One thing that changed me during the pandemic happened in Spring, not long after the Pandemic began. Like so many empty nesters, two out of three of our adult kids came home after their colleges went online and decided to ride it out with us for a few months. We had a routine established. The kids set up their laptops and work stations in the living room area, located conveniently next to the kitchen. I worked in my office. We all convened for lunch when my husband, one of the few people still allowed to go to work at his state job in Wyoming, came home. In the evenings we watched movies, cooked and ordered in depending on the night, worked on a puzzle, and spent a lot more time together than we had imagined we would be doing when we first made our plans for 2020. To be honest, except for feeling sad about the people who were sick, I found myself cherishing the time with my family. But then one day, I received a phone call and our little pandemic routine was over. Someone was unable to reach my friend, would I go over and check on her?
My gut instinct told me not to go alone, so my husband and I muttered a goodbye to the kids and headed over to her house together. I’d been through this kind of thing with her before – a well-check usually called-in by a mutual friend – but this time it was someone not close to either of us who had called. Images of all the times before ran through my mind alongside newer images from the news; doctors covered from head to toe in protective clothing, masks, and tallies of the dead. I was glad my husband was driving. He tried to reassure me, but he’d been on this drive before, too. His helpful words sort of tumbled out and landed in a heap between us. We both knew better. I hoped with all my heart we were wrong, and would discover that her phone simply needed charging, but my heart thrummed a warning telling me this time was different.
When I got to her house, I peeked through the window. Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw her empty chair. She might be okay! I was happy that I hadn’t found what I was afraid of, but while still standing on the porch ringing the doorbell I received another phone call. She had been found. My friend was in the hospital and had been there for a week. She’d gone to the ER for one thing, and from there everything broke apart. How many people in the past few months had done the same thing? Only this wasn’t COVID.
I had been down this road with my friend before, and we had almost turned a corner before things went wrong again. There had been a few corners and keeping up wasn’t easy, but maybe this turn would convince her to start over. I hoped she might be home again soon and we could start over too. I desperately wanted to begin again with her, but also to get back to the way things used to be. We had only talked occasionally on the phone for the last couple of years, I’d sent her a card just a few months before to let her know I was thinking of and praying for her, but we hadn’t spent time together. There was a reason, and it includes a complex series of realizations and decisions my friend made in her life that I am still grappling with today. I wanted to grab onto the hope I’d had for her in the past, that she’d had for herself, but with every new detail her future became less certain.
The hospital wouldn’t let me see my friend at first, even though she didn’t have other immediate family in town. Only short phone calls during which she was lucid, but fatigued. The doctors told her she might have six months. Another dear friend of mine gently suggested that I not wait six months to say anything to her that was on my heart, and I will always be grateful for that advice. My friend did not have COVID, but she was very sick. By the time I was allowed to see her in person, which is a pandemic miracle I know, she could barely communicate. She was alarmed when she saw me covered with protective garments, a mask, and a face shield. For all I knew the rules could change and I wouldn’t be allowed to visit her again. She wasn’t dying of COVID, so when the caregivers left the room, I raised my face shield and kissed her forehead.
I did get to visit her a few more times, but on one such visit I knew it wouldn’t be much longer, and she passed away not long after I left. We’d had weeks, not months. My friend didn’t die of the virus that was making it so difficult for me to visit her, but of something that has been around a lot longer. Alcoholism stole her from us, from the world, and made her last years sad and difficult. Its hold on her was like a vice grip. The same time that I was being there for my family and celebrating the online graduation of our oldest son during the pandemic, I was also saying goodbye to my friend while wearing a mask.
I am still coming to terms with the fact that my brilliant soul of a friend died of alcoholism. I wonder every single day if I did something wrong, if I could have done something different, if I did anything right with her at all. It has ripped a hole in the fabric of my life that can’t be easily stitched with poring over photo albums of her when she was healthy, independent, and joyful. Now I am haunted by the difference between the friend from twenty years ago and my friend who died almost one year ago. It’s as if they were two different people.
Now, when I consider alcohol, I see it differently than I did before. I wonder how many alcoholics have been created during this Pandemic? How many people accidentally triggered that darkness inside of them by drinking too much when they were lonely? What if this were to happen to one of my children someday? It’s not that I don’t drink wine during this Pandemic, because I have and do, but I know now that if we aren’t careful, it can snag us without our noticing. It can snatch our friends and loved ones right out of our lives.
As with everything, writing helps those of us who love words, so here I am letting my thoughts about my friendship with an alcholic unravel just a little bit here for the first time. I am only just starting to write about my feelings about this topic, just as I am only beginning to understand alcoholism and its toll. This disease is ages old. The pandemic life has simply made it harder to bear.
So many things are different now. I wonder, probably like you, what will change and what will stay the same? I think of my kids as they waited all those months ago at home for my husband and I to return from the funeral, so we could continue at-home graduation festivities. How strange it must have been for them. What have they learned from my friend’s journey? From this pandemic? I pray they are changed for the better. I pray that I am too.
I am certain that I will never be the same for coming face to face with my friend’s alcoholism, and the pandemic magnified the effect and meaning it had on my friendship and in my life. I’ve learned a sad lesson that now, more than ever, we need to communicate with our loved ones, check on those who are alone, and instead of reaching for a bottle of comfort, reach for things in our lives that can truly bring us joy.
Tina Ann Forkner is a school librarian, writing instructor, and published author from Wyoming. Learn more about her books here.