I tried to bring her around. We exchanged angry words. She claimed the vaccine “made people sick” and had given her friend covid-19. She wouldn’t let me “bully her” into vaccination.
I countered with data on vaccine safety, the story of my full recovery from harsh side effects, of our father’s and two other sisters’ uneventful vaccinations. She accused me of controlling my father, despite his direct pleas to her. A hospice social worker helped facilitate a virtual goodbye. Dad died the next day.
My sister and I have charted vastly divergent paths, but until the pandemic, all our differences had seemed surmountable. Even Trump.
She has five children; I have none. I travel between my vaccinated, work-from-home bubbles in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, as a professor in a nursing school. My sister works in an elementary school that “supports” those who wear masks but won’t mandate them.
In the years before covid-19, we’d reconnected after not speaking for years. I tiptoed around political land mines, never asking about her voting decisions. I visited her in Arizona. We talked in her sparse moments between tending to her kids.
The threat of long-haul covid-19 hovers over our family, with our predisposition to autoimmune diseases. As someone with Sjögren’s syndrome, I know what it’s like to endure crushing fatigue and other chronic miseries because my body once encountered a virus or bacteria it worked too hard to attack. It’s one of the many reasons I decided not to have children: Because of my disease, I’m tired all the time.
So the realization I might need to safeguard myself against my sister and her family was startling.
Her skepticism revealed itself early. She compared covid with the flu and insisted officials had inflated positive case numbers. She told me her friends had skipped coronavirus testing appointments and still received positive results. Mistakes could happen, I granted, but hundreds of thousands of deaths could not be faked. I tried hard not to be the “I told you so” sister when she and her whole family caught the virus.
I don’t know if my sister believes in conspiracy theories. I try putting myself in her shoes and imagining how a vaccine “threat” could outweigh our father’s deathbed wishes, or an in-person relationship with my other sisters and me. I try to imagine her own grief — whether it feels as complicated as mine.
In late July, after my father’s death, when she texted about a different matter, I tried again: “Did you ever get the covid vaccine? I worry about you and the kids with this delta variant. Be well.” No answer.
Other families reunited happily this summer when the pandemic seemed to be easing. But I don’t know when or if I’ll see my sister again. A photo of a baby niece I’ve never met hangs on my refrigerator; she’s frozen at 10 months old in 2020’s holiday card. I can barely imagine what the older children must think of me, if they do at all.
Even if we can forgive each other over our recent rift, vaccine refusal may condemn us to a lifetime of social distance, given my autoimmune risks — a position that may sound extreme, but is the reality until we can learn more about how this virus works, and more about the vaccines’ long-term effectiveness.
Tips and incentives abound for changing vaccine resisters’ minds. None have worked with my sister. Full Food and Drug Administration approval of vaccines probably won’t make much difference either. More people dying around her might compel her. Or she might finally relent if one of her children were to get sick from reinfection (though I dread the thought).
What I really wish: for the government to get serious about mandating vaccines, and to enforce a mandate in a way that ensures easy access for those who might experience technology hurdles or other inequities. Mandates won’t fix the hurt and distrust within my family. But they would save lives. They could save my sister’s life.
When my mother was dying, my then 10-year-old sister and I had another standoff. She climbed a tree and dangled from a thin branch, refusing to come down. I worried about her falling. My teenage self’s pleading failed to sway her, and I had to learn to walk away. She eventually descended on her own.
Now, instead of mourning our father together, we trudge through grief alone. I again wait for her to join me on solid ground. I worry that she won’t. But I hope.