When Maine lowered the age for the COVID vaccine to 60, I landed an appointment a few days later. Excited, I allowed myself to imagine a life with more than one person in my bubble. Travel. Hugs. Seeing my adult children in California and Hawaii. It has been a year difficult to describe. There is the missing of so much we once took for granted – seeing family and friends, traveling, bumping shoulders with strangers in crowded spaces and the absence of fear of human contact. A curtain of isolation draped our confinement spaces, and that’s if we were lucky enough to work at home, maintain a roof over our head, and have grocery money for the cooking and baking many of us did to fill our stomachs and hearts. I am privileged, a professor with a regular paycheck, and while teaching and meeting on Zoom broke my brain, I stayed safe and afloat financially.

I began 2020 with a sabbatical, leaving winter in Maine for Oakland, California, and a 400-square-foot cottage behind our family home. My two Golden Retrievers and I were going to drive cross country to seek natural beauty and good breakfast spots.  Before we left, Pandy lost her three-year battle with cancer. Beset with grief, I found the road trip lost its allure, so when my remaining dog, Pearl, and I touched down at SFO last Jan. 31, I thought the worst of 2020 was behind me.

The Bay Area was the first to shut down. My fantasy sabbatical felt like captivity. I masked, sanitized, distanced, walked daily, painted, wrote, used Face Time to visit people near and far. My daughter was steps away, but we didn’t touch. Family members and friends, family and friends of friends, were diagnosed with COVID, and thankfully most survived but not all. COVID exposed the structural failures of our social and economic system. The cold storage in hospital parking lots as bodies piled up, lines of cars at food pantries, those most vulnerable and hardest hit – Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans and poor people could not be swept under the rug any longer. The COVID mirror showed us who we are and offered a chance to redeem ourselves; however, that outcome waned by the day.

As I stood in line for my first vaccination, the year tumbled down on me. All of it. The morning I flew home to Maine with my daughter crying in the driveway asking me not to leave: “I am afraid I will never see you again.” Constant fear and vigilance. Loss of Pandy. Zoom fatigue. Confinement. The close calls and those who could not be saved. Immense gratitude paired with deep sadness. What living a completely interior life had turned me into and the hard edges developed as a result. I realized the consequence of holding so much in to survive uncertainty, suffering, and loss on multiple levels.

As I waited to be called, my eyes watered up slowly at first and then tears streamed down my masked cheeks. The nurse motioned me to her station. “Tears of joy?” she asked as I tried to compose myself. I nodded, wiping my eyes, muttering an apology. She smiled kindly and said it was not uncommon, it’s been a hard year. “I miss my kids,” I told her. “Of course, you do,” she said, “so let’s get you vaccinated and take a selfie so they know you are on your way.”

I posted my vaccination selfie on social media with the caption “I’m not crying, you’re crying – seriously, an unexpected flood of tears.” Standing in the vaccination line, I released a pent-up sorrow and fear stitched so tight only a glimmer of hope could break it apart. The reactions to my post showed I was not alone. Many felt the same wave of emotion getting their first shot. And while I was prepared for a sore arm or flu-like symptoms, I was not ready for the tears, or seeing a light, no matter how faint, at the end of this long dark tunnel.

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