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CONNECTIONS | MAGAZINE

Losing a longtime friend to COVID changes the stakes, even for an obit writer

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t enjoy!” my college roommate often said. Words for me to live by, now that he’s gone.

Writer Glenn Rifkin and his friend Frank (right), roommates at Boston University, in 1974.From Glenn Rifkin

On a mid-January day in 1973, as I left my dorm room at Boston University to go to class, I offered specific instructions to my two suite-mates. My first-semester roommate had left school, homesick for Milwaukee. I anticipated having the room with two beds all to myself, if I was clever enough. “Tell anyone who comes to look at the room that it’s already been taken,” I instructed the skeptical pair, who agreed to try the ploy.

When I returned later that day, I found them sharing a joint with a stranger who introduced himself as Frank Weigle, my new roommate. “Nice going,” I said to my suite-mates. Frank, with his long dark hair and beard, just shook his head over my ruse. “I’ve heard that one before,” he said with a laugh. “I wasn’t buying it.”

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Despite my momentary disappointment, Frank and I not only got along, we became lifelong friends. With his easygoing sense of humor, his love of music and sports, and an uncanny ability to instantly call up goofy aphorisms (“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t enjoy!”), Frank was impossible to dislike. Both journalism

majors and photography buffs, we forged a bond that survived nearly five decades.

When Frank succumbed to COVID-19 near the end of November, I was in disbelief. He had lived near Boulder, Colorado, and was fine just three weeks earlier when we shared photos from our respective lives, as we regularly did. He’d been camping in northern Colorado and sent me some gorgeous foliage images. I had seen singer Lisa Fischer in concert in Rockport, and sent him an album of concert photos.

Rifkin (right) and Frank at a restaurant in Gloucester in 2018.From Glenn Rifkin

When he called to tell me how much he had enjoyed the photos, he sounded like he was at death’s door, and it turned out he was. Barely able to speak, he told me that although he was fully vaccinated, he’d contracted COVID-19. His physician had advised him to stay home for 10 days, even though he was having trouble breathing and was running a high fever. He also had asthma, which made him especially vulnerable. I was shocked that he wasn’t going to the emergency room — he was avoiding it in hopes that his fever would subside — and insisted that he pack a bag and get over to the hospital right away.

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He took my advice. The hospital admitted him immediately; his oxygen levels were alarmingly low. He called me from his room that first night, sounding a bit better, thanks to the oxygen he was being administered. But that would be the last good news. We talked once more and then texted a few times before he went silent. I didn’t have his son’s cellphone number and the hospital refused to give me even a shred of information.

I convinced a sympathetic nurse to talk to me. She said he’d been intubated and was on a ventilator. I was still certain he would make it, but that hope began to wane as time passed. When I called the hospital a couple of days later, the front desk said they had no patient by his name. I could only surmise that he had passed away. A different nurse confirmed the terrible news.

As a journalist, I have been writing obituaries for The New York Times for more than a decade. I contributed several “Those We’ve Lost” obituaries for ordinary people who died due to COVID. It was heartbreaking and soul-searing to speak to family members raw with the pain of losing loved ones to this scourge. But I hadn’t personally known anyone who had died from the virus until now. It felt like a bright light suddenly going dark, a connection broken. After nearly 50 years of close friendship, I couldn’t comprehend that my friend was gone.

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After the tears, I’ve been left with an empty space that doesn’t fill in. Two years since

everyone first went into lockdown, all I can do is honor his oft-repeated request. I plan to never do anything that he wouldn’t have enjoyed.


Glenn Rifkin is a journalist and author based in Acton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.