October 28, 2021
It’s after midnight. I cannot sleep. I rise from my thrashing, flame on the computer, and spill my thoughts.
My sister-in-law is lying in a hospital bed, 2000 miles away. Body temperature lowered to 75 degrees. In hope that when the medical personnel warm her up she will come back to life. In some form. Six minutes without oxygen is a long time. That’s the length of time her heart was starved. The medical jargon is convoluted but the facts are simple. Julie teeters on death. Complications from COVID.
Julie’s 64 or thereabouts. After-midnight stats are unreliable. She’s beautiful. Got this dimple squish in her nose that struck me odd when we first met, forty years ago. Until it seemed unique. Then distinctive. Her love of music and her positive outlook is astonishing. She also bakes killer cinnamon rolls. A dozen years ago, she abandoned her Eighties’ mass of curls for a blunt cut and I realized—wow—this woman’s come into her own. That’s when I moved past loving Julie because she’s my sister-in-law, and just starting loving her. No adjectives or obligations attached.
My brother Bill’s text about his wife arrived last morning, along with a group email from my sister. I was soon added to a thread daughter Jessica began. Jess’ first message described how Bill’s COVID came on first; he’s already been in and out of the ICU.
Anger tornadoed up and through me. My head pulsed. I could barely finish reading. I took deep breaths, dozens of them, typed out a reply, and then opted out of the thread.
“Thank you for letting us know. I am so sorry that Julie is in such a precarious state. She’s so lovely; I have always been fond of her grace and devotion. I am doubly sorry because we all know you and Julie could have minimized, or even prevented, this from ever happening. By denying sound science, you’ve deepened the tragedy.”
How could I be so hard-hearted during this fragile time? I hit ‘send’ and let the repercussions fly.
I mind my own business; don’t quiz anyone of their vaccination status. I got my two shots, wear a mask indoors, stay six feet away from everyone. I don’t like it, but it’s not all that hard. When recommended precautions evolve and change, so do my behaviors. This is a new, virulent disease; our understanding continues to unfold. I could still contract COVID, of course. No one’s guaranteed immune. But if I do, I believe I’ll find solace in knowing that I took the recommended precautions for myself and my community.
There are a few things we know for certain. That if you are seventy with a history of respiratory disease, as my brother is, you present a high risk. That if you bring COVID home, it’s easy to spread. That if you’re vaccinated, the risk of getting COVID nosedives, and if you suffer a breakthrough case, it’s more likely mild.
My brother and his wife chose not to get vaccinated. We didn’t discuss it; the information was simply conveyed.
So why didn’t I squelch my itch to type, “denying sound science,” and simply send a message of sympathy? Because the image of sweet Julie lying in a cold coma snapped something in me. I can no longer pretend that whether a person gets vaccinated is a rational choice, deserving a sympathetic response. Such silence condones their behavior.
Within a few hours, blowback came. From another family voice. How could I toss out an ‘I told you so’ under the circumstances?
I could disagree with that interpretation of my message. The sorrow of an accident is great, but the grief of a trauma over which we exercise some control is deeper, uglier. But that would be quibbling since, no doubt, I ricocheted blame for Julie’s condition. I extracted it from the sphere of the arbitrary and Almighty. I placed, at least some of her agony, back on those suffering.
The range of humans that flower from a single gene pool is amazing. My immediate family and their offspring represent phenomenal diversity. Aside from being mostly white and altogether too-Irish, we hit just about every demographic point: red, blue; rich, poor; drop-out, Ph.D.; evangelical, atheist; alcoholic, teetotaler; veteran, felon. I’ve always prided myself that, no matter how different we are, we stay in touch. Not every-Sunday-for-dinner-close. Still, I’ve always remained on speaking terms with every member of my family. Even when they’re hard for me to figure out. Ditto when my peccadillos confound them.
But tonight, in the after-midnight blackness, I can’t forecast how that tradition continues. What is the right path for me to be a good person: politely accommodate whatever my family says and does under the banner of family solidarity; or stand true to what I know is true.
I strive to see others point of view. But I cannot, cannot, cannot fathom any reasoning why intelligent people whom I love choose not to be vaccinated against this horrific disease. An inaction of perverse selfishness, cruel to their family, callous to society. If their disdain of vaccination is as strong as my conviction, we enter an arena with no middle path.
In this moment I am so angry at my brother, I’m unable to be a good brother myself. I cannot share his burden. I cannot console. Will I find compassion and generosity in my heart to move past my anger? Will I extend the empathy he and Julie need? Or will my principles provide meager solace? Will my anger fester? Prompt reciprocal anger? Drive a rift that we cannot heal? We are none of us getting younger, and some of us are very ill. No matter what differences have surfaced in the past, we’ve always come together again, in time. Will we come together this time? Or will a piece of our family die?