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Proof of an afterlife
The blog of a dead woman lives on, perhaps redefining the nature of mourning, the nature of love
By Amy S. Rosenberg
Inquirer Staff Writer
VENTNOR, N.J. - On March 20, Jennifer Cakert turned 27, but only on her MySpace page and her blogger profile, where her age ticked ahead by virtue of an automatic program. The slide shows still moved horizontally through self-portraits and other photos, and as recently as 10 days ago, a friend left a comment for her.
"Look at this," says her mom, Cynthia Walker, 56, seated, as she so often is now, at a computer scrolling through comments on her daughter's blog, followingmyfish.blogspot.com. "It's weird. People are still talking to her on MySpace." The blog has had 37,000 hits overall.
The thing is, the thing that her friends, and perhaps most particularly, her mom, have discovered is that in cyberspace, Jennifer Cakert (pronounced Sackert) - their quirky, artistic, intellectual, hippie-ish, sensitive, beautiful, witty, tragically dead at 26 years old Jenn - feels just a little less dead.
More than a year after her sudden and still unexplained death, Cakert's poetry and photography are still being viewed and commented upon. Her eclectic persona - her anime-Star Wars-film-Neil Gaiman comics-Regina Spektor-Capt. Jack Sparrow-Harry Potter-and boyfriend's band Happy Anarchy-loving self - is still widely in circulation. The "little fish," as the posters on her blog were known, are still surfacing.
There, her mom takes comfort in a world where her daughter was never physically present, where people found her daughter in other ways, ways she must now draw on herself, a place where Jennifer Cakert or at least Jenn See, as she was known on her blog, is still out there being happened upon, run into, as it were, by people she had not met during her lifetime.
"I'm reading her words that she spoke, a year and a half ago," Walker says. "To me, they're new. Again, it keeps her alive. It's almost like this link to another world. You wish there was a way you could reach into this other dimension. All these new people who didn't have access to her work. This whole other chain of people . . . "
You can see it clearly by the postings on June 22, the one-year anniversary of Cakert's death. Her best friend, Kylin Follenweider, known on their blogs as Mysfit, posted a tribute to Jenn on the fish blog they shared with Jenn's boyfriend, Tim Boylan, known as oldben.
That tribute linked to another one-year tribute written by Carl V., a blogger who had known Cakert only through reading and posting on her blogs, and through the comments she left on his blog, stainlesssteeldroppings.com.
Carl V.'s writings, in turn, had caught the eye of another blogger, Rus VanWestervelt, who then found himself, as he put it on his blog, rusvw.net, "driving in reverse" to explore Jenn's writings and photos and personality for the first time, introducing himself, as it were, to someone who had already died, until he too felt as if he had reason to mourn the death of the young woman known as Jenn See.
In this world, people Cakert never knew - people who already related to her without ever having been in a room with her, or talked on the phone with her - are continuing to relate to her in some way, though they have known, from a sad blog posted by Boylan the day after her still-unexplained death from natural causes, that she was dead. Sorrow broke open on a whole new front of people's lives.
For some of those people, in particular Carl V. Anderson, 38, a married father of a 15-year-old daughter from Kansas City, Mo., who struck up a regular online friendship with Jenn See knit together through postings on each other's blogs, reading the other's free-ranging writings about any number of shared interests, mourning Cakert's death has been an unexpectedly painful process.
Her death hit harder in her little corner of the blogosphere than you might expect, and set off a series of postings about the depth of these online friendships, about the nature of mourning in this context, and about the nature of love when it lacks the physical presence of ever having met the person.
"It's so weird dealing with that sense of loss, someone you never saw, or ever talked to," said Anderson, a social worker in a mental health center in Kansas City who found the followingmyfish blog through shared interests in Gaiman comics and genre fiction.
He came to enjoy a near daily visit to Cakert's blog, where she chronicled both her lively intellect and her more prosaic 20-something adventures, the last of which was the predictably loopy trip to the Bonnaroo music festival, a place Anderson would never find himself in a thousand years.
"It amazes me to this day how profound that relationship really is," Anderson said in a telephone interview, where he learned for the first time how to say Jenn's last name. "There certainly was at the time of her death a real awkwardness to feeling that connectedness to someone. The depth of that connection wasn't apparent to me until she wasn't there to me."
Anderson wrote of his attempt to define just what his relationship with Cakert was. "There is an absence of completeness to a relationship in which you do not see the person face to face and yet there is a depth of relationship that is achieved when you share of yourself with others and have them do the same with you."
Perhaps because people in this sphere are already so good at conjuring up relationships without a physical presence, it was not so hard for them to conjure up Jennifer Cakert after she had died.
The process felt familiar to Jenn's mom, as it would have to Jenn herself, who lost her father when she was 9 years old, and as it would to anyone grasping to keep a lost loved one around in some way, to mine your memory of them, to fit them into your present, a feat that takes remembrance, imagination, a little bit of helpful delusion.
VanWestervelt, a creative writing teacher in Maryland, described the process of discovering Cakert after Anderson left a comment on his Web site. "Carl leaves a comment, I am intrigued that there really are other guy-bloggers out there. I go to his Web site, scroll down through the posts, and find a eulogy written to a person I never knew. But here's the rub. He didn't know her either. At least, not in the traditional sense."
He added: "I really cannot explain it, but I was struck by Jenn See's death. I did not know her at all, nor had I ever visited her blogs. . . . Yet, there was this inexplicable feeling, this pain I felt in reading of her sudden and horrible passing."
VanWestervelt believes the relationships are proof of an "evolution of love" to a higher plane, where written communication can create real, meaningful friendships.
Cakert's friends in her real life do not discount these friendships, do not consider them inappropriately voyeuristic or inauthentic. Bloggers invite this sort of attention. Boylan, Jenn's boyfriend and co-blogger, himself validated them, commenting on Anderson's blog that " . . . you were a bigger part of her life than you may realize, you and all of our other blogging friends, and you always managed to bring a smile to her face just by being out there. that means a whole lot to me."
The nature of Cakert's writing - conversational, confessional, intimate, sharing the way you talk, think, answer questions, the community of comments that springs up in response - makes it easy, and satisfying, to conjure up the person again.
Cakert herself explained it this way on the blog: ". . . i blog so as to have a venue for my creativity. mysfit & i have a longstanding creative partnership, & it seemed a good way to keep a good thing going over different time zones. it's totally worked, too, & i'm writing prolifically. yay! besides, i like having conversations with strangers."
Cakert's co-bloggers on the followingmyfish Web site, mysfit and oldben, have posted only a few times since her death, though they have written of their gratitude toward other bloggers for their tributes to Jenn. The Web site remains, though, with its extensive archives and links to Cakert's other blogs, including her photography blog, touristofeverything.blogspot.com.
Says Follenweider: "It's tough for me to go to the fish. Cynthia, she's gone to every little site that Jenn's mentioned. You expect that from her mom, trying to find every little thing. . . .
"Every time she sees something new, somebody else she didn't know, that's a little part of Jenn that's still alive . . . somebody else that was affected by Jenn. She's never going to see a new comment from Jenn, but she can see new things from other people."
At some point, though, it seems inevitable that Cynthia Walker will have read these blogs so much that she will stop finding new things and new people and will feel as though even this vast posthumous sphere of her daughter has been used up.
Perhaps then, though, she'll take the lock of her daughter's hair out of the box she keeps it stored in - that and her ashes are what's left of the physical being of Jennifer Cakert - and walk past the computer to the steamer trunk that sits in the corner, and start reading, without the company of strangers, her daughter's journals.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007