(Published in the Anchorage Daily News on 12/21/2021)
I have an immunocompromised kid, so the pandemic has taken a lot from me in the last few years. And I want to get to that darkness, but I will begin with what light remains. The pandemic hasn’t claimed any of the lives or health of those I know intimately. It hasn’t harmed our family’s job, home or disturbed any lifelong goals. COVID-19 has even given me things (though they need not equal the harm done), like deeper friendships, better communication skills, an appreciation for therapy and nightly strip shows as my emergency room husband peels off his COVID-covered scrubs on the back deck before rushing in to shower. I know I’m lucky, blessed, loved and possibly envied.
That doesn’t mean the pandemic hasn’t affected my life. It has taffy-pulled my mental health and overturned my daily life with incessant homeschooling. It has sapped social development opportunities from my disabled 5-year-old, who would have gained much these past years from in-person therapies or preschool. The burden of sacrificing for their vulnerable sibling has been strapped solidly on my other three children’s small backs even as their world drastically shrank. The pandemic has robbed us of time with friends and family, especially our aging parents who are vulnerable by that criteria alone. It’s transformed some friendships we had with people of other political and religious affiliations into tenuous, minefield acquaintances. And these are really funny, warm hearted, adventurous people that I very much miss. In a coup de grâce, the pandemic filched my religion out from under me. This may not sound like much to those who regularly search for churches that fit, but in my high-demand religion, the betrayal of my fellow congregants to our covenant with God, which promised we’d protect and bear each other’s burdens, shattered my faith. I don’t think I’ve even identified the ripples of destruction yet; I’m still floating in the immediate wreckage.
But today, when the light from Ed Yong’s gentle commentary piece dawned on me, I saw that this disease has taken something greater. When he said, “I’ve tried to consider how my actions cascade to affect those with less privilege, immune or otherwise. Instead of asking ‘What’s my risk?,’ I’ve tried to ask ‘What’s my contribution to everyone’s risk?’”, I realized that assessing only my child’s risk has slowly robbed me of my concern for the collective.
Let me back up. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was scared — for their own lives initially, and then, as time and data wore on, for those of their more vulnerable loved ones. At some point in the political narrative, a yawning gap opened up between people who realized the consequences of their actions on others’ lives and those who refused the lesson of interconnectivity that the virus keeps teaching. To me, mother of a vulnerable child, daughter of vulnerable parents and in-laws, friend to (neighbor of, fellow citizen to) vulnerable humans, I was given a reduced line to say. As people around me stopped worrying for themselves, they started to question my caution. It sounded like, “We have to worry about mental health in our family” or “God’s gonna take who He will,” or “They are hospitalized/died because they had underlying conditions. We’re healthy.” But it was whittled down to a phrase that just got simpler, less confrontational for me to parrot, “You’ve got an immunocompromised kid.”
So I’ve been saying it. As an excuse when questioned about my fervent indoor mask usage, as an apology when I turn down indoor gathering invitations, as a plea for understanding when I’m increasingly pushed — ”You’ve got to return to normal,” “I refuse to live in fear, you should too,” or even, “How exactly is your kid immunocompromised?” In a conservative, Christian community that regards privacy and personal rights next to godliness, I do not have the luxury of knowing who is vaccinated and who isn’t, who has been exposed and who hasn’t, and even who is a walking disease carrier but isn’t quarantining because, in their minds, it’s not that big of a deal — the doctors, hospitals, experts and media are just exaggerating to increase their bottom line, they insist. So here I am: down to one family that is vaccinated and will test before relaxing around the dinner table with us and one in which only the parents are vaccinated but will still test. Here I am, defending our family’s choices with, “Well, I’ve got an immunocompromised kid …”
But now I’m shocked to realize I’ve painted myself into a corner. As the more vocal bulk of my community has told me in no uncertain terms that they don’t want protection and questioned my own caution, playing the defensive has increasingly narrowed my view of compassion and generosity. In the past two years, I’ve gone from asking, “What’s my contribution to everyone’s risk?” to shamefully wondering only, “What’s my child’s risk?” And now in this numb, dark twilight before the near-solstice dawn, I am confronted with my shrunken perspective and know the pandemic has usurped a piece of my most valuable possession — a part of my inner light, my humanity, my love for my fellow travelers, and I am profoundly ashamed. This winter solstice, I must sit with the shadows I hadn’t noticed gathering and see what goodness needs to be invited back in as the Earth moves me into the light.