The plain, pine box passed by, down the aisle to my right. The casket, on its way to a burial place I would not see, contained my childhood best friend. I had not seen her in 20 years.
In kindergarten, I would hide with her at the top of the stairs when one of my parents arrived to bring me home. I would silently will them to give up and go away; I would have stayed forever, reveling in adventures with puffy stickers and painting, tall tales and kitchen explorations.
Upon my inevitable exit, she would pass me some little toy or figurine from her room. “Can I keep it?” I would beg, no doubt unattractively. Her parents tolerated her generosity, and I’d leave with a consolation prize – a treasure from our playtime to ease the sting of leaving her company.
When she transferred to my college much later, after years of weaving in and out of each other’s lives, we wandered campus together and shared the details of our scarcely overlapping social lives and academic interests. Time, it seemed, had not passed.
After she had walked down the aisle as one of my bridesmaids in our 20s, she moved to an apartment a few blocks from my starter home. She and I spent countless days walking, sitting at the café, or just running errands together.
“You talk alike,” one of my business school friends observed during that time, when I had brought her along to a crowded outdoor table full of alpha MBA students. She and I looked at each other and giggled. Of course, I thought, my childhood adoration had caused her voice to imprint on mine. Or was it the other way around?
When she took her life at age 46, it cut more deeply than maybe it should have. After she left our new neighborhood for graduate school in another city, we had lost touch. Maybe more than a decade later, I had found her on Facebook, followed her travels, exchange a brief note, and tried to talk live several times. Only later did I understand that severe depression likely prevented her from fully reconnecting.
At the funeral, I sat behind a row of her sister’s friends. A year ahead of us in school, that group was tight, local, and accustomed to showing up for each other.
“You’re writing a book?” one of her sister’s friends asked me after the service. “It’s hard to make money writing,” she explained. “But we should talk.”
The writer and I had done musicals together in high school. Though our paths only intertwined starting in our teens, through Facebook we kind of knew what the other was up to. When my family and I traveled across the world where she happened to be living, she met us at our hotel. She introduced us to mall basement treats, a hallmark of that part of the world, and we watched her expertly select and arrange tropical flowers she would bring home to her family. She explained how things really worked in this faraway place that, as tourists, we were just scratching the surface of.
“Who’s that?” my son asks each time my phone rings now. Under quarantine, he is always nearby. “Who do you think?” I’ve started replying. He knows. This writer and long-lost theater friend has become my coronavirus lifeline. We had already been in constant touch in the months before the lockdown – helping each other think through our next career moves, opening up about our regrets and worries, and giving each other honest feedback.
Now, as lonely and isolating as the COVID-19 lockdown is, I find myself inexplicably avoiding most social interactions – except with her.
For most of the lockdown, we have traded daily videos – her young daughter playing “calendar helper” to help us track the passage of time; my middle school son relaying the day’s weather forecast. When one day, I allowed myself to feel grief over my kids’ lost experiences, I cried over the phone to her. And when one of us has a win – a pitch accepted or nice feedback on an article, it is with one another that we celebrate, from a distance.
A few weeks into the lockdown, my teens and I saw a poignant episode of My Brilliant Friend, the bittersweet Italian show we were binge watching. The two main characters, now teenagers, embraced after an estrangement. “Are we still friends?” one asked. Of course, the other nodded.
That night, I dreamt of my deceased friend, conjured by the power of childhood connection. In the morning, I posted on Facebook that I realized the love of your childhood best friends runs deep and lasts forever. The one response to my post – a heart – came from who else? My writer friend.
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