Of course we’re grateful. Our second vaccine is behind us. This bright, shining light of after-COVID life stretches before us. It’s a new day. Hallelujah! Do I hear an “Amen”? Yes. Absolutely.
And yet. My wife, Thia, and I, in our mid-70s, finally got our double jabs. After competing for online appointments with every other keyboard-challenged senior in Hillsborough County, we managed. We both had a rough few days after the second shot, but nothing unexpected.
We gave it a couple of weeks, like we’re supposed to. Then we went out to dinner—what a concept!—to an outdoor restaurant to celebrate. When I pulled my mask down to eat, and to clink wine glasses with Thia, I looked around nervously. Is this … all right?
Next day, we are off to see the granddaughters. They’re a year older. We’ve been luckier than most; we live nearby and got to see them. But always at a distance, muffled and masked. No reading together, no cuddling, no car rides. We haven’t seen their new bunk beds. We didn’t know who their teachers were. Conversations had been strained, awkward. We trained them to stay away from us. It was they who warned off their grandmother, rightly so. “Distance, Nana!” This drove me crazy, leaning too close.
Now they hear from their parents that Nana and Pops are going to be “safe.” Their parents — our kids — are as healthy as only 38-year-olds can be, had mild cases of COVID, and recovered. Their ruddy cheeks appear to me brimming with antibodies plentiful enough to bottle.
In fact, we don’t yet know how long immunity lasts for those recovered from COVID. But for now, it seems safe. The parents explain to the girls that we are going to be a pod.
“A pod, like a pan?” asks the 4-year-old.
“No, silly, like dolphins,” says the 7-year-old. Smart, could be a marine biologist.
The older girl, who came up with the concept of foot-hugs as a workaround last year, is shy when I squat down to embrace her the first time, holding her head carefully to the side. The younger one, less inhibited, must have said to herself, Hey, no problem here, and goes straight for a neck-lock.
Ten minutes later, they are behaving as they had been a year earlier—tumbling, puppylike, over the ottoman, grabbing our hands to show us their new dance moves, inspecting my stomach, which has expanded some since this business began.
“Tummy’s bigger, Pops,” says the 4-year-old, poking. Observant child, but no tact.
Few humans are more aware of time’s passage than grandparents. We know how short the time of cuteness is. How soon children will become tweeners, then, catastrophically, teenagers. Furthermore, we grandparents are insecure. Might kids, being kids, just move on? So, when we see the girls were just as eager to hug us, to reach over for a nuzzle, the relief is as good as a shot in the arm.
A new old world
The effects of that shot, the real one, include a flood of conflicted feelings. We’re creatures of habit. We’ve been doing things the pandemic way a long time. There’s a lot to unlearn. As I drive past barber shops, dry cleaners, Starbucks, a Target, a Greek diner…they don’t even register anymore. They’ve been off-limits for so long, I don’t even think about them.
Now, as we drive through our neighborhood, I take a second look. I notice. Is it time for a real haircut? (Thanks, dear, for the kitchen-cut shag; it’s been grand.) How long since I had my teeth checked? There’s the movie theater. Not for me, not yet.
It’s perplexing. The disorientation. We’ve been in isolation, in detention, so long, the old world seems new, unfamiliar. What can we do now? Everything we used to? A lot of us want to travel. But Anthony Fauci’s federales tell us we should still mask up, avoid crowds, stay out of indoor restaurants. There’s a chance we could carry infection to upstanding, unvaccinated Floridians, especially those who won’t wear masks. (As Gene Wilder said in Blazing Saddles, about his Old West town’s upstanding, salt-of-the-earth citizens, “You know … morons.”)
There’s also a chance that one of the virus variants will zap us, get around our vaccine protection. So we have to keep checking. Still, indications are that at worst, we’d get sick, not die. So that’s the real relief: We’re out of mortal danger.
But there are issues.
Survivor’s guilt, for one. Whom can we celebrate with? Too many families weren’t as fortunate. Too many lost parents, too many great aunts and uncles, now gone. The past year, for some, has been a cortege of sad announcements, grim phone calls, funerals gone unattended.
Even the announcement that we’ve been vaccinated can be fraught. Among our generational friends and family, some haven’t been as adept at navigating jammed websites, or keeping up with shifting, often unlikely venues. (“Publix? What, 7-11 next?”)
There are other forms of guilt. Like what the kind that brings you up short, the startled, wait-what-am-I-doing? guilt.
My adult son, Tyler, drives over to pick us up for the first time in a year. I open the passenger door, I hesitate — I haven’t ridden with anyone but my wife in so long … I slide in. Ty reaches over to give me a Hiya-Dad hug … I hesitate, I wince … Oh right … It’s okay now.
We head to the local petting zoo with the kids. We get there, I look around: outdoors, but crowded. Goats, guinea pigs, petted by hundreds of … people. God, we shouldn’t be doing this … We line up for the world’s slowest pony ride … Crowd around a gaggle of noisy turkeys … Pile into a wooden train, perching on seats other toddlers were just sitting on … wait, what are we doing?
At last, resting from our goat-petting travails, we sit down together on a bench. The family water bottle gets passed around. I hesitate — can I? — and then drink. The 4-year-old offers her grandmother the bag of goldfish crackers. Nana hesitates.
“I guess I can have one,” Nana says.
“Have two,” says the kid, sensibly.
I sit there, on the petting zoo bench. My arms are around my wriggly granddaughters. I am chatting —face to face — with my son. It’s pleasant out, the air tinged with the scent of small-animal manure. I feel I am in a state of unaccustomed grace. All’s right with the world.
But when we are at home again, I have dreams. I know I won’t begin to feel normal again until my dreams are normal again. Almost all my dreams these past twelve months have been set in the pandemic. Not really nightmares, just me getting lost somewhere, the virus ever-present, my mask slipping off.
The mask as totem
This mask business, especially here in Florida, has played an outsize role in the nightmare year we’ve lived through collectively. It’s the totem, the Rosebud, the symbol that will stand for what went wrong.
Blessed with sunny weather and an outdoor culture, we had a chance to handle the pandemic better than most. Gov. Ron DeSantis could have gotten it right. His instincts on keeping kids in school and in prioritizing seniors for vaccines were ahead of the curve. (Kids, thankfully, went to class. Teachers, spitefully, got no priority for vaccines.) Still, DeSantis often made more sense than some of the blue-state governors, whom I favor, who botched their pandemic efforts so badly.
But DeSantis, bantam-cocky, perpetually arrogant, hitched his star to a calamitous con man in Washington. He took up early with the masks-are-for-wussies crowd and played to the bleachers, high-fiving his way through crowds. Like his mentor, he baited reporters and boasted prematurely about his successes, conveniently disappearing when death rates soared. He opposed enforced mandates at nearly every turn, keeping bars and restaurants open, controlling and withholding health information. He hung out with wingnuts who believed the virus ought to just spread naturally, culling the herd.
And 30,000 Floridians died; 500,000 nationwide.
The scope of it forces an early question: What, exactly, happened here? Why did it happen?
It’s too soon, of course. But at first glance to the rear, we see a glimpse of a Hieronymus Bosch fever-dream. Millions of our fellow citizens caught up in know-nothing frenzies of quack remedies, baseless sect beliefs, idol worship, anti-mask fetishisms, and wild, vile conspiracy theories — all of which came close to consuming us by election time. The Capitol insurrection, while not strictly a COVID feature, was stoked by witchy, irrational beliefs that involved Confederate rebels and stoned Vikings in horns and furs baying at the moon.
So we don’t know yet. Did the delirium run in parallel to the virus itself? Or was it the same nightmare? Historians will sort it out. But I’m betting that two recent findings will make their final cut:
♦ This January, as DeSantis was refusing yet again to mandate mask use, even with the vaccine in sight, a definitive, real-world study was concluded. Turns out, proper mask use, in itself, was found to be 94% effective against COVID infection. Done, no more arguments. Wearing a mask was proved to be as effective as the vaccine itself. So all the macho posturing, the arguments about freedom and keeping businesses open — lethally false. We could have had it all, with masks on, and saved lives.
♦ Around the same time, Lancet, the world’s most prestigious medical journal, estimated that 40% of all deaths could have been prevented by compliance with simple safety measures. Nationwide, that means 200,000 deaths out of 500,000 could have been prevented if leaders had just insisted we wear the damn masks.
Some of us were lucky enough to have someone who told us the truth. In our family, it was my brother Geoffrey Golson, a science editor in Orlando. In February of 2020, he began to write long, researched emails to our extended family. With just a few cases reported, he told us a once-in-a-century disaster was upon us. He predicted the lockdowns, the school closings, the election unrest, the suffering and deaths. He was a nag about masks, before Fauci was. We were safer because of him.
He’s 64, just under the next vaccine age so far, and hasn’t gotten his own shot.
A moment of thanks
As we pivot (carefully) back to the tale that brought us here — vaccination — we seniors should take a moment to give thanks. We were blessed. Those magnificent science majors who gifted us with their ingenious invention deserve our undying gratitude. Or medals of freedom, whatever they’re worth.
While the politicians and assorted lunkheads were shaking clubs and shouting stone-age slogans, our biochem grads kept their heads down and just ... did their work. Not one, but three shots. So far. (And while they were at it, through the insanity, other science jocks sent a rocket up, slung it 134 million of miles toward Mars, and floated it down on a dime.)
Importantly for the future, even though we seniors were given our shots first, we need to stay aware of those waiting their turn to writhe beneath the under-65 limbo pole. We can only offer you youngsters our experience, and hope you can get there without pummeling yourselves to get there. Our greatest hope is that we’re past the worst.
For instance, we have to hope anti-vaxxers won’t become more numerous, the way anti-maskers did. At least we no longer have bullies at the national level working against science and common sense.
Ah, not so fast.
The latest national poll tells us 53% of Republicans either won’t take the vaccine or don’t trust it. So how much harder will that make it for all of us to be safe?
Aren’t we past this deadly nonsense? Masks were a fetish, but vaccines? Is resistance spreading beyond just the usual anti-vax loonies? Can’t anyone head this off at the pass? Is there a leader these folks trust? Someone who’s not a wuss, who can show them COVID is still a deadly danger…who’s taken the vaccine?
Bulletin: it turns out that the former president was critically ill when he got COVID. But he kept it a secret. It also turns out that in his last days in office, the former president got himself vaccinated. As did his 50-year-old wife. And kept that a secret.
This, then, is where the story continues:
The former president says he’ll run again. If he doesn’t, our own governor wants to run for president himself. They both proudly cite their role in handling the pandemic.
V is for vaccination — and victory
Thia and I are in the down elevator in our high rise. It’s morning. The granddaughters are being dropped off with us for a while. We plan to take a stroll on Tampa’s lovely Riverwalk. Dogs will be petted, squirrels will be chased, beetles will be discovered.
In this very elevator, we’ve had confrontations in the past. Younger residents have tried to walk in, maskless. Not today. Instead, a couple about our age, white-haired and jaunty, step in wearing face coverings. They seem to be in a good mood, as we are.
“Second vaccines?” I ask.
All four of us hold up two fingers in a V sign. V for vaccine. V for victory.
When Thia and I walk out, we blink in the sunlight. The girls are in the driveway, jumping out of their car, running at us. We don’t think about it, we hold out our arms. It’s a fine new day.
Barry Golson is a writer and a retired editor who supervised the Playboy interviews, TV Guide and Forbes Traveler. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise.”