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By Cheryl Wray

We now affectionately call it the last supper.

We didn’t know it at the time, but our gathering of girlfriends at a favorite downtown Birmingham restaurant was the last we’d share for months. As I write this, we still haven’t gathered since that night in early March and we don’t know when we will.

On that night we were gleefully oblivious.

We gathered before the coronavirus pandemic got out of control, when it was just a blip on the television screen, before we knew how truly bad it would get.

On that night the restaurant’s dining room was packed wall-to-wall with laughing couples and parties of friends; our waiter rushed from table to table, frantic with the busyness of it all.

Looking back, I think that we must have had a premonition of how the virus would soon change our lives. The restaurant had never been that busy in all of our years coming, and I wonder now if our subconscious somehow knew that we needed this night. If perhaps we all were acting out what we’d soon be missing desperately.

A communal last hurrah.

My group of friends–from more than three decades, stretching back to the days of 1980s high school–relished our time together. We drank martinis, dined on plates of falafel and tabbouleh, blew out birthday candles on cheesecake, and then finished off with Turkish coffee served out of tiny cups. The meal was one we’d enjoyed many times over the years, and the food combined with conversation and laughter and the dim candlelight made it yet another night to treasure.

As the evening wore on, our fellow diners began to rise from their tables and filter out the door. We eventually became the only group left in the room.

We talked, as we usually did, of our jobs and our travels and our families. We laughed at memories now decades old, but still as fresh as yesterday. We sang “Happy Birthday” to the two in our group who’d just tuned 52. We complained about our health and talked about how growing old stunk.

We hugged at the end of the night, lingering on the city streets, not wanting to say goodbye. As we always did at the end of our gatherings, we promised to see one another soon.

How soon. How quickly. How drastically that would change.

Mere days later our gatherings moved online, incorporating our other high-school era friends from across the country. In Facebook Messenger our conversations followed the cycle that we saw in the general public–first jokes, then complaints about people hoarding toilet paper, then real concern for what was happening across the nation.

Soon our conversations became more serious.

We worried for our two friends who are nurses and implored them to take care of themselves. We wrung our hands and prayed when one of them developed symptoms and had to be tested.

We felt for our lone friend with college-aged children, as she packed up her son for his trip back to his dorm, and we grieved with our friend who couldn’t visit her elderly, dementia-ridden father in his nursing home.

We complained about going to the grocery store and seeing so many people without masks on; we rejoiced when some of our communities mandated face coverings; and we lamented when our nurse friends sent us higher updated numbers from their hospitals.

But, as the months went by, we also celebrated what we still had.

In Zoom conversations we laughed about our uncut hair and how we’d caught up on all of our favorite Netflix shows. Some of us made a good dinner and poured glasses of wine for the occasion, hoping to recreate a touch of what our in-person gatherings felt like.

Our friendships, we ultimately discovered, could survive a pandemic.

We didn’t like it, but we could put the gathering and the hugging on hold if we had to. Our love for each other required it.

I recently looked at the pictures I took from that night and had posted on social media. The captions from March 7 said, “I sure cherish any time with my favorite people!” and screamed heart emojis.

The memories of that night make me a little weepy. I want things to be back to normal; I want to feel the way I did on that carefree early spring evening.

And yet.

Normalcy doesn’t always give way to gratitude. We don’t always recognize what we have until it’s taken away from us (or until we have to experience it in new ways).

This pandemic has taught me to cherish things–friendships, grandchildren, sports, church, even a simple dinner out at a favorite restaurant–in a way that I never could have imagined.

And for that I’m strangely thankful, even as I anticipate the next, “first” supper I get to experience with the people I love so much.

Cheryl Wray is a freelance writer, mother of three, and grandmother of six. She lives in Hueytown, Alabama.