By “stood”, and “beside me”, I mean virtually, of course, but despite the frustrations of forgetting you’re on mute, and singing each other happy 40th birthday over Zoom, I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as loved as I do after almost a year of being in near-complete isolation.
The past 11 months have seen my closest friends battle some major life changes, moments that would be tough-going even if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic. Between us, we’ve shared experiences of divorce, separation, grief, heartbreak, job loss, major surgery, the struggle to keep businesses afloat, the difficulties of homeschooling, battling on the NHS front line – and more.
We’ve exchanged photos of our shocking “new normal” on WhatsApp, images that have made me both weep and cackle. Last March, the steady “ping” of the group chat I have with my schoolfriends grew muted as we realised the seriousness of what was happening in British hospitals, as one of our beloveds – our marvellous Doctor Sarah – sent us selfies of her face, bruised and battered, after a 12-hour night shift on A&E wearing full PPE.
The rest of us shared images of ourselves trying to do our jobs whilst thrust into secondary roles as teachers, our kids clinging to our legs, fighting over laptops or scattering toys over our new “work spaces” (our kitchen tables).
To cheer ourselves up, we dug around in our collective lofts; found old snapshots taken when we met at school, 30 years ago – decades before whispers of Covid-19.
We teased each other mercilessly over terrible hair cuts and memorable teenage relationships; I even fished out my old diary, which in 1995, read: “I had a REALLY good time round Gem’s with Roz and Ems. It makes me feel so special to have such good friends and be able to talk to them about anything. They still make me feel really left out about periods, though – all joking together. When will I start?”
Throughout all three national lockdowns, if one of us put out a clarion call to say we were struggling, we rallied; both together and apart. When I felt bruised and broken-hearted, Dayna left home-baked sourdough loaves and fresh flat whites on my doorstep, Roz picked me sweet peas from her garden, Katy sent me 15 bars of my favourite chocolate, Rachel tempted me out for walks, and Claire on bike rides. Mel brought round a socially distanced bottle of prosecco, and we clinked plastic cups from opposite ends of my driveway; while Hannah sent me a gorgeous vintage skirt. When life gave me lemons, Stef sent me a lemon tree. Amelia wrote me poetry, and has called me every single day since the pandemic began.
Other friends in Wales and even Australia have made efforts to “check in” with the simple, vital words: “How are you feeling?” – and I’ve told them the truth. Sometimes great, even giddy and buoyant. Sometimes so heavy with the burden of parenting young children and of spending evening after evening alone on my sofa, watching endless TV, that I don’t know how I can possibly keep going. But I do – and it’s mostly because of them.
And that’s the truly unique thing about female friendship: at times it can feel like a therapy session, but in the best and most beautiful way. I can say anything; admit to times I’ve messed up, and still know that no matter what happens, they love me unconditionally – and I them.
Greta Gerwig said in 2013 that “in college, and right after college, there’s this sense that your friends are your family”. I feel tremendously fortunate to have such incredible women as my chosen family, and saccharine as this sounds (it is Valentine’s Day), I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with them “beside” me – even when we’re miles apart.
So, the romance I’ll gladly celebrate this 14 February is the warmth, joy and laughter that spreads like wildfire when someone sends a text to show me the awful fringe I had in 1999; or reminds me of the Terrible Port Incident after our school reunion in 2014. But that’s a secret – if you want to know more about it, you’ll have to ask my friends.
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