On the day I knew Alison would die, I called my two dogs into bed with me and wrapped all three of us in a quilt that’s hand stitched with my wedding vows.
This being such a custom item, it’s curious that three of them exist.
For my wedding two years ago, Alison had commissioned the hand stitching of this quilt — 1,420 words across 42 square feet. But the quilter kept messing it up with errant commas and misspelled words, so Alison made her start over, twice. She wasn’t about to be responsible for giving a less-than-perfect gift to me and my future husband, Nate. Still, the quilter had us keep the first two because there was no sense in returning them.
Before the doctors unplugged Alison in late April — one more body claimed by the coronavirus, lost amid the zeros and statistics to become a footnote in our sordid history — that’s who she was at her core: dedicated to perfection and superior gift-giving.
More than that, she was my best friend for 12 years, and even though I’m now married to a wonderful man, I’m not sure I’ll ever love someone like I loved Alison.
I suppose it’s fitting that this gift — the most perfect my husband and I received at our wedding, the gift we use more than any other, the gift I now find myself clinging to in Alison’s absence — came from the woman who was my first, and I suppose only, Facebook-official wife.
Smitten with ourselves at the satirical shade we threw at others who lived for the drama and gossip of online relationship statuses at a time when Facebook had walls instead of feeds and when people still wrote on their friends’ walls, we made the digital declaration to one another and began our first marriage.
It was the most successful fictitious marriage I’ve had in my life, full of artisanal jams from roadside stands and dreams of one day living in a cabin in Vermont with a dozen dogs and a shed devoted to Halloween decorations.
Given that I’ve only been married to my husband for two years, I suppose you could say that my relationship with Alison was the most successful, long-lasting marriage I have had, period.
But now, at 29, she is dead, the ventilator no longer breathing for her, moved on to the next victim of Covid-19.
To die from this plague is a tragedy. To witness a loved one do so is a merciless, unrelenting kind of sadness — prolonged and filled with false hope. It is a faraway, forced mourning, her body a vector of contagion. It is a unique grief overridden by a forced education in a vocabulary I never wanted to learn: hydroxychloroquine, extubation, Remdesivir.
And to die in the year of our lord 2020 is to die in so many places with deluging notifications, incessantly pinging you to remind you that your best friend is dead.
Texts from her father, Rich, an accountant from New York who now lives in West Palm Beach but still sounds like a New Yorker, and who once described my skinny jeans in college as “hot pants,” go off on my phone like bombs.
I think: Is this the one that tells me my best friend is dead?
Facebook posts from her mother, Robin (who once stole three mini cast-iron pans from a tapas restaurant in Gainesville, Fla., which still hang in my kitchen 12 years later), are an unpunctuated stream of terror, anger and fear. People “react” to her posts with digital tears. Instagram posts implore Alison to wake up, then shift to digital memorials, ephemeral stories that tag Alison, which she, despite the notifications, is unable to add to her own “story” because, again, she is dead.
To die amid this pandemic is to die over Zoom, your loved ones reduced to Hollywood Squares and requests to mute. Sharing stories about yesteryear with a video lag while your best friend is sedated. And while your friend dies in her hospital bed, hundreds of miles away, the process also involves rolling your eyes at the baby boomers on the call who insist on holding their phones below their chins rather than at eye level.
And then there are my own posts that I felt so obligated to birth into existence. To mourn your best friend in the 21st century is to do so publicly or risk others wondering why you haven’t already.
So I uploaded a 17-page letter Alison had written me in 2012, as we prepared to graduate from journalism school and begin our adult lives. It earned some 300 views, so I guess people liked it. How does one measure the support of digital grief anyway? Would I have loved her more if my “story” had received 400 views? Would our friendship mean more if a few more people had sent crying emojis in response?
On pages six and seven of the letter, Alison wrote, “I’m overwhelmed with clichés right now as I try to label our relationship. Best friends? Family? Soul mates? Soon-to-be newlyweds? Nothing feels right.”
“Nothing feels right” has a more macabre tinge to it these days because, well, nothing feels right.
In college at the University of Florida, and then continuing for the next eight years, Alison and I would say to each other, “Thank you for ruining me.” It was our way of telling the other: You’re so perfect, your understanding of me so nuanced and deep, that no man could ever match you.
By being all of these things, by accompanying me on another fruit-themed fall festival somewhere in north-central Florida, by sitting in a Czech restaurant in Ontario, and making me laugh even in the memo section of Venmo, “Thank you for ruining me” was to say “No one will ever know me or love me like you.”
Now that I’m actually married (the legal kind), I can say I love my husband very much. He is pragmatic, kind and handsome.
But he does not pull over for garage sales. He does not smuggle bags of dog costumes and treats out of press events to later give to my dogs and my parents’ dogs. He does not bring friendship bracelet crafts or design-your-own hats to our annual Labor Day trip and does not understand my references to the Beehive. He has no idea why Alison and I, eight years later, still laugh at the thought of when the chickens finally came to roost.
He does not speak in the Voice, a high-pitched apology-laced tone that came from who knows where but which we spoke in almost always.
He is, simply, not Alison. He could never be. It is (was?) a different kind of love. And nothing feels right now.
What happens to our inside jokes that litter the filing cabinets of my mind? Do they die along with her? Do I laugh to myself? What happens to her Facebook wall, the only record of our marriage, my first, her only?
One night while I wept in bed, my husband said to me, “Grief is the price of love.”
It was a typical thing for Nate to say: stoic New England pragmatism, the opposite of what I wanted to hear, the last thing Alison would have said. Yet it was everything I needed to hear.
He’s right, of course. He always is. One of the many reasons I married him.
But that love was expensive, a jumbo-size mortgage on my heart that I fear I won’t ever be able to repay.
Alison and I, both phone-call-averse millennials, would commonly talk on the phone for two hours at a time. Nate knew to go upstairs, don’t wait up when Alison called, the picture of her dressed as a cat for Halloween in 2012 appearing on my phone.
Do I keep her in my contact favorites now? Do I delete her? Do I unfriend her?
To die in 2020 is a messy amalgamation of digital business.
At my wedding, I asked Alison to read a passage from “The Velveteen Rabbit.” It’s a paragraph I have hanging in my home about what it means to be “real.”
The rabbit asks if becoming real hurts. The skin horse tells him yes, sometimes, it does. Sometimes your eyes will get rubbed off in the process and you’ll lose some of your shine. But that’s how you know you’re real. Nothing real can ever remain untouched.
The whole time they’re talking about love, of course.
I didn’t make the connection when I asked Alison to read that passage at my wedding, but it also describes us. Alison made me real. Alison ruined me. And I am better because of it.