Pandemic valentines: Stories of love lost and found during covid-19

For two years, the world has endured a near-constant drumbeat of loss. Loss of friends and family, loss of physical togetherness, loss of what once was.

But even as the coronavirus pandemic sent the world into seclusion, people sought connection. For one couple, it came on a dating app. Two nurses found a shared bond while treating patients in a coronavirus hospital ward. A pair of college students discovered their love for each other while pursuing a pandemic hobby: baking.

Sometimes, love surfaced in unexpected ways. For a single man in Chicago, the challenges of training a puppy brought a surprising emotional catharsis. A woman in Northern Virginia found a deeper sense of self-worth after taking off her wedding ring — the pandemic putting into sharp relief that her marriage was over.

For those who lost partners, the memory of love lingers. A woman whose husband died of covid-19 early in the pandemic still visits their favorite restaurant, placing the same order with the same waitress.

This Valentine’s Day, we share their stories — each one a portrait of love in a time defined by loss.

Puppy love

By Brittany Shammas

On the first night of what he would later call “the week of insanity,” Nirav Amin woke up beside his new puppy’s crate. On the floor.

Somewhere in the blur of Day One as a dog owner, Nirav had passed out, exhausted. From almost the moment he brought Myles home to his two-bedroom Chicago apartment in July 2020, the then-36-year-old had been stuck in a loop of taking the puppy out only to have to clean up an accident inside. If he so much as stepped from sight, loud cries followed.

More than once that week, as he survived on Belvita biscuits and 30-second showers, unable to leave Myles’s side for more than a few moments, Nirav reread the rescue agency’s return policy. A perfectionist, he feared he was getting it all wrong.

“I didn’t think I had a bad dog,” he recalled. “I thought I was a bad owner.”

Nirav had longed for a dog since he was a boy watching them romp around his neighbors’ backyards. His parents, though, had said no. “We’re not a dog family,” they told him, and eventually he gave up.

In adulthood, he dog-sat for a friend and started thinking seriously about getting one of his own — someday. He thought he should wait until life slowed down a bit, until he had a partner.

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Then the pandemic struck. Nirav, who once traveled so much for his job expanding a laundry company that he reached Marriott’s second-highest rewards tier, found himself confined to his apartment, listening to the highway humming outside his window.

“The loneliness set in pretty quickly,” he said.

But he didn’t recognize it until that first covid summer, when he was in a Zoom meeting and a dog leaped into the lap of another person on the call. That was it: Nirav needed a dog ASAP.

After a fruitless online search of Chicagoland shelters — everyone wanted a dog in those early pandemic days — he stumbled upon a listing for a 3-month-old white-and-brown mutt then named Ollie. He drove two hours to Wisconsin to see him days later and, he said, “as soon as he came out, I was like, ‘Yes.’ ”

Had it all been a mistake? Nirav got his answer toward the end of his first week with Myles, during therapy. His therapist asked how it was going with the puppy. Nirav broke into “the best cry of my life.” It hit him that part of what made the week so hard was having to go through it alone.

He came to a realization: “This wasn’t going to be perfect, and it didn’t have to be.” It was a lesson he could apply to other aspects of his life, too. He didn’t need to be so hard on himself; he didn’t need to wait for the perfect relationship.

As Myles dozed in a bed behind his desk on a recent weekday, Nirav said he had “found my best friend.” The dog gave him a reason to get up every morning as the pandemic dragged on, made him more open to new relationships and even turned his parents into dog lovers.

Sometimes, first-time dog owners call Nirav in a panic, looking for advice. Don’t worry, he tells them. It’s all going to be fine.

Pancakes for one

By Timothy Bella

There was no more sacred a date spot for Sandra McGowan-Watts and husband Steven Watts than their table every week at the Original Pancake House.

Every Wednesday or Thursday in Chicago, Sandra, a family medicine doctor, and Steven, a city bus driver, would laugh over a Denver omelet and apple pancakes served by their favorite waitress. While Sandra admits it wasn’t love at first sight for her, Steven was her rock. After they married in October 2007 and had their daughter, Justice, he did whatever he could to keep her smiling.

“He made sure everything was done, so I could be the doctor and get work done. He would move mountains for me,” she said. “If I came home from work, the house would be clean or dinner would be done, and that was his way of love — through action.”

Valentine’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries were big for them. So when the coronavirus pandemic was about to shut down in-person dining in Illinois days before his birthday in March 2020, Steven lamented at a restaurant how it might be “the last meal we’re going to have” in public together. Still, he found a way to bring humor to an otherwise dark time.

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“We were talking at the table a couple weeks later, and he comes up to me and goes, ‘Ma’am, can I take your order?’ ” Sandra, 47, recalled. “He said, ‘Man, what I wouldn’t give to sit in a restaurant and have people ask me what I wanted to drink right about now.’ ”

Then, in early April 2020, Steven said his body ached after changing the oil and spark plugs on his lawn mower. The next morning, he had a fever. Sandra guessed that her 51-year-old husband had covid-19 and that he had gotten it from his mother, who was infected and eventually intubated. The couple had spent time with her shortly before she came down with symptoms.

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His condition worsened and, days after he was hospitalized, doctors told Sandra that her husband had to be intubated. Steven was scared, and she couldn’t see him in person, because he wasn’t allowed any visitors. She told him over the phone that he was going to be okay and that she loved him.

“He said, ‘I love you, too.’ And that was it,” she said.

He died on May 8, 2020 — a week after his mother.

Life is admittedly lonely now. Sandra sometimes catches herself picking up the phone to call Steven to talk about their 13-year-old daughter, before she’s reminded he has been gone almost two years.

“Going to sleep and waking up are the hardest parts of the day for me,” she said. “I think about him more at those times.”

Valentine’s Day is difficult, although joining a brunch on the holiday last year with people she met through a Facebook support group for widowed Black women made it a little easier. Sandra has no plans this year, making Valentine’s Day feel “just like any other day, I guess.”

She still goes back to the Original Pancake House. The same waitress who used to serve Steven and Sandra omelets and apple pancakes takes her order. But it’s different now.

“It’s okay to cry and okay to be angry,” she said. “And it’s okay if you don’t want to be bothered or just want to be left alone.”

‘Get me to Europe’

By Meryl Kornfield

Barbara Panella was stuck at home in Italy in March 2020 during the start of the country’s lockdowns, listlessly swiping on Tinder, when a cheery-looking American named Paige Mitterhoff popped onto her screen.

They were 8,000 miles apart — Paige in Maui, where she traveled after being laid off as a massage therapist in New Jersey as the pandemic closed businesses; Barbara in Rome, where she worked as a sales associate for a global clothing company. But for fun, Paige had briefly set her location to Italy, curious about who she might find half a world away.

Barbara swiped right.

For four months, the couple were inseparable — virtually. They went to sleep at odd hours just to be online at the same time. On FaceTime, the pair dreamed up plans to meet once travel restrictions eased. Paige sent sunset snapshots, while Barbara pointed out Italian destinations they could visit. Invariably, one or both dozed off during their hours-long conversations, phone in hand.

In July, the two hatched a plan to meet at the Piazza Trilussa, a picturesque square featuring one of Rome’s iconic fountains in the Bohemian neighborhood of Trastevere.

Paige’s original itinerary called for a short stay in Utah, where she planned to visit friends, before traveling on to Italy. But as she headed to the check-in counter clutching a carry-on bag filled with American West-themed gifts for Barbara, the airline staff delivered bad news: Due to covid-19 restrictions, she couldn’t fly to Rome.

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“Get me to the closest country,” she told an agent. “Get me to Europe.”

Fast-forward past a transatlantic journey to London and a 14-day quarantine at a short-term apartment rental, Paige landed in Italy. She took an Uber from the airport to her Airbnb near the piazza where Barbara was waiting.

Barbara immediately recognized her: “She looked American.”

Paige’s first impression: “She’s shorter than I thought.”

Quickly, surprise gave way to wonder: “I was like, ‘Are you real?’ ” Paige later recalled, remembering how she poked Barbara’s cheek for confirmation.

“I actually couldn’t believe it,” Paige said.

They strolled through narrow streets filled with pharmacies and tiny restaurants, getting a beer together and talking. Paige, at first, felt like she rambled too much, while Barbara struggled with her English. Barbara had relied on Google Translate during their online chats. But slowly their anxieties dissipated. Soon enough, they were reveling in simple joys like going to the movies, eating out and waking up in the same bed.

“It was like we were 15 years old,” Barbara said, giggling with Paige.

A year later, Barbara, 27, and Paige, 29, have lived out some of the dreams they envisioned while stuck on opposite sides of the world. They adopted a black Labrador and launched a shared TikTok account — @cannoliandjersey — where they post videos of their adventures in Italy.

Life together in one place has brought challenges — oftentimes, amusing ones. Paige is still learning Italian, but that hasn’t stopped Barbara’s 92-year-old grandmother from speaking to her as though she is fluent. And the pair laughed as they recalled how Paige once drank a full pot of Italian espresso, not realizing it was meant to be shared.

Even as life settles into a new normal, they haven’t forgotten how lucky it is to be close.

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“Certain things, when you have a long-distance relationship in a pandemic, just mean a lot,” Barbara said.

New lingerie

By Marisa Iati

Their issues came into focus slowly, and then, all at once.

Where she was open about her feelings, he avoided difficult topics. He was orderly, while she was messy. The differences between Anne Bell and her husband seemed exciting at first. But three decades later, they were fault lines in a marriage that no longer worked.

Their partnership hit a roadblock in March 2020 as a new virus forced families across the world into seclusion. Since starting graduate school in 2016, Anne had gained weight. Her husband no longer wanted a physical relationship with her. Anne had a hard time accepting her new size 18 body. She avoided mirrors, refused to buy new clothes and hid behind her children in photos.

Cooped up in their Virginia home, tensions boiled over.

What exactly was said depends on whom you ask. She remembers him saying, “You’re difficult to love because you’re fat.” He acknowledges saying she was “fat” and “difficult to love” but says the remarks were delivered in two separate statements. In any event, the words stung.

Anne told him she was sorry he had to be married to “someone so fat,” hoping desperately that he would push back — but he didn’t.

Around last Thanksgiving, Anne and her husband took off their wedding rings. Divorce lawyers were hired. Anne, 55, moved out of the Northern Virginia home they had shared for seven years.

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In the months leading up to their split, she started seeing a weight-loss specialist and took medications, but her efforts only made her weight plateau. Maybe, she realized, the true dilemma was her mind-set. While she was asking her husband to love her as she was, she wasn’t showing love to herself.

So Anne started listening to CDs with personal affirmations. In a mantra about maintaining the keys to your happiness, she heard a reminder not to let anyone else’s perception determine your self-worth. She saved encouraging quotes to a Pinterest board called “Body Beautiful,” formed a body-positivity group at her job and attended a wellness retreat.

And, after refusing for so long, Anne finally bought nice clothes that fit. The changes didn’t save her marriage, which by then was too strained to save after years of mounting grievances, but they set her on a path toward self-acceptance.

In January, a marketing email from the plus-size clothing retailer Lane Bryant landed in her inbox. Valentine’s Day was just around the corner, it said. Did she need new lingerie?

Anne thought about her divorce. Then she considered how long it had been since she had let herself wear a negligee, too put off by her larger body to want to highlight it. Now more comfortable in her skin, she clicked on the website and ordered a sheer, gray, baby-doll nightie with a lacy neckline and tiny ribbons.

She wouldn’t be celebrating Valentine’s Day with her husband, but, she decided, she could still buy and enjoy something for herself.

“This relationship didn’t work,” she said. “Marriage didn’t work. But something else will.”

Behind the mask

By Meryl Kornfield

As the hospital wing where Allison Torres worked became a coronavirus ward two years ago, she and other nurses suited up in protective gear — masks, gowns and gloves shielding all but the hint of a smile.

Despite the coverings, Bryan Zayas de Jesus couldn’t help but exchange glances with Allison as his night shift at AdventHealth, a hospital in Kissimmee, Fla., ended and her workday began. He told a mutual friend he thought she was beautiful.

Bryan, now 30, had moved to Florida to work at the hospital from his native Puerto Rico right before the pandemic, suddenly finding himself in a new place without close family tending to patients fighting for their lives against a strange new virus.

When Allison joined the night shift the summer after the pandemic began, Bryan jumped at the opportunity to chat with her — and ask her on a date. They left behind their scrubs and went to somewhere seemingly safe: the beach.

“Being in the same field, we understand each other on a deeper level than someone who is not going through that working through the pandemic,” said Allison, now 28.

Their relationship blossomed — in a bubble. After work, they allowed each other 15 minutes to “word vomit” about their day and then agreed to drop any discussion of the virus. They rarely went out during the three surges in Florida, limiting themselves to classic pandemic activities like gardening and board games.

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“We’ve worked it, we’ve lived it, and that’s what has made us more cautious,” Allison said.

They did make one exception. Before Bryan proposed, he took Allison to Puerto Rico to meet his family. They flew to the island, where she met the relatives she had heard about from afar. Soon after, the couple got engaged and planned a wedding for April.

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The celebration that spring at a botanical garden near Orlando had the sort of precautions one might anticipate from two nurses: A hand sanitation station and colored wristbands to indicate social distancing preferences for the small number of friends and families who attended.

Nine months later, the couple welcomed a son, Jonah.

Reflecting on the past two years, Allison Torres Zayas notes that the entire course of their relationship has taken place during the pandemic — “a whirlwind.” They are looking forward to a time when their relationship exists outside the bookends of the coronavirus. Chief among their plans: visiting Puerto Rico again so Bryan’s family can meet his son.

“We don’t know life outside of the pandemic — our marriage, our baby,” Allison said.

In spite of the hardship, they feel grateful that the crisis brought them together.

“That’s been the beauty of finding love through all of this,” she said.

Tres leches

By María Luisa Paúl

When in-person classes resumed in August 2020, Carolina Moreno made the 2,000-mile trip from Puerto Rico to Indiana with some precious cargo: her mother’s tres leches recipe.

For Carolina, baking is a love language — a way of showing how much she cares — and no dessert could capture that better than the one for the Latin American sponge cake doused with three kinds of milk that she grew up savoring in Puerto Rico.

The boy she planned to bake for: Matthew Aubourg, a fellow senior at the University of Notre Dame who had become her best friend. The two grew closer over daily FaceTime calls during the pandemic but stayed strictly friends.

“Making tres leches is a two-day event,” she said. “And I really wanted to do something special for Matty’s birthday later that month.”

Three years earlier, Matthew had admitted to Carolina that he had a “massive crush” on her — but he landed in the friend zone. Yet somewhere between that rejection and the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, her feelings had started to change.

“I went to his apartment to say hi before classes started,” she said. “I found myself acting all flirty and feeling butterflies. One of my friends pointed it out, and that’s how I confirmed my suspicion — there had been love there all this time.”

Shortly before his birthday, Carolina confided her feelings to Matthew. He was wary of spoiling what felt like a perfect friendship. Devastated, Carolina retreated back to her apartment and made him the tres leches nonetheless. When she delivered it on his birthday, he devoured it.

Later, to mend any awkwardness, they went on a “friendship date” — making cheesecake together at her place. As ingredients were added, stirred and baked, feelings were shared. By the next month, they were dating — navigating the perils of first love and the minefields of a pandemic.

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There were no coronavirus vaccines so even a kiss could be risky. Typical settings for dates — restaurants, movies, museums, concert venues — were closed.

“The world was turned upside down,” Carolina said. “So we had to find our way of making it work.”

The two went on picnics before Indiana’s winter weather turned wicked. Matthew filled Carolina’s apartment with flowers. Netflix binges took place almost nightly. Monthiversaries — regardless of how new the relationship was — became cherished opportunities to “go all out” and celebrate, she said. Matthew learned how to sew to make her a rug with brightly colored thread depicting her native San Juan’s houses and the island’s flag.

But it was in the kitchen that they found common ground, Matthew said.

“I really feel like that’s where we bonded the most,” he said. “And that was definitely a covid pastime for many people, but it has an extra layer of meaning for how we got started.”

Now that 1,569 miles separate them — with Carolina, 22, at the University of Puerto Rico as a medical student and Matthew, 22, doing a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — all the time spent together translated into the “strong, loving and solid relationship” they continue to have, Matthew said.

But most of all, in a pandemic marked by anxiety, fear and loss, their love, Matthew said, has brought hope for better times to come.

“One of the best things to ever happen to me came at one of the worst times in global history,” he said. “And with that contrast, I can’t help but be thankful for it. There are tough times, but we still manage to keep a smile on our faces.”

“It’s been a beacon for me,” he said. “A beacon in a really dark time.”

About this story

Illustrations by Alaina Johnson. Editing by Christine Armario. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo and Beth Hughes. Design and development by Betty Chavarria. Additional development by Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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