Coming from a long line of people who leave the towns and countries where we were born, I've always been comfortable with separation (the exception being my husband, without whom, across an ocean for months, I was a goddamn wreck). I don't mean estrangement, though my family has those chops, too, but distant affection. Mostly I'm content to go months, even years, apart from people I love. As long as everyone is alive and safe, it's enough. It's even pleasing in the way seeing the lights of a plane at night is — distant and familiar, soothing to think of people busy on their way to something.
The pandemic has made that more difficult. For the past year and a half, I've read harrowing reports about the places my people are scattered — New York, Austin, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Maryland — my worry pulling in all directions. That pull lessens as the vaccines roll out to those of age to receive them. I shocked myself with a sob of relief watching my son get his first shot, unaware of the tension I'd pushed to the bottom of all the other stress until it was lifted. We were lucky — so lucky — to drive to a walk-in clinic and get our shots like it was nothing, as if my family members overseas weren't still waiting and more than half a million people in America hadn't already died of COVID-19. The little bursts of relief came in waves as, one by one, my friends and family all got their shots. All except S.
I met S. in college, at a meeting throughout which she stared me down, her chin tipped forward like a jeweler appraising chipped paste. Maybe I held up under her scrutiny or simply didn't shrink under it; maybe she gave me a taste of my own medicine and, like black licorice, I liked it. I still cannot explain how immediately we became sisters or how it remains true despite the roaring passage of years, disagreements (including the only fight that's ever made me angry enough to throw my phone into the bushes outside a restaurant), career changes, marriage, deaths, births and, for all but two of our 30 years, great distance.
Hearing secondhand that S. had decided not to vaccinate was not a total surprise, partly due to her distrust of mainstream medicine, her devotion to natural health and spiritual practices, and her deep contrarian streak. We'd talked on the phone about the pandemic, too, with me obsessing over case counts and aerosols, and her bristling at the media coverage and marveling at people living in fear. I told her I'd be happy to get a vaccine that would just keep us from dying if we caught the virus.
"We're all going to die someday," she replied.
In its opinion section, the New York Times posted an interactive bot exercise for talking to friends and family who are vaccine reticent. In the choose-your-own-text-message adventure, a message pops up, like, "I heard you got vaccinated. Aren't you scared?" The reader, assumed to be a friend armed with information, selects one of three responses. In preparation for my next phone call with S., I gave it a shot. My responses were rated "Not a good choice." Every single time.
That wasn't a surprise, either. I can be blunt. Didactic. Sarcastic. I don't leave conversations thinking of what I should have said because I wedge all of it in. But apparently, when it comes to emotionally charged issues, statistics, arguments and confidence in your position aren't persuasive. Instead, the Times authors recommend compassion and non-judgmental recognition of people's worries, repeating their views back to them to show you understand. But that coaxing patience is miraculous to me (see earlier phone throwing). On paper, with time to draft and edit? Sure. In my personal life, when so much is riding on a real-time conversation? I'm working on it.
Even if I'd nailed the exercise, though, I knew I had no shot. The Times' hypothetical texter is merely hesitant and ultimately pliant, someone who's unsure about whether the vaccine is the best choice. But S., like me, is nothing if not sure — about the vaccine, the best place for a chocolate cake, whatever. She's a former PhD candidate with solid rhetorical game and research skills, and there's no information I could provide that she doesn't have access to. She also has a will that grows stronger under scrutiny. Looking over the decades, I don't think I've ever changed her mind about so much as a side dish, and I couldn't play out a single scenario in my head that didn't push her further into her corner.
I dreaded talking to her. Some of the dread was about reckoning with the choice itself. How could someone so generous, so willing to pick you up at an airport at any hour, allow herself to be a potential vector, a danger to the most vulnerable? While she might not become seriously ill, what about her capacity to pass the virus to others until it reaches someone without the option to vaccinate or someone with underlying health issues for whom the outcome would likely be severe or deadly? It seemed wild to ignore the more contagious Delta variant making its way through unvaccinated populations around the country. We'd both made so many choices the other didn't understand and respected them, but this went beyond us and into the world.
When we finally talked on the phone, I could hear the deep breath S. took before outlining her reasoning, which is partly anchored by a white paper she'd read about the vaccine, and how it contained ingredients she didn't want in her body. She listed the side effects people she knew had experienced in the days following their second shots and explained why she thinks the health and hygiene practices that have kept her flu-free for years will keep her from getting COVID-19. Even if she gets it, she said, she's at peace with her mortality. She said she knew my position and had already been lectured by another old classmate (a more fearsome woman than both of us combined), but was ready to talk to me about it.
Rebuttals rattled around my head like plastic balls in a cranking Bingo cage: the overwhelming evidence the vaccines are safe and effective, the mildness of side effects compared to long-haul symptoms, the highly contagious Delta variant that is definitely not the flu, the brutality and loneliness of dying face-down in an isolated hospital bed with a plastic tube down your throat, the lasting neurological and respiratory damage survivors experience, and what her death would do to everyone else she left behind, what it would do to me.
For once, none of it left my mouth.
I said, "OK." And breaking the silence following my uncharacteristically non-combative reply, I told S. I didn't think I could sway her and wouldn't try. "Instead, I'm going to worry and not tell you about it. I'm gonna accept your choice. But I'll be worrying." S. insisted I didn't need to worry, that she didn't want me to. But she can't control that any more than I can control her getting vaccinated.
We'll be in the same city this summer and she said she'd understand if, depending on where things were with the virus, I don't feel safe getting together. Maybe we'll meet outside and keep our distance. It'll be good to see her face, masked or not. But even with her right in front of me, without time zones and thousands of miles between us, I'm going to worry.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. We had