IN 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent the whole nine yards of treatment. It was a very trying time, because my family had no idea what to do, having never dealt with cancer before.
My friends stepped up from all sides. Two, in particular, deserved medals, if any were ever given for friendship. Gina introduced me to the right doctors, facilitated consults, and did shifts sleeping in a chair in my hospital room during my surgery. Irene was one of the first people I called when I found out; she helped me deal with my lack of family support, cooked for me, and was there to listen when I talked about my deepest, darkest fears.
It’s now 2021, and I feel awkward admitting it, but both friends have drifted out of my life. In Irene’s case, shortly after I completed treatment, she became more scarce; gone were the regular phone calls and meet-ups. I almost confronted her to ask if anything was wrong, until I learned she had gotten busy taking care of her grandparents. I was puzzled, but decided to just let things be.
Although I was able to support Gina through the death of her brother, the friendship seemed to wear thin. I blamed it on work; since we met through work, the relationship devolved back into a matter of projects, deadlines, meetings. We had done several projects together, and she wasn’t the easiest person to work with, but we managed. A few years ago, though, we ended up with a gig I absolutely hated; it was boring, disorganized, and the clients could not make up their minds. I began to dread her calls, because I knew it would be unpleasant, or just a matter of getting work done alongside some feeble attempts at small talk.
Both friendships hung in limbo, I felt. And then COVID-19 came, and it happened almost inevitably: despite years and long histories, both friendships quietly slipped into their death throes, now untethered by guilt or resentment.
As my boss observed, “Maybe the friendships were already in trouble to start with.” All it took for these frayed bonds to be severed finally, as it were, was the “gift” of enforced social distancing.
I still saw Irene on rare occasions with a few other friends pre-pandemic, but there was no longer much of a friendship to speak of. I didn’t quite know what was happening in her life, and she didn’t always ask about mine. That yarn about old friends not being in touch for years, and then picking up where they left off, like nothing happened? Not quite true, I think. Friendships need work, and if you don’t nurture them, they’ll dry up and die. As they say, walang forever—all grownups should know that by now.
Last January, I tested positive for COVID-19 after unknowingly exposing four friends, Irene included, during a lunch in someone’s home. The lunch itself wasn’t that pleasant; Irene was disinterested, contradicted my statements, and would cut me off in mid-sentence, until I gave up, telling myself that that had to be the end of that. When she asked for a “heart-to-heart talk” later while I was convalescing, I actually thought it would be an explanation of sorts.
‘I told him I loved him more than any virus…. Friend ko siya, eh’
She then proceeded, albeit gently, to cross-examine my actions—why I hadn’t told them the minute I took a swab test (it was unplanned, and I wasn’t feeling sick), why I hadn’t simply paid for their swab tests instead of just offering to do so, why I hadn’t called each of them instead of announcing the news in our Viber group. I was still dazed at the time, and had no answers, other than I had no idea I was sick. It was only in retrospect that I realized I had been asked a series of nitpicky trick questions, “things I want to know,” she said. Irene seemed out to determine that I had been either grossly negligent or simply stupid.
Things came into sharper contrast when another unrelated friend, Joey, who has a serious illness, said he had also been exposed to a groupmate who didn’t know he was a potential carrier. The groupmate was mortified and apologetic. “What did you say? Inaway mo?” I asked Joey. He peered at me from the screen on FaceTime, puzzled. “No! I told him I loved him more than any virus, and I knew he never meant it. Friend ko siya, eh.”
So maybe I’m not thinking straight, but thus did the virus bring to the fore a new COVID casualty in my life: relationships, with both friends and family. “Friend ko siya” or “family ko siya” suddenly did not hold any guarantees. Irene, for example, apparently wasn’t about to let my “negligence” slide because “friend ko siya.”
Like I said, all relationships need some work, and unfortunately for me, important ones suffered some damage—or became less important—after the isolation, suspicion, and fear.
The pandemic is not a healthy time to ‘test’ loyalties
I read somewhere that the pandemic is not a healthy time to “test” loyalties. For the record, I wasn’t doing any testing; I think the relationships faltered even before I got a chance to do that—and for all I know, the other side may be making the same conclusions about me, since I’ve (finally) accepted that it’s not my job to fix everything.
People have spoken about how bonds were strengthened and renewed during lockdown: friends strove to keep in touch even virtually, and family members who used to zip past each other because of busy lives finally had time to talk again. I got to experience both sides of the spectrum.
When one of my closest childhood friends, A, decided to stop talking to another, B, before Christmas 2020—for the most absurd, petty reason—my most immediate and important support group vanished. The two friends I spent a couple of nights a week speaking to on FaceTime during the early, frightening days of the pandemic were now ignoring each other, and I felt miserable and veritably abandoned at the height of my bout with COVID (not that I had any illusions that things would be magically settled on my account).
Enter my other childhood friends from the same gang, but now based abroad. Realizing how fragile I was getting because of my history of depression after I would be bawling during FaceTime sessions, they took up the slack and organized a group call every weekend to make sure I was okay. It’s no exaggeration to say that the new Saturday habit saved my life in many ways, but when I thanked them, the girls said they realized how much they needed it, too.
The diminished sense of family is another story. In our extended household, we live in individual houses in one compound, but would gather most every night, but especially on Sundays, for a family dinner in my brother’s dining room that made the early days of lockdown much more manageable. When a few of us contracted COVID in January, we all isolated in our respective homes—but the isolation never quite ended.
I now feel like I’m living alone; I might as well have moved into a condominium with strangers for neighbors
Now, almost five months later, family dinners no longer happen, even on Sundays. I hardly see my nephews and nieces (unless their small children are playing in the kiddie pool outside my window), and the host brother and his wife, both seniors, now follow their own meal schedule. Maybe it’s paranoia, or playing safe, or they just got tired of feeding the whole brood! For all intents and purposes, though, I now feel like I’m living alone; I might as well have moved into a condominium with strangers for neighbors, which, to be fair, has its pros and cons.
I nursed myself through COVID with support from Dang, my househelp (who resisted infection); kept in touch with my own doctor; and managed my own medication. Today, I live with Dang and three dogs, who serve as my immediate family. We prepare our own meals, I come and go as I need to, and I hear about family goings-on only through our Viber group. Even birthdays are generally ignored, other than the Viber greetings. Blood ties have been relegated to an app; COVID has, by and large, scared away my extended family life.
Not that I’m an isolated case. I know people who live alone who used to call relatives every day, until the frequency just decreased. One woman moved back in with a sister, and they were getting in each other’s way so much, she returned to her tiny flat within the week. “Hindi na yata ako sanay,” she mused. “I just haven’t kept in touch with some friends, because I can’t relate to what they’ve been discussing anymore,” another friend, a mother of one, revealed. “I guess you get drawn to different people at different times.”
Is this a good thing? On one hand, for the family part, unless somebody is a big health risk, I wouldn’t recommend such lack of contact, and I hope those dinners resume one day. It’s obviously not healthy for the bonding, although for older singles out there, it does give you a preview of what life will look like—and who may or may not be checking up on you—in your old age. The pandemic reminded me that you can still be quite alone, no matter how big or small your family is—and again, that comes with pros as well as cons.
For friendships, on the other hand, I think an opportunity to reassess who you value—and who values you—must be welcomed. If there’s anything we should have learned from this crisis, it’s that so much time and emotion are wasted on BS, and on things (and people) that don’t matter. Maybe it’s time to go where you’re wanted; I’ve had other friendships develop and actually strengthen during this pandemic, as well, so maybe things balance out in the end.
There’s that celebrity writer friend I only see during events and productions, but who rarely returns calls and texts. Why bother? And there’s the former client who became a friend; she and her daughter are always asking me over for lunch, and few topics are now off limits during our hours-long talks. Why not?
What do you do when your requests to meet up safely, or even talk on Zoom, remain unacknowledged? You stop trying…
With no regular lunches to share and zero hours spent together, you realize that even co-teachers and co-workers are figuring less and less in your life. What do you do when your requests to meet up safely, or even talk on Zoom, remain unacknowledged? You stop trying—and heave a sigh of acceptance, and some relief, that things are clearer. Eventually, JOMO (the joy of missing out) trumps FOMO (the fear of missing out).
During that “heart-to-heart,” I told Irene I would lie low for a while; worrying about the people I infected was more traumatic than the virus itself. It’s been five months; I haven’t heard from most folks at that ill-fated lunch, and I’m not inclined to get in touch.
A is still not talking to B, and has, in the process, built a wall between herself and the rest of the group. The Saturday pow-wows, my lifeline, are going strong. I text A once in a while, but I can’t pretend like nothing happened. I think she’s being foolish, but that’s my opinion. And it’s her life.
I last saw Gina at my mother’s pre-lockdown wake in early 2020, and I texted her for her birthday last July. We didn’t exchange Christmas greetings—and I’m not holding my breath.
I guess people do come and go at different points in your life, no matter what you’ve shared. COVID has just given many of us a reason to finally let go.