I made a fresh loaf in our bread machine Sunday night. My wife and I were closing out our long Thanksgiving weekend with some good cheese and red wine, and the warm bread tasted very pleasant. I had not used the bread machine in a while, but it got a great deal of use in the spring of 2020, when every trip to the sparsely-stocked grocery store felt like running a gauntlet. I thought back to those times as I measured the two-and-a-half teaspoons of yeast; the memories invested our clink of glasses an hour later with extra meaning. For my family, as of December 1, the pressing phase of the pandemic is over.
I do not mean that COVID-19 is gone, or that all risk has disappeared: Delta and Omicron are out there, and “endemic” means we will all get it at some point. Certainly, the pandemic continues to affect numerous facets of life and will for some time. We still wear masks. All the same, Wednesday afternoon marked an end of sorts because my daughters received their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and I feel that I have done my duty. I worked to avoid spreading COVID-19 until those for whom I was responsible could be vaccinated; I succeeded.
I felt responsible for my parents and my wife’s parents, all of whom are in good health, but who are old enough to be at risk: they are all fully vaccinated and have received their boosters. I am responsible for my wife and children, all the more so because as a high school teacher, I am the most exposed member of the family: we are all vaccinated, and my wife and I have received our boosters. I am responsible for the well-being of my students: they are not all vaccinated (I don’t know how many are, and it’s not my business), but they all could be if they and their families choose for them to be.
Emotionally, I struggled the most with safeguarding my students. When our school reopened in September 2020—on a hybrid remote and in-person schedule so as to have half as many students in the building—I could not escape the feeling of impending doom. My colleagues and I guessed at how long we could stay open before cases shut us down: one said two weeks, a lot said a month. I guessed two months, reasoning that the first long weekend would lead to travel and positives brought home to our rural county. Universally, we expected the closure to come any day, and I lived in fear of it. I tried to avoid contact with others because I feared that I would be the one who would shut down the school. If I got COVID-19, how many staff members might I force into quarantine? Roughly sixty students would have had to quarantine: sixty students who could not attend school or work jobs, or watch younger siblings so their parents could work. Sixty students to whom I could pass the virus, who would (in all likelihood) be fine themselves, but who might live with an immune-compromised parent or a grandparent, whom I might kill.
I remember the moment when it became clear that I was not alright, because I posted to Prose about it. I have a beautiful view outside my classroom window: the athletic field in front of a hillside with many trees, which in autumn blaze their colors in the morning sun. The news had reported several new positives in the county that day, and I tried to see the hillside, tried to feel and love it. I wrote this haiku:
Cases are spiking here.
September leaves, fence,
hillside in the morning sun,
sky: you must hold this.
Steuben County, New York - 9/25/2020
Beautiful things are talismans. The moments of peace and love they inspire can stave away anxiety and fear. Encounters with beauty keep me whole, and when I lose my capability for that feeling, I’m in a rough place. When my wife miscarried years ago, I wrote in a journal, “I feel no joy in the trees.” That feeling of disconnection passed, though; the COVID anxiety did not.
I sought counseling. I never had before, but I needed help dealing with that weight. It helped.
My wife and I missed our regular visits with our parents, none of whom live in our state. I know people who would not see their older parents at all until vaccinations, and on the other hand, people who went on visiting throughout the pandemic as though all were normal: neither pole was an option for us. I wanted to be cautious and avoid endangering the older people in my life, but going many months on end without seeing a loved one is its own kind of risk. Days are finite.
We decided on a middle ground. Throughout 2020, we saw our parents only under tightly controlled circumstances: we would hole up for ten days without going anywhere, even the grocery store, and if we were symptom-free after that, we would be together like in the old days. We would see one another’s faces mask-free. We would hug. Once school began, we did not visit until January: the winter break permitted nine days out of the classroom before a visit, which we deemed close enough. This was not a perfectly safe approach, of course: there is no perfectly safe approach. It was the risk we all calculated we were willing to take, and it worked out alright.
A lot worked out alright. I did not shut down the school. No one did: there were quarantines a-plenty, but we made it through the year, open every day except two (while admin got the hang of contact tracing). It was not a normal year, but there was school, and it was good. I was exposed to COVID-positive students four times that year, and I had to quarantine and isolate from my family twice, but through a combination of good fortune and safety protocols, I never contracted and spread COVID.
I got my first Moderna dose in January 2021, the second four weeks later. (If I hadn’t, Public Health would have instructed me to isolate from my family after those last two exposures, too.) By the time spring break rolled around, my wife and our parents were fully vaccinated as well. We visited at will again, and thus regained our biggest portion of normal.
In the summer, we flew to visit friends in Colorado. My wife and I went to a Denver jazz club with them; it was the first live performance of anything I had attended in sixteen months, and I wept. My daughters got their first PCR tests and used the negative results to check in at sleepaway Girl Scout Camp for a week. They acted in Charlotte’s Web with our community theatre group. When September came, they returned to school every day, and they began attending extracurricular classes for ceramics and tap dancing; I’ve passed the time during their lessons writing at a typically-uncrowded brew pub. Masked, and with every audience member over 12 providing proof of vaccination, we have attended tours of Broadway musicals that were a very long time coming. All of which is to say, we have been happily living our nearly-normal lives because life had to resume. And now, my kids are vaccinated.
The Northeast winter and holidays mean a spike is coming, and the vaccines are not full-proof. Breakthrough cases have been widely reported for months. But as has also been reported, up-to-date vaccines have provided meaningful protection against the worst outcomes. Personally, I have known vaccinated individuals who contracted COVID who merely had unpleasant colds, and other vaccinated individuals who felt pretty sick. For that matter, I’ve known unvaccinated individuals for whom COVID-19 meant nothing more than an unpleasant cold. But I’ve also known an unvaccinated woman in her thirties with previous lung problems who lacked the breath to speak on the phone and spent a week unconscious on a ventilator. I’ve known an unvaccinated 50-year-old runner of marathons who for more than a week stayed in bed until 1:00 pm because he lacked the breath to walk to his kitchen. I’ve been acquainted with three people who died from COVID-19: two who died before anyone could get vaccines, and one who died having chosen not to get one.
I also know someone who contracted COVID in October 2020 who still cannot taste food. That is what I feared as much as anything: long haul COVID. Lacking the ability to taste that celebratory wine, cheese, and bread with my wife is unfathomable to me. Putting aside all other negative outcomes possible from the disease—you know, like death—the potential impact on taste alone would have been enough for me to get the vaccine. Statistically, my children were always highly unlikely to die from COVID, and I never really feared it. But I did not want to disable them. Their vaccinations are not guarantees that they’ll avoid long haul COVID, but it’s meaningful protection that they can have, and it gives us a more confident freedom than we had before.
This is not to say that everything is the way it was. Most school and community activities have returned, but not all. I’ve been teaching in a mask to masked high school students all year; my honest take is that I’m indifferent to the cloth on our faces. Students are working in groups more often this year. I no longer feel crushing personal responsibility for their wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the people in their lives. Their health is in their own hands and out of mine—to my immense relief. I protected them as best I could and restricted my own life while they had no option aside from trusting me. Now, the option is theirs and their families’, and they will calculate the odds for themselves just as we calculated ours.
The most significant COVID impact on my family at present is who we can see. Some of our closest friends are caregivers for cancer patients, and they’ve determined they cannot take the risk of spending time with others. In their places, I would make the same choice. When we see them again, if we see them again, it will be outdoors when the weather turns warm in April. We try to keep in touch. I hope they are well.
For now, we have plans again. A long weekend trip, a performance of Hadestown in New York, a vacation to Yellowstone with my parents. Group activities. Hugging those we love and breaking bread. Giving thanks.