What ‘Words with Friends’ Has Taught Me About Loss and Hope

My Jesuit community engaged in COVID-19 protocols after Mass on March 16. No more all-community Masses. No more going to school for class. No more ministry. A world of masks and gloves and handwashing. That evening, a friend and I had a conversation thinking through ways we could try to make the most of the indefinite future that came with pandemic. One of our solutions: Words with Friends. Hopped-up Internet scrabble. I downloaded the app and away we went.

That first night, a random person – Kendra – challenged me to a game, and I accepted. Two days later, another – Holly. Again, I obliged. Thus began two epic streaks of back and forth play. So long as either person makes at least one move a day, the streak continues. When one game ends, one or the other re-challenges, and on…and on…and on. 20 days. 30 days. 50 days. 100 days. 

Once, Holly and I went 22 hours without a move, almost destroying the streak we had built. Once, I played the word ‘quip’ against Kendra for 111 points, and once she played ‘jeeps’ against me for 133 points. These moments became milestones and marked both the commitment we had to our project, but also the very number of days the pandemic dragged on.

July 1st marked 107 days for Kendra and me. I don’t know how it happened or why, but we ended a game that day, and another one didn’t start. Just like that, Kendra was gone.

***

Pandemic has brought with it many struggles big and small, singular and systemic. But, there have also been surprising gifts. At the height of my stay-at-home, I remember one weekend where I jumped on a happy hour with a friend’s family in Omaha. That evening, a call with high school buddies who lived in Madison and Green Bay, but also Australia and China. I topped off the evening with some Jesuit friends only dozens of yards away in different buildings, but through my computer screen. The next afternoon, another call with college buddies, and yet another with my three oldest friends. All of these calls were filled with updates on COVID in their parts of the world, recollections of simpler and wilder days, questions about what it means to lead, tough and important conversations about racism and police brutality, daydreams about how things can be different. Many, many words with friends.

Eventually, those kinds of weekends stopped. Things opened up around the country, and people started hanging out in person again. Now, there’s an occasional happy hour or late-night chat, but not every week, and not with as many people. We’ve either become a bit complacent to the world of COVID-19, or we’ve lost some energy to keep up, going back to the more typical way of touching base less frequently. The love and desire for companionship remains, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be that way forever.

***

Holly and I have kept it going – a 127-day streak as of this publication. There have been successes during these dark days. When Kendra went missing, I felt an emptiness – a part of light and life and love I felt during these unusual and devastating times had left me. I wondered – was Kendra sick? Taking extra shifts to make some much-needed money? Tired of Words with Friends? Tired of me?

Loss and lament can come quickly. The uncertainty of our world leaves many struggling, and many others anxious, defiant, tired, careless, nostalgic about easier times, hopeful for better days ahead.

For a while, I felt closer to the people I love than I had in years. Now, I guess I’m feeling sad about the new ‘new normal,’ a world where I can’t be with the people I love in person, and where I can’t reach them at the drop of a hat. A world where sickness and fear run rampant, and we aren’t rising to the challenge in the same way. Yet, the pandemic continues. The streak survives. 

***

Just three days ago, a new challenge popped up in Words with Friends – Kendra was back. Relieved, I accepted. The first word played was ‘light.’ When all seems lost, perhaps we need a moment to rest in the darkness. But then, by chance or by grace, we begin again. 

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