When it happens to you or someone you care about, it becomes a completely different story. I got a phone call from an old frenemy, a very conservative colleague from my Nashville days, who I sparred with on every social, cultural, and political issue raised during the Clinton/W. Bush years. We could argue and debate anything and everything and still laugh and work together amiably. We were a yin/yang combination, as different in outlook and worldview as any two people could be. He voted for Trump. I did not. When I answered the phone, I couldn’t recognize his voice, he was sobbing so hard. All I could make out was, “I thought it was all a hoax.”
I said, “Roger? (not his real name) Is that you?” He sniffed, gained some composure, and then wailed, “Jenny, (his wife, not her real name either) is dead; she died this morning. She died of COVID. She got sick last weekend. I begged and begged for a vaccine for her, but they said it was too late. I have it, too; I test positive. They are getting ready to put me in a room (in the hospital). Oh, she’s dead; I thought this was a stupid hoax all blown out of proportion. I thought the vaccines were just a set-up. I can’t believe this is really happening to me. My kids were all here last weekend; they’ve all been exposed. Why is this happening? I never saw this coming.”
I really like Roger, even respect his expertise and energy, but I have never understood Roger, or the many people like him. I sympathize deeply, but struggle to empathize. When he asks “why is this happening,” and states, “I never saw this coming,” my compassion flags and my mind produces very quick simple answers: it is happening because you failed to take simple precautions and there is absolutely no excuse for not seeing it coming after over a year-and-a-half global pandemic killed over 4 million people worldwide. Actions have consequences; so do inactions.
My heart breaks for Roger. Jenny was a sweet, kind, giving soul, who was faithful to her husband, her children, and her church. She will be missed, and I deeply regret that she was not vaccinated. The deaths that happened before the distribution of the vaccines were incredibly sad; deaths since the vaccines have been widely available are tragic because they are unnecessary and inexcusable. I found myself very conflicted; I called to be supportive, pastoral and caring, but everything I thought to say felt unkind. This certainly wasn’t an occasion to argue or try to convince, but simply to listen.
I asked Roger if it would be all right to write about this, not wanting him to feel blindsided or betrayed. Bursting into tears again he said, “Tell it, tell it to everybody, and tell them this isn’t politics. I think Trump was one of the greatest presidents we ever had, but he was wrong; everybody needs protection. Tell people not to be stupid or stubborn. This isn’t politics. This is life and death. I was positive I couldn’t get it and I knew if I got it I would survive it. I just didn’t realize how important the vaccine was. Two weeks ago I would have called you a gullible fool for worrying so much about something that wasn’t a big deal.”
Roger and I have debated a lot of things, disagreed about a lot of things, and even yelled at each other in the heat of anger, but we have always agreed on one thing: you have to live (or suffer or die) with the choices you make, and you can’t go blaming others for your own poor decisions. I just got word (this is inserted two days after I initially wrote this post on Wednesday, July 21) that Roger is intubated and not doing well at all. I am praying for Roger and everyone who is suffering the ravages of this horrendous virus. I am angry because the current losses and grief are so unnecessary. I am praying that common sense, self-preservation, compassionate care about the most vulnerable among us, and a common commitment to end this pandemic once and for all, prevail. Each time a friend, colleague, associate, or acquaintance dies from COVID-19, my heart breaks a little more. Jenny makes 38 people I’ve known personally who have died of COVID. By God’s grace, Roger won’t be #39, but if he is, let his passing mean something by inspiring others who are reluctant or resistant to get vaccinated.
(I received word on Wednesday, July 28 at 3:07 p.m. – Roger died of COVID-19, Delta)