By Jan Worth-Nelson
The day I got my first COVID vaccination—January 27, 2021—I took a selfie.
I sought out the natural light of my bathroom, a room I love because of its colorful orderly tiles and its second-story view of my peaceful backyard. That room, after all, is a setting for the undefended life of the body, often in its most unaltered state, unclothed and engaged in self-loving maintenance.
I focused on my right shoulder and my right arm. I took off my top so that the flesh would show, the roundness of my arm with its little circular band aid where the needle had gone in. I loved that little circle of evidence. I felt sensuous; I thought my body was beautiful that morning, and I wanted to show it off, now that it had received what promised to save me.
The implications of the vaccine, its premises, were of course straightforward science, thank god, but I could not help but attribute another layer of meaning. In a time when I have been hungry for meaning, the vaccine entered my body as a gift from the world—a message that I mattered and that I am worth saving. In a time when I am hungry for messages of love from the world, a world of that achy lockdown, a world of Trumpian escalating cruelty, fear, and mayhem: in answer I experienced the vaccine entering my body as a message of love.
The meaning I ascribed to “the jab” as we’ve all called it, was sustaining, nurturing, over the next days and weeks as the country grappled with the horror of January 6, and then with what it meant that Trump refused to concede; as we tried to come to terms with Biden’s tense, fenced-in inauguration. The truth of the vaccine in my body comforted me: science was winning out. My body had what it needed to fight back. Things would get better.
After our second vaccinations, my husband and I had a dinner party. We had not seen the other two couples—or anyone, in person—for almost a year. We added two leaves to our dining room table, an act that felt almost sacred. I pulled out the Waterford goblets and cloth napkins. Our menu was comfort food: my husband’s spaghetti, long round loaves of garlic bread, a big, nutritious salad, a homemade chocolate cake with butter cream frosting. All stand-ins for abundance and peace.
When our friends, also safely double-vaccinated, walked into our home after all those months, I teared up as I reached out to them, one at a time. To hug our friends was not a superficially sociable act: it was profoundly, earthily loving, a relief of embracing one another, the way humans are meant to. I didn’t want to let go. I believe I felt the rush of oxytocin right into my body, an infusion as important as the vaccine itself. What we had been through had changed us, imposing on us a denial we had never imagined would be a kind of starvation in our old age. Our skin tingled with the reclaiming of it after the long drought of touch.
All of us, all in our seventies and eighties, escaped the virus through that frightening year. We all knew people who had died: a neighbor’s sister; a retired art teacher on the next street over; a promising young entrepreneur with five kids; a blue collar activist; a colorful voice of the people. All snuffed out. Our neighbor up the block, who’s a state rep, showed up twenty-five pounds lighter and a bit haunted around the eyes as he walked his dog. Decades younger than us, he still got COVID and it nearly took him. But he had made it.
I had run through my back-up supply of Xanax and decided maybe I didn’t need more. The worst was over. I walked every day and for a time, mostly slept through the night. That was then. The relief was short-lived.
In the past year, we tried to adapt as the Delta wave hit. We mostly stayed home, and when we went out, it was all masks all the time. Our home: our beloved home, our refuge, remained a place of safety. We spent a small fortune relandscaping our shady back yard, adding “hardscaping” boulders and step stones immune to the weather, along with hearty perennials, hostas, and coleus, even as the politics went south again—the Afghanistan withdrawal seemed like a disaster, war broke out in Ukraine, inflation soared, mass shootings multiplied, the COVID deaths in America topped one million. Omicron hit: We got both boosters. My trillium plants— one called “bloody butcher” red and another virginal white—bloomed elegantly, bent into the green shade.
I bought a baby grand piano, startling even myself. We rearranged our living room so that the beautiful instrument takes over one whole corner. I ordered Bach preludes online: such beautiful order.
Every day we would say to each other, our home, at least our home… Every morning we would wake up grateful and savor looking out the windows from all our rooms. Every night we’d go to bed grateful for our solid walls, snuggling under a patchwork comforter, grateful for our quiet spaces, grateful to curl into each other’s warm body.
And then, early this month, somehow, it happened: the dreaded two bars showed up on my home test kit. Crying, I tested my husband: he was positive, too.
Whatever it was I felt on that January day seventeen months ago, that almost holy moment of love and relief, was crushed. Once again something had entered my body, but this time it was unwelcome, predatory. After all the months of doing what was “right,” the virus took over after all. And it had entered our house, our beloved home. It was here. It got in. It invaded our bodies. It invaded my home.
We both had symptoms, several days of severe head cold misery, and so it began again—a time of anxious efforts to save ourselves. Calls to our docs, who quickly came through. A day later, my husband, who’s eighty, sat ninety minutes with a needle in his arm as monoclonal antibodies dripped into his veins. My doc prescribed the five-day Paxlovid protocol: three tablets in the morning, three more at night. This is the kind of thing we must do now to save our poor bodies.
We went into quarantine as our docs told us to: we have three more days to go. I dropped out of a breakfast at Flint’s new library, Friday night jazz, a chamber music concert, the premiere of a new version of The Fantasticks, skipping our help with the monthly East Village Magazine distribution—all things we had marked as heartening evidence of a return to community life.
Our neighbors, many of whom also have also had COVID in the Omicron era, have brought us soup and apple tarts, taken out our trash, picked up meds, called and emailed. We’re all weary, but there is a certain resigned, unquestioning togetherness.
In both cases, our symptoms rapidly subsided. Today, the first day after PaxLovid, I got up my nerve to test myself again. My doc, through a telehealth appointment, warned me: it still might be positive. It was.
So this is how we come to understand that all is not sacred in our bodies and that there is very little we control. I stood at my kitchen window this morning and watched a blue jay compete with three mourning doves at our feeder. Tonight is the first January 6 hearing, and most of the commentators and all the polls say it probably won’t change any minds. Gun safety negotiations seem destined to founder in the Senate, again. In Ukraine, desperate patriots keep dying, a man on a bicycle shot down, children starving in the basements of bombed out shelters. Lakes in the West are drying out; fires expected again this year.
A tiny chipmunk chases all the doves away, filling his cheeks to Louis Armstrong proportions with black oil seeds. A nuthatch comes next, nervously eying me, grabbing a single seed and darting off. Life is going on, and I’m still around to watch it. I take a deep breath and plan the rest of my day: doing laundry, taking a walk.
That’s about the most I have to say as this debacle continues, the notion of control a joke that will make us either laugh or cry—whichever, it may not matter. But at the end of the day today, I’ll sit at my piano and play Prelude #9. Not just once, but maybe five times, maybe ten, until my unquiet spirit calms down. ■
Jan Worth-Nelson is a writer in Flint, Michigan. Retired from twenty-three years as a writing teacher and administrator at the University of Michigan-Flint, she is a former Peace Corps volunteer and the author of the novel Night Blind. Her work appears in Belt Publishing’s collection Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology.
Cover art by Chris Harvey.
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