows
As the writer and poet of the family, Tim made it his job to keep Abigail happy and laughing. He told her things would be OK, that the next medicine would work. He told her lies because he had to.
Abigail was committed to staying positive, even when the clinical trial drugs weakened her body. Even as she continued to decline, she didn’t realize how desperate things were.
When Abigail developed pneumonia, Tim had to break the news to her that she was going to die.
Three weeks after I accompanied Suzanne and Abigail to physical therapy, I opened Facebook and saw the news.
Suzanne’s post landed like a blow to my stomach. But I barely had time to react. Hours earlier, a man had opened fire in an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 people. As quickly as my Facebook news feed filled with posts from horrified friends, my inbox filled with assignments from editors arranging news coverage. I didn’t have time to eat, much less think again about my personal life until after work.
At the end of the day, I held myself together as I walked into the gray parking garage, climbed into my car and turned up the music. The 37-mile drive home is where I typically process my thoughts, but I was too shaken to think or feel anything. It wasn’t until I pulled out of a fast-food restaurant’s drive-through later that night that I broke down crying.
The faces of the Orlando shooting victims were still flooding my Facebook feed the Wednesday morning of Abigail’s memorial service. But Suzanne shared a ridiculous video of a “jogging man challenge” set to the A-ha song “Take on Me.”
“For those of you who need it this morning,” she posted under the video. She was still trying to take care of everyone else’s emotions.
The flags were at half-staff as I drove to the service. It was the day before Abigail’s 17th birthday.
I felt dizzy in the car on the way to the service, and the lyrics to every song on the radio seemed inappropriate. I hadn’t seen Tim since that day three years ago when I bought Suzanne’s artwork. My tongue felt stuck to the sides of my parched mouth when I saw him outside the Etowah High School auditorium. I twitched the corners of my lip up in an attempt to smile, and we exchanged a hug.
Inside, I spotted Suzanne in a purple dress. I bit my tongue to keep from crying.
I chose an aisle seat toward the middle of the auditorium. Some 500 people packed the space and my body felt contorted and awkward as I tried to display a properly somber face without unleashing the tears I held in.
Musicians Bruce Butkovich and James Hall performed Abigail’s favorite Breaking Benjamin song “I Will Not Bow.” A high-point during Abigail’s ordeal was the day the band called her at the hospital and played it for her over the phone.
Then Tim read a poem. When he got to the line, “Daddy, when will we turn into squirrels?” my tears burst through the dam and I prayed to God I had a tissue in my purse.
I dug my fingers into my leg, trying to distract myself from my emotional pain as I watched Suzanne, strong and composed, stand at the podium and read her eulogy. I told myself I had no right to be so upset about someone I hardly knew.
Back on Facebook
I couldn’t bring myself to reach out to Suzanne or Tim for months after the memorial. But I watched their posts evolve from announcing a hiatus from social media to sharing memories of Abigail to outbursts of frustration over things like junk mail from colleges soliciting their dead child’s application. Tim polled his Facebook friends to figure out how to turn off the automatic memory feature.
But since witnessing their family’s tragedy unfold on Facebook, I’ve started paying more attention to friends’ troubles when they share them on social media.
One friend’s daughter was preparing to give birth to a full-term, stillborn baby. Someone else shared anxiety about finals.
I started questioning every relationship and counting my friends, wondering which ones I truly had time for and how much time had passed since we’d last chatted in person.
How genuinely could I care about my 1,233 friends, I wondered.
Ultimately, not much has changed about the nature of my relationship to the Morris family. I still use social media to stay both connected and distracted, but I empathize more. I try to send more private messages to people instead of simply commenting and liking posts. With every update I scroll past, I try think about the person who typed it and why I want him or her in my life.
ABOUT THE STORY
Most of us who engage in social media have had the experience of watching an acquaintance undergo loss or trauma via posts on Facebook. Sometimes we reach out through comments or private messages. If we know them well enough, we might even pick up the phone or drop by. But sometimes we may just lurk, feeling helpless and fearful of intruding. That is the dilemma Ellen Eldridge explores in this moving story about a family’s tragedy.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Ellen Eldridge joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a decade of freelance and community news reporting. She covers breaking news and occasionally writes features. She is married and has two children.