Weeping on the observation chair.
I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine a couple of days ago. I wept the entire 15 minutes they kept me to make sure I was okay. I did not expect it, by any means. And yet…
I don’t like doctors — I mean I love doctors, but you know, I don’t like needles. I always close my eyes when I’m given a vaccine. I have fainted (several times) in the past while getting my blood drawn, and I’m pretty sure I can make myself fall into a coma if I think long enough about the process of installing a catheter. I’m that guy.
I’m also the guy who always thought these vaccines were made very fast. Maybe I’ll wait a few months, maybe even a year. I remember thinking back then it was very suspicious that the administration gave so much money to a company that never had a vaccine approved in their life — That’s Moderna.
But when I became eligible for a vaccine, then randomly stumbled upon an open appointment just a couple hours after hearing Dr. Fauci say on TV that the best thing we can all do now is get vaccinated, I just went ahead. Finally something I could do.
My appointment was at 3pm on a Saturday. At lunch, my wife and I were still discussing whether or not I should feel guilty I’m getting vaccinated early, even though the CDC recommends I do. I’m under 40, have access to good healthcare, and I’m able to remain overall pretty safe. But I also know I’m at higher risk than most in my age group to get a severe version of the disease. I smoked for 15 years (and I may or may not have fallen a little bit off the wagon in 2020) so obviously my lungs are not in pristine condition, which is not a thought you can entirely ignore when a brand-new airborne virus that attacks the respiratory system takes over the world. I’m hesitant about sharing the news with our friends and neighbors — I’ve learned over the past 10 years that even though American society is quite tolerant of many risky behaviors, smoking cigarettes is not one of them. I never came up with a decisive answer to the initial question, to be honest. I’m sure other people will. All I can do is follow the rules I’m given and be honest. After that…
So I have all these thoughts bouncing around in my head, feeling a little unclear about what I’m about to do, as I enter the vaccination center.
The second you step in the empty K-Mart, it feels momentous. Everyone is so nice. I haven’t been surrounded by so many strangers in an indoor venue for a long time. It’s a special day, a special space. I take a picture. I get yelled at. They ask me to delete it. Quite firmly. There’s nobody in the picture, just the space. They don’t care. I get it. I delete. I’m nervous, I don’t want to get yelled at. Let’s go back to everyone being nice, please.
I’m asked for my appointment confirmation. I hand over the printed email. They don’t check my ID. They don’t ask me what my eligibility is. They don’t ask me if I have insurance. They move me from desk to desk, until they finally take me to a makeshift private stall behind a black curtain, where I’m greeted by a handsome young nurse. He has kindness in his eyes, and soon, I will learn it’s in his voice too. I’m a bit nervous, but I’m not sure it shows. He asks me to sit down, asks me the same series of questions I’ve been asked since I entered the building: any Covid symptoms? Any known allergies? Any vaccines in the past 14 days? Any chance of pregnancy? Am I currently breastfeeding? These last two were new. We laugh. Okay, I guess it showed! Then he shows me the vial of the Moderna vaccine, like a waiter presenting me the bottle of wine at a restaurant (remember?). That’s when things started to really take another color. Can anyone name the manufacturer of any vaccine they’ve ever received in their life? I certainly can’t. But this one I knew. I knew all about it. I knew it like I know a celebrity I follow on social media. And I’m getting to meet it. I’m literally starstruck by a vaccine vial.
In that abandoned K-Mart on that day, nobody cared who I was. They didn’t care why I was here or where I was from, but they were going to take care of me. Because we were all here for the same reason: the pursuit of a new freedom.
He goes to prepare the shot. I look away. I don’t like needles. I don’t want to see what he’s doing. He could have put bleach in that syringe I would never have known. My eyes are probably already closed at this point. I don’t remember. And then he very peacefully kneels next to me and he quietly asks me if I authorize him to administer me this medication. It was a solemn question. I give him a solemn yes. It is a solemn moment. Then, the little pinch on my upper arm. As previously stated, my eyes are definitely closed at that point and during the following 3 seconds, memories of the past year start to flash. Did I make that happen or did it just happen, I’ll never know, but these were the scenes: Pushing my son on the swing every afternoon during the lockdown frantically checking the latest evolution of the curve on my phone. My baby daughter getting up on her own two feet for the first time, with the biggest smile on her face, not a clue of what’s going on. My wife and I having a drink on a terrace at night during the summer like it was the first time we ever went out. The walls of our house. The chyron of MSNBC. The number 2020. Pouf. The pinch is gone.
I open my eyes. He needs to fill out my vaccination card. I wait. I sit. Any side effect? How am I feeling? I feel light. I feel shaky. I feel I can’t breathe normally. I know it’s in my head. So I breathe some more. He gives me the card. I want to thank him. Shake his hand, hug him. I give him as much intent in my eyes and in my thank you as I can. I’ll always remember him. He won’t remember me. Like the nurses who were with us when our children were born. Yeah, this one definitely wasn’t just another doctor’s visit.
I move to yet another table. They give me a sticker with the time I need to stay until. 3:25. They ask me how I am feeling. I tell the truth. “Honestly, I don’t know.” They smile. I’m probably not the first one who said a version of that. One of them tells me: “It’s the first step toward normalcy.” I always hated that word. Normal. I always thought normal was boring. I always thought the concept of normal was a manufactured average that did nothing else but help a segment of society dismiss anyone who is different. A casually-hidden, socially-accepted, language-based form of discrimination. The kind that gives everyone self-doubt and social anxiety, triggers online rants and political division. But right now, normal sounds nice. The whole world was turned upside down last year. All the normals were upended. And what is happening here is indeed the first step on our journey back to all of our normals.
They take me to a white chair, surrounded by dozens of other white chairs occupied by other people. All here for the same reason, going through the same experience. I sit. I don’t want to take my phone out. I just want to sit. Alone. Do nothing. No screen. No kids. No work. No boredom. I close my eyes. And I just start weeping — like legit warm tears falling down. Was it the relief that, so far, I’m not feeling anything strange from the vaccine? Relief that my family and I are now a little bit safer? Relief that the war is coming to an end? Or was it the impeccable efficacy of One Direction’s “The Story Of My Life” chorus playing over the store’s sound system — a sound from another life blasting back into this life? Or was it being surrounded by all these folks in blue gowns, looking at us, making sure we’re okay? I never got so close to the war. I feel like I’m on the Homefront now, and I see them. I see them, and it is just not the same as thinking about them from your window. Some of them probably saw the trenches. They’re Asians, Black, Latinos, White, guys, girls, young and old. All these people who for the past year fought to keep us all safe.
Immigrant that I am, this resonated as a truly great American moment. America hasn’t had its best days recently. But this was a grand one. In that abandoned K-Mart on that day, nobody cared who I was. They didn’t care why I was here or where I was from, but they were going to take care of me, with an American-made cure, and do it with nothing but pure kindness along the way. Because we were all here for the same reason: the pursuit of a new freedom. And hopefully, we’ll all be able to find some bursts of happiness again along the way.