The messages pop up on my Facebook feed every day now: “I got my second shot today!” My own second dose of the Covid vaccine comes tonight at 5:40. I’ve already written a thank you for the nurse who’ll poke the needle into my arm. If there’s time, I’ll bake cookies.
Thanks to the shot, this cloudy winter afternoon feels like high school graduation, with the same sense of gratitude and release. Goodbye, lockdown. Hello, sweet freedom. The Facebook exclamations about second shots are virtual mortarboards pitched into the air. Tomorrow, I’ll feel safer going to the Y, having dinner with vaccinated friends and hanging out with my grandkids. I’ll still wear a mask and keep my distance – vaccinated people can still carry and spread the virus. But I won’t fear dying in a hospital on a ventilator, separated from everyone I love.
What’s missing from this celebration, though, is any sense of achievement: I’ve done nothing to merit this shot except be old and lucky. Many people who are older, sicker and more at risk deserve it more.
So the question comes: How should I use this get-out-of-jail card I didn’t earn and don’t particularly deserve? Row off to the rescue ship like the lucky, first-class bastards who got seats in the Titanic’s lifeboats? Or stay close, knowing that this gift requires me to serve those still aboard the listing ship?
I cringed yesterday over a headline in the New York Times: A Different Early-Bird Special: Have Vaccine, Will Travel. Less than five percent of Americans have received both doses of the Covid vaccine, but vaccinated seniors are already flocking to warm-weather resorts and booking exotic trips to places like the Galapagos Islands.
I don’t blame them. Time’s short when you’re 70, even shorter at 80. I too dream of trips to see my sisters out east, bury my feet in Hawaiian sand or just drive south until we find green grass and air warm enough to walk outside without wearing a parka and crampons.
Psychologists have a name for this rush to buy plane tickets: Mortality salience. The sense that life is running out drives people to do all sorts of things. According to a business school professor quoted by the Times, those things now include bookings at better hotels and cabin upgrades on cruise ships. But those photos of pallid, thick-waisted seniors stretching in aqua yoga class aren’t helping the Boomer brand. It looks like my generation, which has already received more than our share of wealth and privilege, is at it again.
Way back in March, Dan Patrick — the lieutenant governor of Texas — caused a stir when he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that he was sure that most seniors would be happy to risk dying in order for the economy to reopen –“keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”
“And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” said 69-year-old Patrick. It was a specious comment, rightly mocked, invoking grandchildren as an excuse to open up businesses with little regard for public health.
Among the many things this pandemic has highlighted are this country’s vast inequities in income, health and treatment by police. As we lucky elders receive our shots and celebrate our freedom, we have a chance to do more than pass on the America we’ve got to our grandkids. We can use our money, time and votes to leave them something far better.
NOTE: The lovely watercolor cardinal is by Minneapolis artist Bridget Myers, one of several artists in the Kingfield neighborhood who are participating in the Waves of Thankfulness project hosted by the Kingfield Neighborhood Association. The postcard will go to the nurse who gives me my second vaccine dose.