Friendship in the Time of Coronavirus
My girlfriends were hurting and they needed me. How would I give ride-or-die support when being there wasn’t an option?
For the second time in as many weeks, the phone rang too early to be anything but bad news. Each time, it was a close friend announcing a personal tragedy. Stacey* and Karla* had both lost their husbands suddenly. Both women were still in shock as they worked through their lists of notifications with a kind of robotic efficiency. I appreciated being among the first to know and spent the few minutes they could spare trying to be sympathetic, soothing and supportive. But, beyond that, my consolation arsenal was bare.
Stacey and Karla didn’t lose their husbands to the coronavirus. One suffered a massive stroke and the other a fatal heart attack. Non-COVID casualties seem to get short shrift in a time when all the death bandwidth is consumed by the pandemic. But these deaths are no less tragic or devastating and the survivors deserve no less sympathy. The challenge is how to demonstrate the compassion and caring I feel when proximity and being there simply aren’t options.
I have never viewed my female friends as merely placeholders in between romantic relationships. They have always been the bedrock of my life and my primary support through every life transition, even when things remained maddeningly static. My girlfriends and I have an emotional intimacy that lets us share life’s most intimate details and receive a sympathetic hearing and reassurance, rather than advice or judgment, in return.
I pride myself on being Ethel to their Lucy or vice versa, always down for a good caper or up for a rant about the boss or latest date from hell. I like to believe I’ve mastered the art of being supportive without being an enabler, but the coronavirus has been the ultimate test of my ride-or-die ethos.
Always one to host a movie night, arrange a happy hour get-together and find any excuse for a party, the coronavirus and social distance mandates forced me to improvise, change or severely constrain all in-person interactions. Gone for the foreseeable future are the spa days and weekend escapes. We found ways to improvise.
Stacy and I continue to share tacos and homemade daiquiris through open car widows in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant. A meal of cheap Mexican food, thin paper napkins, plastic utensils and red plastic cups is quite a comedown from our usual fine dining experience. But the hour-long laugh fest is like a Michelin meal for my lonely soul.
Happy hour via Google Hangout took the place of morning walks with Karla. I’m momentarily taken aback whenever my perfectly coiffed gal pal appears on screen sans makeup or a freshly permed ’do. But right in my home office, my presence shifts from overflowing emails and half-written stories to some serious girl time. Even in these dreadful times, we can at least relate and enjoy one another for an hour.
While these measures are a poor substitute, they have sufficed because we all believed things would be different in a month or two. But now is when Karla and Stacey need from me the very things the pandemic has stolen away — my just being there whenever and wherever. Sympathy is a dish best served up close, but social distancing makes togetherness difficult, if not impossible. So what has always been traumatic and lonely is now a sentence of solitary confinement.
We continue to conduct our lives and relationships over video chats and at six feet distances. Traditional rituals of grief, group remembrances and consolation are postponed until this is all over, a time I struggle to even imagine. A virtual hug to a friend convulsed by sobs doesn’t quite cut it. Sleeping over to be there just in case won’t mean nearly as much two or three months later.
Mutual reliance is the glue that binds most friendships. As I processed my own emotions, I realized that what pained me most was my uselessness. I wanted to be needed and longed for a chance to put their necessities ahead of my own. I learned long ago that saying “let me know if you need anything” just adds one more task to their list of things to figure out. Yet, as I prepared to offer specific help, both friends reached out and asked for my assistance. All they requested were little things, and my gesture of taking over these minor details seemed so insignificant. But then I realized that Stacey and Karla kept turning to me not to complete tasks but as a reason to connect. They trusted and needed me. In essence, these frequent, little transactions signaled that our friendships matter.
I want to help my dear friends look ahead without glossing over their grief. So, I nod to when the pandemic is over and we can give their husbands a proper homegoing. I also want to plant a seed of hope about the new lives they will face. “When this is all over, we’re going to take that trip to Morocco we’ve been talking about,” I told Karla. “Girl, that side-by-side mani-pedi can’t come soon enough,” I said to Stacey.
In the meantime, Google Hangout cocktail hours are still on Thursday nights at 6:00, and I wouldn’t miss them for the world.
*Names have been changed