As someone who was already fighting a life-threatening illness, Tomilyn Hannah was familiar with difficulties of social distancing and self-isolation. But lockdown gave her an opportunity to encounter the kindness of strangers, make new friends and be part of a new community.
I thought often of the dinner party. I had taken to cooking elaborate meals the night before my chemo sessions, knowing it would be days before I would take pleasure in eating again. There were five of us that night, and I made ceviche for the first time and focaccia from scratch (even though the two don’t go together). It was early March, and we kept the balcony doors closed to the cold but looked out onto the Thames in between glasses of wine. I had moved to London the previous year in August, on a spouse visa. My husband and I didn’t need to have a long conversation about his native London versus my Seattle hometown. England came with inclusive healthcare and he had strong roots. I had been bouncing around the world on four-month contracts for much of the last decade without the security of either. We wed in the states with just our parents as witnesses, sent announcements to friends on every continent except Antarctica, then completed the mountain of hostile paperwork to immigrate. When I arrived, I found a job at a small nonprofit, and a few friends, determined to make this city my home.
We didn’t know it then, but it would be four more months before my husband and I saw our friends again. Within two days, our risk assessment changed, with the virus raging we decided to start shielding, cognisant that my immune system didn’t really exist anymore. It was one of many words that became newly integrated into our vocabulary. The UK would follow suit more than a week later with its own lockdown.
There is never a good time to battle cancer, but during a pandemic feels like especially poor timing. And I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to continue receiving treatment. My oncologist called and reassured me that they’d have the resources to give me most of my planned sessions of treatment.
I rang in the New Year of 2020 by getting an emergency full hysterectomy: my ovarian cancer had returned despite chemo and two major surgeries, in the year prior. The window of my hospital ward, which I shared with three other women, all in various states of pain, looked out over the London skyline from the East. But if there were fireworks that night I was on too many drugs to be able to tell. The doctors gave my body some time to recover, and then in February I began chemo.
I’d walk from my flat to the light rail, transferring to ride the tube a stop. Or if I was early, I would get out at Bank station and walk the distance to St. Paul’s, treating myself to something small from the Daunt Books outpost on the way, or pretend I was taking the scenic route to Tate Modern. I’d acquired a ‘Please Offer Me a Seat’ button to pin to my lapel, too tired to stand up for the whole journey.
To keep me company on infusion days, my mother-in-law would catch the tube from her home in North London. She spent the day sitting with me as chemicals went into my body and energy went out. I brought my own mug from home, and she’d refill it dutifully. I was only allowed to have warm beverages. I never finished a mug before it had gone cold. Towards the end of the session, my husband would leave work a little early, and come to relieve her so she could make it home before rush hour. Once I had been detangled from my wires and the beeping machine, and hooked up to a small tube of ever more drugs, which I wore around my neck like a Saint Bernard with lifesaving brandy, we’d catch a taxi home.
Sessions were always on a Thursday. Friday he’d work from home, and I’d slowly regain strength, so that by Tuesday I’d be back at the office part time.
COVID-19 became less abstract, our news cycles and daily interactions stripped of normality as the treatment was stripping my body of an immune system. A colleague came back from a Florida holiday with a cough, I went to sit in the other room. My boss sat me down and offered me a working from home arrangement. But cancer was already stripping me of my autonomy, making me reliant on the care of others, and so for a while I insisted on continuing to go in.
One of the things I grew to admire most about London was how interconnected the city was. I had grown up in a suburb where the nearest bus would be a half-hour walk, and came four times a day. Here, I never needed to check the schedule, something would always come along in a few minutes.
Suddenly this perk had become a risk downside, and I debated endlessly which was the safest option? DLR and Tube I could do without touching anything or anyone. Buses had better airflow but generally required holding a handrail. Taxis meant close quarters with one person and touching door handles, and seatbelts.
My two or three trips to the hospital a week were reduced to once every other week, (but the blood tests and chemo itself). It was decided everything could be done through telemedicine. Even my bandage changes now involved a roving team of nurses who came to my flat. Visitors were banned in the hospital; I now spent my sessions alone.
News reports grew increasingly serious. The city began shutting down. I got a letter in the post from the government telling me to shield, and that I shouldn’t even leave my home to go to a shared trash area. I should lock myself in my flat. I was lucky that I had already lost all my hair last year so I didn’t have anything to play Rapunzel with.
Neither myself, my husband, nor our two flatmates had a car. My in-laws offered to drive me, but we didn’t want to increase their exposure either. My own family lives a few flights away, and as a relative newcomer I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the local barista, let alone know someone on the same street. The exception was the couple next door, whose engagement party they had given us a courtesy invite to in order to ward off noise complaints, and who had seemed very disappointed at us for actually dropping by (even though we brought several bottles of wine). Nextdoor neighbours aside, we didn’t know anyone in the building. It was rare that I was even in the elevator with someone. We suspected a fair amount of units were investment properties by people rich enough to have unoccupied flats. Tenants barely smiled as you passed them in the lobby, and definitely never spoke.
Should I post fliers as though I was a lost dog? Or an old fashioned classified ad? ‘29 year old woman with ovarian cancer seeks healthy person to serve as her personal taxi. Will make you baked goods in return and pay the congestion charge into the city.’
I reached out to the building manager, and he found a resident who was happy to help. She had also been isolating. So we rode together, chatting on my way to the hospital, both slyly joyous to have someone to talk to in person, comparing notes on Zoom birthday parties and people watching from windows. When she picked me up 8 hours later, we’d sit in silence as I dozed on the short drive back, worn out by all the chemicals. We had lived a few floors apart for almost a year and had never seen each other before.
The last ride she gave me before I moved from East to South London, I almost began crying trying to explain how much it had meant to me, the peace of mind of getting to my appointment safely. The generosity of her act for someone she couldn’t have picked out of a line-up. She tried assuaging me, the ability to do anything to help in a period of general helplessness had been a relief for her as well.
I had built a career working in nonprofits, but this had been the first time I was placing myself as a recipient. There was no time for pride though, as I had an upcoming appointment and needed a new ride from our new neighbourhood: I found the WhatsApp chat for the mutual aid group for our area, and posed the question to them. Did anyone have a car and was willing to give me a ride?
Once again, a stranger of the city reacted with generosity. Simon took me every other week across the city to the hospital, the amount of people on the streets growing smaller and smaller as we entered the deserted city centre. We swapped notes on training dogs, reading books, and what I could look forward to in the new neighborhood once I could leave my house again. He wouldn’t accept remuneration, so I tried out new vegan recipes to be able to thank him and picked him sprigs of rosemary from our garden. On our drives we passed large billboards that read in pink and red “COMMUNITY IS KINDNESS”, then ubiquitous throughout the city.
The extraordinary circumstances freed us from small talk. Here was someone I never would have come across; different ages, different professional circles, different preferred grocery stores. My friends and I had found our conversations petering out: all of us locked inside with no new experiences to share, and a depth of understanding already. With Simon it was a new friendship, everything was a discovery, even if nothing had happened to either of us in the intervening week we’d seen each other.
The council called a few times, and dropped by once, asking if I needed help with food or medicine, but unable to meet my needs for rides. Eventually, a few months of stress later, a member of my medical team told me that the hospital could help with transport, that a service existed for people like me. The drivers I met told me they had become less busy with people unable to receive treatment because of the virus.
In July, on my 30th birthday, we had Simon over in the garden with his dog. We sat with two metres between us, toasting the end of treatment and hopefully a better start to my new decade.
My final chemo session was at the start of June. Despite my doctor’s worries, I was able to have all my scheduled sessions. We see my in-laws again, we go for walks, we meet friends in parks. I’ve made friends at the local juice bar and coffee shop down the road, who give me their pulp and used grounds respectively to improve my compost pile. I dog sit for the woman upstairs. I trade seedlings with the couple next door. I still have my friend circle that is spread across continents. But I also now have neighbors, in the most wholesome sense of the word. Neighbours that I didn’t expect to find in Europe’s third largest city. Almost every time I go for a walk, in this city of around 9 million, I run into someone I know.
When requests pop up in the mutual aid WhatsApp group, we’re now able to take a turn giving. Dropping off items for food banks, arranging donations of other goods to households, or giving money to print fliers so people who need to access help, can.
It isn’t quite a happy ending, but there’s something to be said for the spirit of a people even if you wished there was no need for it. I still think a lot about the billboards, the brightness of their colours. They’ve all been taken down as summer wound down, replaced by mundane advertisements, but the words still ring true. We quite literally wouldn’t have survived the year without people who didn’t know us at all. Community is kindness.
About Tomilyn Hannah
Tomilyn Hannah (she/her) is an American writer who lives in New Cross, London. She holds a BA in Literature and Anthropology, as well as an MPA, both from the University of Washington. For the past decade she’s worked on monitoring programme effectiveness, while in her spare time, she’s an avid gardener and portrait painter. Before moving South of the Thames, she lived in Cairo, Juba, Nairobi, and Rome. She’s working on a novel that lies somewhere between political thriller and humanitarian satire. Tomilyn can be found on Instagram @tomilynhannah and on Twitter @tomilynhannah
This essay was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment – and sometimes a mixture of all three. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented in television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until February 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.
Feature image by Jack Arts, 2020.