My work day had been slow and exceptionally quiet due to the mostly empty office. Gold, late-afternoon light poured in through the windows and onto my desk where the hum of D.C.’s busy streets beckoned six floors below. I had about an hour left until it was time to log out and pulled out my phone just to pass the boredom for a few minutes. I was on Facebook when I saw a post from my friend’s mom that paralyzed me mid-scroll.
It said something about my friend and funeral arrangements and, to be honest, at first glance, I think I scrolled past it because losing her was never a possibility for me. My brain rejected any suggestion of it. But as I kept re-reading it, I heard my voice quake when I said “this isn’t happening” out loud, grateful my co-workers weren’t around as the denial came almost immediately.
“This isn’t happening,” I repeated to myself compulsively as I grabbed my things, sent a “leaving early” email and rushed out the building.
When I made it downstairs, I called my friend’s mom on WhatsApp and found out that what was happening had been happening for a few weeks. She told me that my friend had been in the hospital, passed away and her mom had been trying to reach me.
My friend (we’ll call her Cherie, French for “beloved”), had a chronic illness that I won’t elaborate on because it’s not what defined her. This young woman was (“was” still being surreal to type) unbelievably resilient, smart and warm. She was effortlessly witty and I envied that about her. She could help you with your algebra homework, braid your hair and crochet. In college, she fed me multiple times with hearty dorm kitchen meals of jerk chicken, and also with conversation. She fed me with friendship, and when she died, I was devastated.
Today, I know that what drives this tendency to share snippets of my friend’s story is that the story here is really about the sanctity of chosen sisterhood. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve relished in the hours-long phone calls, Zoom chats, emails and letters I’ve exchanged with close friends, all of which have reaffirmed the ways our sisters sustain us through personal and global crises. Though I am still learning how to give my best to my friends amid COVID, grief has revealed some things about the spiritual value and experience of close female friendships, one being that it’s a love that shows up with divine timing.
The last time I saw Cherie, we were celebrating her birthday together; two months after that visit, she was gone. The week she was in D.C. was the same as my cousin’s wedding and I remember being worried at the time about whether I would catch her. But our schedules aligned and we had a day full of laughter, care-freedom and high quality time. As someone who struggles with their faith from time to time, the fact that we made that memory without either of us knowing that it would be our last is evidence enough for me of divine favor and foresight.
Now well over a year after Cherie’s homegoing, I’m all the more grateful that I was kind of a sap. I’m glad I told her I loved her explicitly and implicitly with words and actions, because loving hard is a spiritual insurance plan, and I needed mine much earlier than I could have predicted. So going forward, and in a COVID context especially, I’m investing in my friendships even more and with purpose. Recently, another one of my sisters sent me excerpts from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ essay, “The Sweetness of Salt: Toni Cade Bambara and the Practice of Pleasure (In Five Tributes),” found in Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism, that have supplemented this ongoing journey of learning.
Sistering seeks speaking. Even when it is many months between our conversations.
Like any other relationship, the connection between friends doesn’t grow stronger miraculously, it has to be nurtured.
At one point early on in the pandemic, I felt like I was killing it with my communication with friends. I had regular calls and texts and even a couple game nights, and I felt a maintained connection with those that mattered to me. But at some point, while battling work and family stress and watching the orchestrated chaos of COVID and racial injustice unfold, I hit a slump. A crisis isn’t the time to emotionally distance, but that’s what I did because I didn’t have the same energy to present as the faithful optimist I usually am. I allowed my natural introversion to mutate into reclusiveness, and it only made me sadder.
So often we talk about “doing the work” in our relationships. I’ve found that performing that kind of labor, in a healthy way with fruitful results, often begins with self. I had to evaluate why I felt the need to put up a front around people who I claimed to feel close to in the first place. Practicing vulnerability became the key to honoring my own feelings and staying connected, and without it, I wouldn’t have known how many of my friends were feeling the same way and could probably benefit from a close circle now more than ever.
Healthy friendships aren’t free of emotional labor, but I think that if the work ethic is mutual, we’re bound to reap the reward of a better understanding of those we love. Sometimes that looks like initiating a potentially uncomfortable conversation about expectations and boundaries for friendship. Sometimes, it’s resolving to be happy for her while acknowledging the anxiousness of not having much figured out for yourself. Sometimes, it’s preventing confusion by asking the explicit question: how can I support you?
The other day I told one of my chosen sisters I didn’t have the energy for a game night we scheduled. She wasn’t feeling it either and suggested a movie night — something low-energy intensive and low maintenance, which allowed me to keep a commitment to spend time with people I care about. It’s honest communication, flexibility, trust and vulnerability that can make all the difference.
It’s infinite and Inclusive
Sistering begets more sisters and mothers, and fathers and brothers. The chosen and given families of sisters in practice become family across and through sistering.
When the full force of COVID-19 hit the U.S., I was staying with an aunt. We don’t share the same blood, but she, to me, is as close as kinship can get. The connection I feel to her is born out of the chosen sisterhood between two eight-year-old girls growing up in Corona, Queens, and one generation later, I found myself reaping the benefits of their legacy of sisterly love. Hence, auntyship is a byproduct of chosen sisterhood and one that I am infinitely grateful for.
I met Cherie during a time when I was experiencing a social nadir. When she passed, I felt my small circle get smaller. There’s no getting around the truth that forming lasting, intimate friendships is hard. That’s why sometimes, even if it’s only in jest, we tend to get territorial over those we consider to be like sisters. Still, our friendship showed me that there is divinity in who we connect with and bonds that transcend time and space. Though clicking with someone almost instantly is rare, I will not let my past disappointments make me buy into a myth of scarcity.
As someone who’s gained substantive friendships through other friends, I’ve learned that you never know through who your life will be enriched or when a seed you’ve planted in a person might blossom into new relationships decades or generations later. This time and space we’re in is a village full of women with a stunning diversity of thoughts, backgrounds and experiences, and there really is enough to go around.
So today, grieving looks like doing my best to give the gift I was given in Cherie. It’s sharing more of myself and my friends with others, loving hard, introducing folks and paying that sisterly energy forward.