On February 17th, I emailed Tim. Tim is one of my best friends from childhood. We grew up on the same street in a small town in Maine. We went through all the rites of passage one goes through from 10 to 18 together. We played little league together, played in a garage band together, and had consulted each other with infinite wisdom on our first romantic undertakings. He has been living in Shanghai, China for the past year and a half teaching at a school for english speaking students, mostly expat children. I’d been meaning to write Tim for a while just as a general check-in. Though we haven’t seen each other physically in far too long, I think I’ll always consider him one of my closest friends. I wrote to him to give an update on my professional life running a gym in Boston (something I’d told him was a goal years before I even started coaching), to give an update on married life (I got married six months ago, him about a year and a half), and to tell him about my current undertakings in writing and creative work (Tim has always written and has a better imagination for fiction). Oh, I also figured it would be good to check in on the Coronavirus, something that I’d heard was making people sick in China. Of course I didn’t think he would be sick, because he’s Tim who grew up down the street from me, not a Chinese person I don’t know.
It was a few days before I heard back. I’d written a long email and he wrote a long email in response. With us both being writers of a sort, long written correspondence is a nice thing. It makes me think of the correspondence that’s happened with writers throughout history. Ours is of less popular significance, but at least living in a tradition. He certainly had quite the update. His family (him, his wife, and their ten month old child), had been on vacation in South Korea for the Chinese New Year when the Coronavirus outbreak got into full swing. The entire nation of China went into lockdown. Though they enjoyed their time in Jeju, an island province in South Korea, it was too expensive for them to stay there for the remainder of the lockdown, so they’d flown back to the states. As of his first writing, they were staying somewhere outside Los Angeles, making a stop there to ease the strain of the long travel on their less than a year old child. He was teaching his students remotely. Many of them had Ivy League aspirations in the following year, so stopping school altogether was out of the question. At the same time as all of this, he mentioned he’d started a creative writing MasterClass. I’d mentioned my own MasterClass endeavors, so we were both keeping that dream alive. After the hold over in LA, he was planning on coming back east (the US east) for an undetermined amount of time (weeks??). We hoped to be able to connect. This final piece came with unfortunate news: he was coming home to be with his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. He said that the diagnosis process had been arduous, but noted that her current condition was “hopefully not too serious.”
I wrote him back with a few responses to some points we had been hitting on in the pursuit of creative life, working with others through teaching and coaching, and I also expressed my concern for his mother, but kept a positive attitude. It was my understanding that non-hodgkin’s lymphoma was fairly treatable. He’d seemed fairly confident about her condition, so was I. Since we’d grown up together, I’d known his mother my whole life. She was an impressive woman. She had been the highest ranking member of the Air National Guard at a local base where we grew up. Being the commanding officer of an air base seemed cool when I was a kid. I didn’t really think much about the weight of a woman holding that position. That was just Tim’s mom. Tim’s mom’s job was to be the commanding officer of an air base. Now her job was to get treatment for lymphoma. Luckily her son was going to be home because of a small viral outbreak on the other side of the world. The stars were aligning for her to have some extra support to beat this thing. Of course she would. True to form, I sent Tim another long email. I ended it with some proposals of weekends for us to meet up in person when he was back in the north east. I was also about to go on vacation, so it would take a little time for our schedules to align, but they would. It would be great to see him in person and I could finally meet his daughter, who I’d only seen pictures of on social media.
Tim responded with a short response a couple days later. He said there was a lot he wanted to respond to my email, so he’d write a longer response later. He asked for a quick take on a public intellectual I was well aware of and looked on favorably. I saw the email just before bed one night and gave a quick response. That was it.
I returned from my vacation on March 4th and sent a quick email trying to set up a weekend meet up. I didn’t hear anything. I assumed he was busy remotely teaching students on the other side of the planet, helping his mother, and looking after his ten month old child with his wife in his parents home. At this point the momentum was building in the United States for a response to the Coronavirus. When we traveled home from vacation, the talk on the flight was of work travel being suspended indefinitely. There was a presidential task force. I wondered how this would affect the gym that I run. We’d have to do more cleaning.
On March 15th, I finally heard from Tim. I had started to worry that he and/or his wife got sick. Maybe they got quarantined somewhere, as they were traveling in the states after being in China and South Korea. He sent me a text, which came as a surprise since he hadn’t had a normal cell phone to communicate on for quite some time. The text let me know that he wasn’t avoiding me or my requests to meet up. He was texting to let me know that his mother had passed away two days ago. She had a rare blood infection caused by the lymphoma. Those couple weeks that had passed he was dealing with his dying mother.
In those two weeks, I had dealt with the growing storm of domestic worry over the spread of coronavirus. What had been the worry of people in a far off land was now a concern for those in our midst. At this point we had closed the gym. Officially we would closed for two weeks, but everyone was bracing for a longer haul. The process of closing the business I worked for was anxious and tense. Were we overreacting? Underreacting? What would happen with my salary? Would the business be able to withstand this period of closure? A couple days later, the government would have made the decision for us. Everyone was to stay at home. Everything in the city was shut down. The world had changed quite a bit in the month’s time since our first correspondence.
I sent a text back. If someone texts you, it’s polite to text back. Finding the right text to console your childhood friend on the death of their mother is a difficult text to write. I expressed my sympathies and condolences. I said I was there to talk or do what I could. I knew how much she had meant to him. It was a shock to my system to think that one of the stronger women I’d known as a child was now in the age of getting cancer and dying. Selfishly, I thought about my own parents.
Under normal circumstances, I would travel home for the funeral. In the time of coronavirus quarantine, I didn’t think it would be right for me to go. I’d been in the gym with exposure to a lot of people in the days leading up to closure. At that point everyone was well aware that you could carry the virus and be asymptomatic. We also all knew that someone at my age of thirty six was likely not in a particular danger, but going to the funeral would mean coming into close contact with people like Tim’s dad and my own parents, a gathering of that sort was a casualty of the quarantine as well. I respected Tim’s mother’s life and death, but I would have to do so from a distance.
My mother, who still lives up the street from Tim’s family, went down and brought them some baked goods. That’s the sort of thing you do when there is a death in a family. There’s nothing really to say. My mother talked to Sarah, Tim’s sister. After considering how many people would want to gather for Tim’s mom’s funeral, the family decided they couldn’t have a typical remembrance during the time of corona quarantine. My mom thought they had something small with the family.
A few days after the text message, I tried calling Tim. He didn’t pick up. I left a message saying I was just calling to check in and talk. Truthfully I was hoping we would talk and end out having a far reaching conversation like we normally would. I thought it could be a distraction for him. I also knew that I wouldn’t have much useful info for him in the way of “what to do if your mother dies while you’re cast out of your home on the other side of the planet and your family can’t have a funeral out of precaution for the spread of disease in a global pandemic.” Not my area of expertise. No playbook to draw from. In the message, I said he could call me back, or not. Whatever he wanted. He hasn’t called. I’ll try and reach out again. We’ve been living at a distance, but everything’s a bit closer to home now.
Written on April 22, 2020