My brother Chuck is sitting across from me. “Hell, no,” he says. I ask why not. “Because it’s bull, that’s why,” he says (but more profanely). “These vaccines ain’t even approved, and coronavirus ain’t new. They ain’t sticking that thing in me. Who knows what’s in it.”
I am visiting my hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., having dinner with my family. I know Dad is vaccinated but have no idea about anyone else. My brothers and I were separated by divorce when we were little — I went with Mom, they went with Dad — and we are far from close. At 55, I’m the oldest. Butch, 53, and his family aren’t here. This is the first time I’ve seen Chuck, 48, since our grandfather’s 2011 funeral, where we did not sit together. Tonight, Chuck has brought his new girlfriend, his 19-year-old daughter and his 25-year-old daughter and her husband.
I look to the girlfriend next. “Oh, I am,” she says, holding up both hands. “But not by choice. My former employer made us.”
A busboy arrives to refill our water glasses. At the other end of the table, my nieces shake their heads no, and my niece’s husband says to me: “I’m not an anti-vaxxer or anything. I get a flu shot every year. This is just stupid and there’s no science. It’s all politics.” Then he turns to the whole table: “Hey, is this where we get to talk about how Biden’s not the real president?”
“Don’t start,” Dad says, and soon enough the waitress arrives with an armful of plates to put us out of our misery.
It is June 24. A day before, the Associated Press had published a story reporting: “Missouri is becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of the country: It is seeing an alarming rise in cases because of a combination of the fast-spreading delta variant and stubborn resistance among many people to getting vaccinated. Intensive care beds are filling up with surprisingly young, unvaccinated patients, and staff members are getting burned out fighting a battle that was supposed to be in its final throes.”
I live in rural Kentucky, so covid denial and vaccine refusal are no surprise. But other than my husband, I have no family in Kentucky. Which means we have no required gatherings there. If I go to a restaurant, I go by choice and with people I know, and those people are vaccinated.
When I arrived in Missouri, I’d thought my dad and I were having dinner alone, just the two of us. After all, it was the first time I’ve been home — the first time I’ve seen him — since November 2019. He would meet me at The Southerner, he had said, next to my hotel. It wasn’t until I arrived at the restaurant that I saw the reservation was for seven — Dad being our dad, hoping not-for-the-first-time that getting us in the same room might miraculously fix us.
Sadly, on top of our already fractured and dyspeptic personal history, my family has added Trumpism and a global pandemic to the long-standing influence of local-boy-done-good Rush Limbaugh — dead now but lionized here in our shared hometown — who spent decades sowing falsehoods, selling victimhood and convincing southeast Missourians like my family that Democrats are big-government, baby-killing socialists who can’t be trusted. And now their president wants us to take a brand-new vaccine?
My family should be eager to take the shot: Missouri reportedly had the highest share in the nation of the new delta variant among its coronavirus cases late last month. But in Cape Girardeau County, another stat may be more relevant: Trump won Missouri with about 57 percent of the vote last November, but he got almost 72 percent in the county.
That was no surprise. I recall the time in 1999 that I flew home from Minnesota, where I was living then. My luggage got lost. I woke up in my hotel and went straight to the beauty supply store across the highway to get some basic toiletries. Limbaugh’s radio show was playing loud behind the counter. As she checked me out, the clerk swooned, “Don’t you just love Rush? I could listen to him all day. He says everything I think.”
As our family dinner at The Southerner comes to a close, everyone stands, and Dad nudges me with his knuckles: “Come with me a sec. I found one of your scrapbooks.” On the way out, Chuck says, “We’ll see y’all Saturday.”
It is 90 degrees, and a hard, hot wind whips at us the instant we step outside. In the full parking lot, we stand behind Dad’s truck, and I wait while he struggles with a tiny lighter to light his Marlboro. When it finally catches, he takes a long draw, and I ask what Chuck meant. I thought my dad and I were driving over to Illinois on our own to see more family. But it turns out Butch and his wife Donna are coming, too, and Dad thinks we should ride with them for the 90-minute drive each way.
I haven’t seen or heard from them in about a decade, so it seems like that would be weird. But I have another question: “Are they vaccinated?”
The hot wind continues to blow in all directions. We are both sweating. I have to keep pushing my hair out of my face. Dad flicks his ashes at the parking lot.
They’re not vaccinated, he explains, because they already had it, and so did one of their kids — back in September, Dad thinks. But they didn’t get all that sick.
I tell him I wouldn’t choose to get together in a big crowd of unvaccinated people, even though I’m vaccinated myself. Dad shrugs, flicks his cigarette into the wind and lights another. I am trying not to cry. We continue to stand in the full parking lot, cars pulling in and out, him smoking, me stewing. We are silent. I wonder if it sounds petty that I don’t want to share meals or ride in a car for three hours with a brother and sister-in-law whom I barely know anymore and who refused to be vaccinated.
Of course it sounds petty. Because it is petty.
But then I think about the 14 months that my cancer-surviving husband and I took the virus seriously, followed guidelines, stayed home, never ate at a restaurant (even outside), refused invitations from good friends, missed every holiday and birthday with our kids and two baby grandsons. I think about how we struggled online to get vaccine appointments and how I stood in that long line, twice, to get shots. I think about how excited we were to finally get out in the world again, to get on with our lives.
Until today, until this family dinner, I did not realize the depth and breadth of the envy and resentment I still hold for those like my own brothers and their families — the covid deniers, the willfully unvaccinated, who spent those same 14 months going happily and carelessly about their lives as 600,000 died.
Even as I understand the toxic and steady influence of professional prevaricators like Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, I want to place blame on the familiar. I wonder when we will get past all this. And if.
“All right, kiddo,” Dad says, taking his last drag, hugging me with one arm, and climbing into his truck. Through the window he hands me my scrapbook, which looks to be from about eighth grade. “Good God,” I exclaim, “where’d you find this?”
He asks me if I remember that time I was in college and my car wouldn’t start, so he had to come meet me at the crack of dawn to help me get to class.
I do not remember, but I say yes anyway. “Come on over Saturday,” he says, pulling away, “and we’ll figure all this out.”