The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.
By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.
Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.
Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.
Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.
Like this image, life has been more than a little blurry for the past fifteen months. I have tried to keep smiling, but the outrageous number of deaths due to COVID-19 (more than 580,000 in the United States at this point), endless Zoom interactions, mind-numbing-worry-filled hours, and angst-ridden social and political moments have made it difficult at times.
Add in the daily masked encounters in contact-free zones to protect ourselves. There have been too many of those to enumerate, but through 2020 and the first four months of 2021 I never questioned the need to wear a face covering, though it certainly created an emotional barrier to contend with.
What would you have said if I told you this on January 20, 2021, (the day Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office)?
“By the middle of May more than 47 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 37 percent of all Americans (more than 120 million including my husband and me) will be fully vaccinated. Oh, and CDC masking guidelines will be substantially relaxed as a result of the greater numbers of protected citizens. For instance, if you live in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I do, you will be free to exercise in a community gym without wearing a mask on May 15.”
You probably would have responded like this:
“You’re crazy, Johnson!! Stop building my hopes and spreading unrealistic half-glass-full-but-dreamy conspiracy theories.”
But I’m not crazy. Think about what we have accomplished in less than four months as a nation. Where would we be without the vaccines, a compassionate and hard-working president, and science? Nowhere.
I realize there is a sizable chunk of Americans who will never get vaccinated, and as a result we will likely not reach herd immunity. If you are an anti-vaxer, it is your choice not to get the shots, just as it was mine to consent to receive the inoculations.
However, I see the “no vaccines for me” choice as a short-sighted and selfish one. I view the approved, no-charge COVID-19 vaccines as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. (If you’ve played Monopoly, you get my drift.)
Without the vaccines (two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for me) I would have felt forever afraid and vulnerable. I would have continued to be worried about my well-being, not to mention paranoid about spreading the virus to others. All of us would be going nowhere … figuratively and literally.
Now, with the vaccine coursing through my veins, I am happier, freer, and less afraid than I’ve been in fifteen months. I can plan a trip with my husband to visit friends in Montana this summer, sing again unmasked in the same space with my friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, and work out at Club SAR, the community gym I frequent, without wearing a covering over my face. None of that would have happened without the amazing science of epidemiology and vaccines.
Best of all, blurry or not, with the boosting benefit of two shots in my right arm and some mild discomfort for a few days, I get to see the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances, and mingle with them again. That’s something I have missed dearly.
Now that I have a little more distance from Good Friday, it’s clear how painful it was to witness Gary, my neighbor, die of congestive heart failure right outside my front door. Especially because Gary and I see/saw the same cardiologist. (In case you don’t know, I had my own heart trauma nearly four years ago. My husband Tom was the one watching the calamity unfold that day, rushing to get me to an emergency room in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday.)
At any rate, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced the wide swings of life. Joy and sorrow. Victory and defeat. Jubilation and devastation. I think the secret to contentment is expecting and accepting both ends of the spectrum, then finding your balance somewhere between the two extremes.
On Palm Sunday, I found myself savoring an author’s dream come true. I was reading passages from my latest book to an attentive audience and signing copies in our community clubhouse. Five days later on Good Friday, Gary collapsed outside his and my condo. A few minutes later, he died in my grasp.
For the next two days–through Easter Sunday–I felt out of sorts and sick to my stomach. I was searching for my equilibrium, battling side effects of shock, and absorbing the protective properties of my second COVID-19 vaccination, as more requests for my book came via texts and front-door visits.
On Monday, I began to find some semblance of my equilibrium. I knocked on my neighbor Bob’s door. He and I had been there with Pat (Gary’s wife) when her world came crashing down. “Milwaukee Bob” (Pat calls him that because that’s where he and his wife Barb live most of the year) is adjusting to what he witnessed too.
Though it is the fig tree Bob and I stood beside, giving Gary and Pat comfort and support in the trauma of that Good Friday moment, he and Barb bought a copy of my book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. They weren’t able to make it to the book signing and reading on Palm Sunday.
On Tuesday morning, I exchanged hugs with Gary’s daughter, Andrea. She had flown in from Chicago with her husband and three children to comfort her mother Pat. Through tears, Andrea thanked me for being there for her mother and father. Her family’s spring Arizona vacation (planned before her father’s demise) was transformed into a mix of grieving, coping, swimming, and horseback riding. Her dad’s remains will be interred in Illinois at a later date.
It is Wednesday night now. I feel stronger again. I realize the tender result of Gary’s sudden death … that, through care and happenstance, I will be bonded to Bob, Pat, Andrea, and her family for life. This morning Tom and I joined a handful of friends for yoga in the park. Between ten and eleven o’clock, we stretched and posed on our mats. I felt the caress of a cool southern breeze under the shade of a tall pine tree. I heard the needles of the pine whisper and the call of the mockingbirds above us. I assumed my tree pose. I felt nature cradle me. I swayed, but found my footing on uneven ground.
Gary was a fixture in our community. Nearly every day, through our kitchen window, Tom and I spotted him beyond our fig tree. He sat contentedly on the park bench in front of his condo, wearing his favorite cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette. Our neighbor–an eighty-six-year-old-man with a wry sense of humor and perpetual cough–died last week.
Over the past few years, Tom and I watched Gary’s slow slide and the constant care Pat (his devoted wife of fifty-three years) provided. In recent weeks, Gary’s decline had become more precipitous. We knew it was only a matter of time–days, hours, minutes, seconds–before he left. That happened on Good Friday right outside his front door … and ours.
On Friday afternoon, after receiving our second Pfizer vaccinations the day before, Tom was napping in the sunroom. I was feeling fine, writing in our den. Around three o’clock, I heard a thud followed closely by a shriek. Gary had fallen. Pat had just seen it happen. I raced outside. I found Gary crumpled on the ground in the ninety-degree heat next to his Chicago Bears cupholder.
Pat, Bob (another neighbor), and I did our best to lift Gary and situate him in a chair in the shade near the fig tree right outside our door. But, the color in Gary’s face slowly drained and his breathing stopped just as the Scottsdale paramedics and police arrived. They worked to resuscitate him, but Gary was gone.
For the past few days, I’ve been feeling the trauma of that moment and the side effects of the second vaccine. I remember telling Pat to call 911. I remember my heart racing. I remember consoling Pat briefly, then–after the EMTs arrived–reaching out to hug Danny, a long-time friend of Gary’s who had heard the commotion and looked on in amazement. I cried in his arms. Though Danny and I don’t know each other well, I am certain we both needed to feel some comfort in that frightening moment.
Until last Friday, no one–not even my mother or father–has died in my arms. It’s going to take a while before I can fully process the meaning behind all of this. But, you know me. I needed to write about it.
The reality is this: Pat, Bob, and I did what most people would do. We tried to help ease the pain of a husband, a neighbor, a friend, a dying man. As a result, we will be forever bonded by the personal gravity and trauma of the experience.
What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.
But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.
My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.
Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.
Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.
Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.
As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.
A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.
Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.
Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.
Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.
While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.
It was the afternoon of Thursday, March 11, 2021–six hours after Tom and I returned from Phoenix Municipal Stadium with our first injections of the Pfizer vaccine rushing through our bloodstreams, but without any side effects.
About the time Joe Biden was signing the landmark $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill (one year after the world shut down), I was rummaging through a mish mash of my deceased parents’ papers in a catch-all accordion file. My goal was to purge unwanted and unneeded materials to make room in my desk drawer for more current items.
I stumbled upon a startling, historically relevant promotional polio awareness flyer (printed in 1957). The two-sided piece encouraged parents to protect their families against polio. The copy began:
“There is enough vaccine for you and your children–see that you get your share NOW. Protect your own family before polio strikes again.REMEMBER … adults need polio vaccine as well as children. Severe cases occur among those aged 20 to 35 years and over …”
The flyer goes on to describe the need for a series of three shots. At that time, the approved protocol was to get the first two spaced two to six weeks apart. The third, a booster, was recommended seven months to a year after that.
On the back of the flyer, produced by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, there was enough space to record the dates the polio shots were given to the four of us in our family–Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark–in the late 1950s.
Based on the information recorded there, it appears my sister, mother and I received all of our polio shots in a timely manner, plus Diane and I got a fourth shot in late April 1959. I vaguely recall that we also received follow-up polio vaccinations at school in the early 1960s.
Sixty years have passed. Worries about polio no longer appear on the social radar.
According to historyofvaccines.org, because of widespread vaccination, polio was eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994. However, in the United States it is still recommended that young children receive the polio immunization at two months, four months and then twice more before entering elementary school–due to the risk of imported cases from other parts of the world.
Now the conversation with cohorts in our condo community (and in neighborhoods around the world) is about slowing and preventing a different ghastly disease and protecting ourselves and others by getting COVID-19 vaccinations. These are the questions of 2021:
Did you get a vaccination appointment? … Is it Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson? … Have you had any side effects?
Sometimes there is comfort knowing that frightful occurrences have come and gone. That previous generations have survived other calamities by taking proper steps. That history is there for a reason, if we allow it to pave the way toward awareness, education, and greater understanding.
Our job is simple. Listen to the scientific experts. Follow the guidelines. Get vaccinated when it is our turn. Expect minor discomforts like a sore arm and fatigue for a few days. In the scheme of possibilities, that isn’t much to ask of every American, every global citizen. It’s an easy to do list and much more preferable than the alternatives of serious illness, potential death, lingering despair, and continued isolation.
At this point, all Tom and I need to do is to drive to Destination Vaccination–the Phoenix Municipal Stadium–one more time for our scheduled second doses in three weeks. That will happen on April 1. In spite of that being April Fools’ Day, there is nothing foolish about following the lead of science. I will keep my commitment and get the job done.
Rest assured, I also will save my 1950s gem of polio vaccination history. I will place it back in my family history accordion file. It will always lead me down a trail to a time I never want to forget.
It’s not quite spring, but changes are brewing in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere. Like a gusty, forty-mile-an-hour wind that rattled our bougainvillea and stripped palm leaves last night, there is something new stirring in the air.
Maybe hope is returning, in the form of fluffy, tangerine-colored balls dangling from branches. The sweet acacia trees have begun to perfume the Valley of the Sun.
Through much of the year, these shrubs prefer to stretch horizontally with little fanfare. But when the blossoms appear, they take center stage through the scent that intoxicates desert paths.
The tiny blooms remind me how much my life has changed from the pink-and-white magnolia trees of the Midwest. As a child in Missouri and an adult in Illinois, I watched as singular warm days of spiky temperatures in March and April seduced them to bloom early, only to be tricked by a later frost or snow that browned the petals.
Hope is appearing on the horizon in other forms. My sixty-six-year-old sister just texted me a masked photo of her seated after she received her first vaccination in Chicago. I suppose I’ve been worried about her, because I shed a few tears as I studied the image. I could glimpse the smile in her eyes, though her face was obscured. As more of us get vaccinated–and a storehouse of worry is released–I expect a river of previously pent-up emotions will flow around the world.
On Tuesday, Arizona expanded the COVID-19 vaccination sign-up process to include those 55 and up. Right after noon, Tom and I agonized over our laptops. We kept refreshing like feverish slot players at a casino grabbing the bar for another chance at a jackpot. After an hour or so of hand wringing and cursing, we were lucky to crack the code of online registration.
We are scheduled for the first round of vaccinations on the morning of March 11 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, just a few miles from our home. I don’t expect to enjoy the prick of the needle in my arm that day. It won’t come close to the alluring scent of the acacia trees or the thrill of a few more friends stopping by to purchase signed copies of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.
But, like millions of others around the world, I’m fine with minor inconveniences and discomforts. Small side effects from a life-saving vaccine–miraculously tested, approved and produced in less than a year–will pale with the prospects of dodging COVID-19.
Yes, I’m more than ready to board an express train to a freer and more promising destination. I suspect you are too. I’ll see you in the sweet land of fortunate and grateful survivors. We’ll be there, like thousands of others, smiling from behind our masks.
Though the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not one of those dusty western stories. You know, where the good guy returns to the scene of the crime for revenge against the villain and they duel it out in front of a saloon?
Instead, this is a much simpler, quieter tale about one man–me–beginning to take his shrunken life back a day after the United States surpassed half a million COVID-19-related deaths. (Incidentally, if you are like me, you are wondering if the decline in new cases and hospitalizations are harbingers of the waning days of a global pandemic or a mere lull, a mirage in the desert that has seduced us to believe some of us may actually escape after all.)
It had been nearly a year since I swam laps at Eldorado Pool in south Scottsdale. It exists about a mile from our condo. Before March 2020, it was a place I frequented three or four times a week. Of course, COVID-19 was the villain or at least the culprit that has kept me from going there for nearly twelve months.
Today, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 I returned to this place that soothes and energizes my body and spirit. I wrote a new chapter gliding in the water. That consisted of thirty minutes in lane eleven of our thirteen-lane, Olympic-size, community pool.
I was one of about a dozen swimmers in the pool at ten o’clock this morning. We were a lucky twelve, cupping our hands to push through cool water under sixty-five-degree blue skies, far from the snow and bluster that has consumed most of the United States recently.
There were a few familiar faces, like Frank’s. He smiled, asked how my winter has been, and if I’d been working on a new book. His question reminded me how long it had been since we had talked, how much we hadn’t discussed, how little he knew of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, and how much I had missed the connected pieces of my life … like swimming in a community pool, trading stories face-to-face with friends, realizing that the few added pounds around my middle can be shed easily by recapturing this strand of my life a few times a week. One lap at a time.
My swimming is over for the day. Now, outside the pool, I hold my breath–like most of the rest of the world–and wait. I am one of those under sixty-fivers (just barely) ready to be vaccinated, ready to schedule it as soon as I can, ready to recapture more strands of my life, ready to return to a world that once felt familiar.