Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2020 | 6 minutes (1,521 words)
To appreciate the significance of the shift I’m about to share with you, it helps to know a couple of things about me.
The first is that I’ve harbored a lifelong aversion to the telephone, which stands in stark contrast to my family’s enthusiasm for it. For the entirety of my adult life, my mother and sister have spoken to each other five or more times daily, and in between chatted with countless friends and other family members. They roll seamlessly from one conversation to the next while I cower the second my muted iPhone starts vibrating, and have worked hard at Ferberizing my mom so she expects only a couple of calls from me per week.
If I were to self-diagnose I’d say my problem is rooted in lonerish introversion (a condition I’ve learned to over-compensate for; I now pass as a full-fledged extrovert), and a social anxiety that stems from my teen years when, even though I begged to have a pale yellow princess phone installed in my bedroom so I could make myself available to my friends and crushes, I dreaded actually talking to them. What if there were awkward silences I didn’t know how to fill? What if I said the wrong thing? What if, without visual cues, I spoke at the wrong time, stepping on a cute boy’s lines?
The second is my long-standing antipathy toward a group I’ve dubbed The Forgiveness Lobby — that well-meaning but preachy band of folks who, to my mind, short-circuit a multi-step process best given ample time. You know the ones — always posting platitudes such as “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” They pressure the aggrieved into relinquishing appropriate anger well before they’re ready — and before those who’ve aggrieved them have had sufficient opportunity to suffer the consequences of their actions, and come around to making amends. I’m all for genuine forgiveness, but that is something which must unfold at its own pace.
So imagine my surprise when, a week into social distancing thanks to Coronavirus, I suddenly wanted to call or Facetime with absolutely everyone, especially a handful of people I’d previously fallen out with, so we could bury our hatchets, large and small.
Maybe it was the void created by the sudden absence of friends I’m used to spending time with IRL — and the colleagues I used to work with side-by-side in the small co-working space I operated, which Coronavirus has forced me to shutter. Maybe it was the death toll, mounting daily, reminding me of my mortality and everyone else’s. Maybe it was the arrival of a mutual enemy, which has made it easier to bond with those I’ve been at odds with. Whatever the cause, I quickly found myself emailing people, asking for appointments to talk on the phone so we could start over. (What kind of monster just calls people out of the blue without any warning? Okay, okay — some friends have recently done this and I kind of…loved it…? Who even is Pandemic Sari?)
Of course, there have been exceptions, people toward whom I am not feeling terribly generous, even in my newfound state of grace. There’s the underminer/boundary-pusher I’ve been trying to shake for going on 40 years, who keeps resurfacing no matter how fervently I try to avoid her. There are exes I am resigned never to speak to again — unless, of course, they come forth with long overdue apologies. Until such time, I am standing on ceremony, deadly plague be damned.
But for a few notable others, I am all about rapprochement right now.
* * *
First in line was my 84-year-old dad, who two years ago moved across the country from me. I’ll spare you the details, but in the final days of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, he said and did some things that really upset me. I scolded him via email and a heated, escalating argument ensued. Then he sent an “apology”: “I’m sorry if I offended your overreaction.” And I lost it.
Whatever the cause, I quickly found myself emailing people, asking for appointments to talk on the phone so we could start over.
“Until you can muster an actual apology, I will need some space from you,” I replied.
But then a few days later the news was filled with COVID-19 cases and deaths, many of them among people in my father’s age group. Something inside me instantly softened. I remembered that the last time I’d told him I needed space I didn’t speak to him for five years. It had been a very necessary action for me to take at the time, allowing me to establish important boundaries he came to respect, and to develop a particular kind of internal strength I’d previously lacked. That five-year estrangement actually improved our relationship immensely.
But now he was much older, and an invisible, unpredictable killer was in our midst. I couldn’t bear the thought of another estrangement at this increasingly frightening time. What if, god forbid, my dad got sick and passed before we had a chance to make up — or even argue again?
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I was still angry at him, though, for the things he’d said and done. I didn’t want to let them slide, but neither did I want to relitigate them. I searched my mind for a neutral way to re-engage, and these words came to me: “Let’s reset.” I sent my dad an email with that in the subject line, and ground rules in the body of the note: There would be no discussion of what we’d fought over. We were, however, allowed to make small talk, trash Trump and the Coronavirus, and to ask the other how they were doing.
It worked marvelously. Nearly a month later, I’m happy to report my father and I haven’t fought even once. I’ve also felt the urge to Facetime with him more — pretty much every other day, when once a week sometimes used to feel like a lot. (And I’ve begun happily Facetiming with my mom, who is widowed and alone 1,300 miles away from me, twice a day!)
* * *
I was so pleased with the positive results of “Let’s reset,” I was inspired to try it out on a few others from my past — a guy who used to be like a big brother to me, who unfortunately got mixed up in a breakup I went through years ago with our mutual friend; a woman who has always wanted more of my time and attention than I have felt inclined to offer — but most notably H., at one time one of my closest friends, to whom I hadn’t spoken in 10 years.
It had been H. who’d stopped talking to me. When she’d been going through a hard time, she asked me to be a sounding board, and I blurted some things that were kind of harsh. What I said didn’t come from a malicious place. I was trying to be helpful, by way of being real. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten into trouble for being the kind of friend who tells you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. Or, well, what I think you need to hear. I’ve since learned to temper this imperative.
H. initially thanked me for being in her corner. But a few days later, she accused me of being hurtful. I apologized — three times — but for some reason it didn’t take. In the years since, it became apparent to me that H. had told her side of the story to some of our mutual friends, leading them to alienate me. Now I was pissed.
Months ago I could not have seen this shift coming, and if someone had predicted it, I would have insisted they were crazy.
Two years ago, when my step-father passed away, H. reached out with condolences via Facebook Messenger. She said she missed having me in her life and would love to reconnect. I thanked her and said I missed her, too. But privately I was still smarting from the lingering fallout of our fight. I hoped to someday get to a place where I welcomed H.’s friendship again. In the ensuing years, there were moments I thought to drop her a line. But the time never felt right.
Then the virus hit, and suddenly I could no longer bear being on the outs with H. Yeah, I was (…am?) still hurt. Yeah, I have a feeling we will never agree on certain aspects of what happened between us, so we should probably avoid the subject altogether. It was the perfect conditions for “Let’s reset…”
So I sent her a note suggesting that. The next day we Facetimed, catching up with each other for over an hour. We laughed, we cried. It was a relief, and so much fun. We’ve been texting since.
Thanks, Coronavirus! (I mean, no. But, also yes…?) Months ago I could not have seen this shift coming, and if someone had predicted it, I would have insisted they were crazy. But here I am, living through a horrible crisis, finding solace in these unexpected reconnections. It’s no small thing. I feel grateful, and lucky.
* * *
I learned the other day that H. likely has the virus. It seems that after a couple of weeks of Hell she has turned a corner and will survive it.
My god, she’d better survive it. We have so much lost time to make up for.
* * *
Sari Botton is a writer and editor living in Kingston, NY. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times and many other publications. She’s the Essays Editor for Longreads, and edited the NYC essay anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY. She teaches at Catapult and in the MFA program at Bay Path University, and writes the “Adventures in ‘Journalism‘” newsletter.
Editor: Krista Stevens