Amid All The Bad Jokes, An 'Eternal Friend'

Years ago, I swore I'd be the last holdout in a universe so plugged in and wired up that everyone, it seemed, had instant access to every other human being across the planet. I wasn't against technology per se, I just didn't like the idea of giving up my anonymity. I held out as long as possible, but finally succumbed to family pressure and signed up for e-mail. Suddenly, I was ripe for the picking by any school chum nostalgic for a reunion with the freckle-faced girl in the seventh-grade yearbook.

Shortly before last Christmas, my best friend from high school tracked me down by e-mail from his home in Florida. I had seen him exactly three times in the previous 28 years and exchanged only the occasional Christmas card. I received his message instantly. "R U OK?" he asked, for days having been unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong. Something was. My husband of more than 20 years had moved out, leaving me struggling to keep a smile on my face for the sake of the children.

Since then, Wade, a chief warrant officer with the Florida National Guard, has constantly watched over me from his new home in Iraq. He spends his days trying to protect the troops placed in his care while avoiding the other side of a gun barrel. Still, he manages to track down a laptop sufficiently free of debris blown in by the latest sandstorm to make a connection with an old friend. I ask if there's anything I can offer him in addition to my prayers. "What do I need that you can give me?" he writes. "To know that you are OK."

Wade's e-mails from behind enemy lines have made me realize that turmoil exists on a grander scale than my own. The grief he has endured in a land of occupation, while separated from his own wife and children, often draws me out of my preoccupation. Remembering our mishaps as teenagers has reminded me that sometimes laughter is the best medicine. And Wade's struggle to hold fast to his own values while dealing with the enemy has challenged me to hang on tight to the best of what remains of that girl in my high-school yearbook.

Years ago, I felt that becoming part of the e-mail population would merely complicate my life, allowing yet another unnecessary distraction to invade it. No doubt, at times e-mail seems an insufferable intrusion, littering the screen with too many bad jokes, petitions and virus alerts. Just knowing you're part of the global phone book, too, can be a daunting realization.

Yet despite my initial skepticism, I find the positives far outweigh the negatives. E-mail is not so much about the speed with which it allows us to communicate, but rather the barriers it helps us break down. Unfortunately, as society becomes more complicated, making contact with those we care about is sometimes more difficult. Voice mail is necessary because of our hectic work schedules. Cell phones proliferate because we're never at home. E-mail satisfies our basic need to communicate much the same way jungle drums and smoke signals satisfied our ancestors'.

"What kind of a friendship can you have by e-mail?" the skeptic in me once asked. One that might not otherwise be possible, I now know. My life is far richer for this friendship than it would be without it.

In the last year I've come to realize that you never know when an unexpected hand will reach out to help, even if it is from cyberspace. And if someone else's hand can stretch that far, so can mine.

On Flag Day and again on July 4, Wade flew our country's flag for me in Iraq. He sent me an e-mail afterward to let me know it would soon be arriving at my home. Still fresh with the desert sand, the flag bore the following inscription: FLOWN BY CW4 WADE "NUKE" NUQUIST FOR ETERNAL FRIEND BEVERLY ANN WILLETT AT CAMP SYCHAMORE/FOB SPEICHER, AL SAHRA AIRFIELD, TIKRIT, IRAQ, ON JUNE 14 (FLAG DAY) AND JULY 4, 2003. Eternal friend. I never knew such a thing existed. Without e-mail, I never would have.

Perhaps we should worry about our fascination with e-mail when we start to find ourselves reluctant to communicate outside the confines of our computer screen. In the meantime, relationships in cyberspace are no less powerful merely because a friend is not physically present.

And so, at the end of summer, as I was finally starting to heal, I scrambled to find a place at the beach where I might stick my toes in the sand with my children before school began. Amid the countless online lures of king-size beds, cable television, heated pools and free continental breakfasts, I found just the right hotel. The clincher? High-speed Internet access. Free and unlimited.