Never in the seven decades I’ve been roaming this mortal plane has my name been picked out of a hat, grabbed from a tumbling plastic barrel, or snatched from any other container filled with the names of people vying to win some prize. So, you can imagine my surprise the other day when my phone buzzed with a text notifying me that I’d been randomly selected to receive the coronavirus vaccine. I eyed the message with high suspicion and ignored it for the next two days.
“It’s some phishing scam,” I told My Lovely Wife, who shares my skepticism of serendipity.
Then an email showed up in my in-box with an identical invitation. “Appointment spots are not guaranteed,” it warned. I ignored it.
I’m no anti-vaxxer, though I’ve never found a good reason to roll up my sleeve for a flu shot. COVID is different, obviously, so I had registered with the state health department and visited the agency’s website to view regular updates on vaccine availability in my area, but nothing seemed particularly promising. I’d read stories about elderly folks having to travel hundreds of miles to get vaccinated — twice. I was more than happy to wait until I could pedal over to the Walgreen’s near my office to get poked. Why take a chance on some mysterious digital link?
While ruminating about this, I chanced upon an essay by Rod Nordland in the New York Times that suggested in rather emotional terms that I should wise up. Nordland, a longtime war correspondent, confessed that he broke into tears upon receiving his first dose in January. “As someone who has spent most of his career on farther shores, I have found this past year particularly hard to bear,” he writes. “I was abroad at home, and never had I felt so isolated.”
He hadn’t seen his three grown children for a year, he notes, and the Zoomed Christmas gathering with his extended family was “particularly wrenching.” The vaccine meant freedom, a chance to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. He got his second dose on Valentine’s Day, which felt like the first holiday in a while that was worth celebrating. “Walking away fully vaccinated,” he writes, “felt like a small but memorable victory in this home-based war.”
Nordland reminded me that I’d perhaps become too comfortable with my yearlong sequestration. MLW and I haven’t seen our daughter or her spouse since their wedding in October, and though our grandson’s weekly visits allow for brief updates from our son and daughter-in-law, holidays and birthdays have passed without family gatherings. Maybe my skepticism was misplaced. Maybe I needed to accept my prize.
So, after a little online sleuthing, I braced myself for some digital disaster and clicked on the link.
It was legit, of course, but that wasn’t all: There was a slot open the next day, the vaccination site was only 20 minutes away, and the nurses there were pumping the Janssen vaccine into the waiting arms of pandemic-weary citizens. One shot and I’d be good to go. It was like I’d won the lottery.
As I approached the site the following afternoon, it became clear pretty quickly that I wasn’t alone in my good fortune. A long line of cars waited to be waived into the parking lot while a woman in military garb walked up the road, checking with each driver to confirm we all had appointments. In the parking lot, National Guard members directed us to vacant spaces and a gruff Guardsman greeted us near the building entrance in a way that resurrected unpleasant memories of my Vietnam-era drill sergeants.
“Show me your barcode!” he barked.
“Barcode?” I replied.
“It’s in the email you received,” he explained as the line of impatient lottery winners backed up behind me. “Step over there.”
“Show me your barcode!” he repeated to the next person, who apparently knew what he was talking about. “Thank you. You won’t need that now.”
Won’t need what now? Our phones? Were they going to confiscate our phones? I was approaching full-panic mode while searching for the message containing my ticket to COVID immunity. By the time I located it, the line had thinned out behind me and the entrance ahead was uncluttered. Nobody asked for my phone.
Inside, more military personnel guided me to an intake station to confirm my identity. The glum soldier behind the laptop screen waved off my driver’s license (“I just need your phone number”) and pointed me in the direction of the nurse who would be changing my life. At first glance, she seemed an unlikely heroine. Slumped over her desk, her head propped uneasily on her right hand, she looked for all the world like she’d like nothing better than a nice long nap — or maybe a good stiff drink.
I took a seat next to the desk, smiled, and switched on my limited charm. “How are you doing today?”
She muttered something I didn’t catch, then rattled off a series of questions from her laptop. Satisfied that I would probably not collapse from anaphylactic shock as a result of the inoculation, she finally turned and sized me up. “Left arm?”
Pushing the short sleeve of my T-shirt up over my shoulder, she dabbed Ground Zero with some alcohol, gently poked the needle in, and pushed the plunger. The Band-Aid she applied was less festive than I had expected. No tears of any sort were shed.
I thanked her for her service, which seemed somehow appropriate, and ambled to the nearby recovery area to join the dozens of other lucky people waiting there to discover whether their good fortune would hold out for another 15 minutes. Nobody keeled over, though an EMT crew pushing a woman on a gurney toward the exit offered some helpful perspective.
A half-hour or so later, I was back home chatting about my experience over coffee with MLW. I was feeling a little lightheaded, I told her, but it soon passed. In fact, the more I thought about it, the only side-effect from the vaccine seemed to be a gradual realization that I’m a lot luckier than I had imagined.