This article is part of the I Want to Thank You series. We asked readers to tell us about who helped get them through the pandemic; these are a selection of their stories about their families and friends. Future articles will focus on health care workers and inspirational figures.
Many Americans hunkered down with family members when the pandemic hit. Others relied on friends for support, emotional and otherwise. As the country moves on, some are emerging with deeper relationships and renewed appreciation for the loved ones who helped them get through an uncertain time.
Among the stories: a married couple facing cancer; a new widow and her kayaking support group; a fearful actress and her childhood friend; a stroke survivor and her daughter; a septuagenarian and her 43-year-old travel buddy; and two sisters, one of them pregnant.
Thank You for Helping Me Deal With Death
On the morning of June 25, 2020, something compelled Elizabeth Smith awake at 5:30. She walked to the hospice bed of her husband, Larry, and held his hand. His breathing had become uneven. Then it slowed.
“And then it became erratic,” Ms. Smith, 72, said, her voice softening. “And then he squeezed my hand really, really hard. He took one last breath, and he died.”
Mr. Smith’s death, at 71, left her heartbroken and even more lonely during the early days of the pandemic. The couple had moved from Connecticut, where Mr. Smith had been a police captain, to Vermillion, S.D., in 1999. He was forced to retire after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — he no longer qualified to carry a gun — and so Ms. Smith accepted a tenured professorship in the University of South Dakota’s political science department. Mr. Smith opened a bakery that, according to Oprah.com, baked “the best bread in the world.”
The day after his death, Ms. Smith brought her husband’s ashes to a friend’s front lawn for a socially distanced gathering of friends, namely four women — Lana Svien, Jo Pasqualucci, Susanne Skyrm and Martha Fagg. As the summer wore on, the quintet — all single, retired and around the same age — often hung out on Ms. Smith’s lawn to share laughs and meals. When temperatures chilled they moved the lawn chairs to Ms. Smith’s open garage, which they outfitted with space heaters and dubbed “Cafe Covid.”
Ms. Smith and her friends also share a love of the outdoors. She spent much of her first weeks without her husband kayaking the Missouri River, often with at least one of the self-described “Usual Suspects.”
“I could send out a message in the morning, saying ‘Anyone want to kayak today?’ and get some responses,” she said.
On Ms. Smith’s first Thanksgiving after her husband’s death, they gathered on her front porch for a potluck meal. And this past July a group of them headed to Oakwood Lakes State Park — some in Ms. Smith’s camping van, nicknamed “Van-essa” — for what was supposed to be a couple days of kayaking.
Instead the trip got cut short, thanks to a pileup of bad luck. Ms. Smith said the group couldn’t stop laughing about the comedy of errors.
“Having each other has been really a gift,” she said.
Thank You for Helping Me Get Outside
On a summer afternoon in 2020, sitting on a bench in Central Park, Mahira Kakkar took off her mask and, for the first time in months, took a breath of fresh air.
Ms. Kakkar, an actress who has worked on TV and in film, had hardly left her apartment since that March, and she probably wouldn’t have gone to Central Park had it not been for Shubhani Sarkar.
The two women had been friends while growing up in Kolkata, India. And they reconnected when they both moved to New York in the early 2000s, Ms. Kakkar to continue her education and Ms. Sarkar to begin her career as a graphic designer. But as the pandemic wore on and Ms. Kakkar felt burned out, she stopped answering Ms. Sarkar’s messages.
“We were sad and lonely,” Ms. Kakkar said of herself and her husband. “But we were lucky to be sad and lonely. One of my other friends is an E.R. doctor, and sometimes she would just share her feelings. And it was horrible.”
Eventually Ms. Kakkar responded to Ms. Sarkar, who’d texted that she missed her friend. “I miss you too,” Ms. Kakkar wrote back.
Ms. Sarkar sent Ms. Kakkar pictures of the signs at subway stops, urging riders to maintain six feet of distance, and eventually persuaded her to join on a walk. Ms. Kakkar prayed during her entire ride.
Taking off her mask in Central Park “felt like such a huge deal,” Mr. Kakkar said, and over several more walks, her friendship with Ms. Sarkar deepened. Ms. Kakkar also joined Ms. Sarkar’s cooking classes, where she would guide the group through Indian recipes via Zoom.
“It was very nice to have someone else with a common background share similar anecdotes and stories, as people kind of listened in and cooked along,” Ms. Sarkar said of her friend.
Ms. Kakkar said that Ms. Sarkar was surprised upon learning how much her outreach had helped Ms. Kakkar through the pandemic: “She was like, ‘I just missed you.’”
Thank You for Getting Me Through Cancer
Jon Ellis had never been afraid to die. And he still wasn’t. But it was becoming more difficult to live through the pain.
Pancreatic cancer, with which he was diagnosed not long after the pandemic hit, and chemotherapy rendered him a stranger in his own body. As a pilot for 50 years, Mr. Ellis knew how tenuous life really is. But at least in the sky he was free. Down in his 1,500-square-foot home in Maine, Mr. Ellis, 75, could hardly pull himself off the couch.
Mr. Ellis probably wouldn’t have survived, he said, if not for his wife.
Rita Ellis would drive him to chemotherapy appointments, then shepherd him home and make sure he drank his smoothies. “She knew better what I needed than I did,” he said.
Mrs. Ellis, 72, refused to complain, even when, on top of everything else, the Ellises’ daughter became ill and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
The Ellises had moved to Maine from Memphis about five years earlier, in part to be closer to their children living in the Northeast. Now, forced to spend time with each other more than ever, the couple spoke about what Mrs. Ellis’s future might look like in practical terms: She would have to move, they agreed, to a less rural part of town, if Mr. Ellis were to die.
“I was ready to hear that I wasn’t going to make it for another year,” Mr. Ellis said. “We had some really good heart-to-heart talks about our longevity on this planet. In our case, at least, it made us very much closer. I’m grateful for that.”
Mrs. Ellis didn’t need to move. Mr. Ellis’s final chemotherapy treatment was in March 2021, and his cancer remains undetectable.
Mr. Ellis sometimes loses his train of thought when speaking — “chemo brain,” he calls it — but in discussing his wife, Mr. Ellis’s feelings are clear.
“I’ve fallen in love with her all over again,” he said.
Thank You for Helping My Recovery
It was no coincidence, Cheryl Pearlman believes, that the first time she walked without the assistance of a walker since suffering a stroke during the pandemic was in the presence of her daughter, Deanna Otero.
Last autumn, Ms. Pearlman was in her home with Ms. Otero and without thinking walked to the dining room table.
Ms. Otero had “really, I think, believed I would recover. I wasn’t always so sure,” Ms. Pearlman, 74, said. “It was so moving that she was there to witness it — and notice it — when I didn’t.”
Earlier in the year, Ms. Pearlman started taking medication for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition which makes heart muscles thicken, causing the heart to work harder. She soon started experiencing shortness of breath and underwent surgery. When Ms. Pearlman woke up, she learned that she had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed from the shoulder down on the left side of her body.
During Ms. Pearlman’s two weeks in rehab, Ms. Otero, 36, redesigned her mother’s home to make it easier to navigate. She also had the bathroom painted yellow and the dining room white.
“She thought my house was too dark,” Ms. Pearlman said.
Ms. Pearlman, who works as a psychotherapist, is almost back to her old self, she said. “I made it very clear to her that 90 percent of my recovery was because of her,” Ms. Pearlman said of her daughter.
Thank You for Your Friendship
Victoria Bernuth didn’t have to worry about groceries during the worst months of the pandemic.
Ms. Bernuth, 74, never left her Pleasant Hill, Ore., farm, but she found a lifeline in Drew Johnson, 43, whom she had met at a local meeting for humanists before Covid hit. Mr. Johnson, a former youth pastor, would drop off her groceries, then the two would take long walks along the country roads near Ms. Bernuth’s farm.
As they walked and talked 15 feet apart, bonding in part over their shared atheism, Ms. Bernuth’s loneliness lifted.
“We’re not romantic,” Ms. Bernuth said. “But we just have a deep affection for each other and caring for each other.”
Ms. Bernuth and Mr. Johnson had taken several road trips before the pandemic, and after Ms. Bernuth got her first Covid vaccine in March 2021 he floated an idea: “C’mon, let’s go to the beach.”
Ms. Bernuth teared up on the car ride to Beverly Beach, about two hours away; it was her first time being physically close to a person in almost a year. The trip was calming; they worked on crossword puzzles, looked out on the ocean and went on long walks.
“He is the joy and light of my life,” Ms. Bernuth said.
Thank You for Helping Me Through My Pregnancy
Rebecca Spigelman did not hug her sister, Sarah Richter, for six months during the first wave of the pandemic. Ms. Richter was pregnant and anxious about how contracting Covid could impact her pregnancy.
But nearly every day Ms. Spigelman walked 33 street blocks and three avenues — public transportation didn’t feel safe at the time — to Ms. Richter’s apartment to help with household chores: She washed produce, entertained her sister’s then-4-year-old son and brought Ms. Richter ginger ale when she felt nauseous.
Ms. Richter was working remotely, but with her husband, a physician, spending long hours at the hospital, Ms. Spigelman’s assistance made all the difference, Ms. Richter, 38, said.
“People who have the capacity to give and love like she does, they don’t think of it as a unique quality,” Ms. Richter said. “But of course, it is.”
After Ms. Richter gave birth, Ms. Spigelman moved in for about three weeks, washing dishes and waking up in the middle of the night to comfort her sister’s newborn, as Ms. Richter pumped breast milk.
But the highlight came the day after Ms. Richter’s baby was born: For the first time since March, the sisters hugged.