There’s a scene in the movie Jaws that often comes to mind these days. It’s a quiet moment at night, thick with tension, as the three men out in the ocean in the too-small boat sit and drink, waiting for the beast to attack. Quint, the acerbic, seasoned fisherman, is asked how he got a scar. He tells the story of the Indianapolis, the ship he served on in 1945. Hit by a torpedo, the ship sinks and the surviving men tread water in clusters, fending off deadly attacks by sharks. Finally, a rescue ship arrives, but Quint says that was the worst moment, waiting for his turn—survival so close he could taste it, yet he could still die at any second as the sharks continued to pick them off one by one.
When I wonder why my stress about the virus seems worse now, I think of Quint treading water, terrified that he’ll die before it’s his turn—the anxiety of anticipation when the stakes are life or death.
I remind myself that death is a constant risk of living—not even a risk, it’s a sure thing. But somehow we manage to forget that day to day.
The impact of both the virus and the vaccine continues to fall on mostly generational lines, sometimes pitting one generation against the other. Last night we had dinner outdoors at a pizza place. A large group of college guys sat over to the side, their table covered in beer cans. As they rose to make trip after trip to clear their table, I glossed over that act of responsibility, even though they correctly disposed of those cans in the recycling bin. I fixed on them leaving the table without donning masks. One even went inside to use the bathroom without a mask. Livid and emboldened by the double stout I’d just consumed, I yearned to confront them. But usually the college kids I encounter mask up better than I do, and are quick to yield sidewalk space. Plus, there were 10 of them.
The pandemic has left my emotional edges ragged. Now, in addition to fighting anger at the unmasked, I struggle with vaccine envy, though I am thrilled to see “Got my shot” posts from former coworkers at the hospital where I used to work. Sleeves of scrub tops rolled up, their faces beam with relief at finally getting what they need to be able to continue to help the rest of us. And the seniors in our community are almost giggling in relief at getting their shots. In their emails, on Zoom and in the rare in-person encounter, they politely try to restrain their giddiness, knowing that some of us have longer to wait.
I want to share in their delight. Despite our COVID-care coming too little too late for so many, we have managed (mostly) to put them first. I feel the ripple of joy surging through them. They’re like the first blooms of spring popping up unexpectedly in reckless colors.
I know that both my anger and my resentment come from a place of fear. I’ve carried this (very reasonable) fear for a full year now. I don’t deny the fear, but I also don’t want to be ruled by it. The rollout itself has complicated my internal struggle. The intent was to place the most vulnerable in the highest priority, but many have fallen through the gaps.
After medical personnel, I would have liked the next cutoff to be age 75 and older, with special outreach for minorities and those not living in facilities, to decrease the oldest competing with those younger—many of whom got vaccinated before my 86-year-old mom with lung disease.
A friend younger than me, with severe auto-immunity issues, has been left out of early vaccinations. Her diseases are too rare to fit into a neat category, yet I believe she is more at risk than most I know who’ve been vaccinated, and she’s been even more isolated.
I don’t blame others for getting it when they could—not getting it wouldn’t help my mom or friend—and many of them have hardly left their homes. Most of these friends are excited to get a haircut and go in-person to the grocery store. They’ve kept their worlds small.
Some older friends wanted to retreat but stepped out instead, to keep grandchildren full time so their children could work. Getting vaccinated means they no longer have to choose between their children and their health.
Now that my mom is fully vaccinated, my vaccine envy has largely subsided. My mom doesn’t drive and doesn’t use a computer or smartphone. My stepdad died this year. Contact with others is limited to phone calls and brief encounters with staff from her independent-living facility. I see her only to drop off groceries or pick her up for appointments. Being vaccinated means she can share a meal with another resident and that she can have a conversation in the hallway without “breaking the rules.” The current events class she used to coordinate will meet again soon, with social distance and masks. The smaller your world is, the bigger the impact of even a few changes.
Until I am vaccinated, she can’t come over to see a movie or share a meal, I can’t tote her groceries inside for her, help catch her cat to take it to the vet or give her a real hug. We don’t know when she’ll get to visit her older sister a few states away, or if she can attend my brother’s wedding. But she is now unlikely to die of COVID, and that is a tremendous thing to be grateful for.
Even though I’m on the outside looking in, still treading the dangerous waters, I don’t want my fear to override this time of shared hope and the joy of those pulled to safety.
Our elders have suffered tremendous risk and confinement. This is their moment, and I welcome their glee. Spring has come to the South, and our elders are its most brilliant blooms.
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