Published on March 22nd, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein0
Jackie Kashian is one of my favorite comedians. She tells a story about her grandmother being marched through Syria during the Armenian genocide in 1915. There was one Turkish guard for 200 unarmed Armenians. How did the guard get away with it? Because, Jackie’s grandmother explains, “No one wanted to be the first to die. So we all died.” The moral of the story is: Take one for the team. It’s a comedy album, I swear.
The album is titled I’m Not the Hero of This Story, and Jackie prefaces other stories—about her own stumbling, too-human behavior—with that caveat.
I am not the hero of this story.
By getting a vaccine under questionable circumstances, I put my oxygen mask on first, I guess, but when you can work from home and currently have no major health issues, do you need an oxygen mask?
As recently as Christmas, Los Angeles was the epicenter of the pandemic, with Black and Brown residents taking the brunt of it and a new local variant worming its way through homes and businesses, lingering in the air like invisible smoke. Could the virus go from a dire specter hanging heavy over everything to something I didn’t personally need to worry about, almost overnight?
It was like being granted a pardon for a crime I didn’t commit by a governor who favored me for no good reason, while other innocents rattled the bars of Death Row.
A power failure one windy week in late February meant Cal State LA had extra doses they needed to use or lose. That was the story I heard.
I got my first shot from a kid in National Guard fatigues in a campus parking structure shortly before I became officially eligible as an educator. My cancer history would have made me eligible in some states, but not the one I live in; not yet.
I’m not a teacher. I write emails and blog posts for an educational nonprofit and can do that from home just fine, except I can’t, because I’ve been drafted to shepherd my kid through kinderzoom. So I guess I am a teacher, just not a good one.
A week later, I read this article: Access codes intended to bring more vaccines to Black and Brown communities had been widely shared among white work-from-home types. Types like me. Had there really been a power failure? The wind was real, but that was all I could verify. None of the line-jumpers in the article did it intentionally, but isn’t that how white supremacy works? Most of us take our place at the top of the hierarchy passively. Most of us are nice.
The day before my second dose, congress passed a relief bill that included a $300 per child, per month payment to families, the biggest anti-poverty legislation in a generation. This was it: the thing—or a giant step toward the thing—that we have wanted for ages. “We” being mothers, progressives, people who want to shine a light on the fact that parenting is labor.
And yet, one of my first thoughts was, I wonder how this will impact adoption?
C.C. and I have been trying to adopt a sibling for Dash for more than a year. The social workers and facilitators we talk to say adoptions have slowed during the pandemic, presumably because bars and music festivals and other things that can, ahem, lead to unplanned pregnancies have been off the menu.
To be a prospective adoptive parent is to find yourself in the odd position of hoping to capitalize on someone else’s misfortune. Theoretically, America has enough of a social safety net that no woman should have to choose adoption for solely economic reasons. That’s part of why C.C. and I chose to adopt domestically; that, and our own economic limitations. It’s not impossible to raise children as a poor person in America. It’s just nearly impossible.
But now, especially if the stimulus gets extended, it’s become only super hard. And I wondered if that would be a tipping point for someone on the fence to choose parenting over adoption. As is her right. Of course.
I tell my therapist I want a baby. And literary success. And a vacation. And that I’m trying to Manage Expectations and Be Grateful For What I Have. “I think I have a loud superego,” I say, not for the first time, not really understanding Freud.
My therapist tells me this about the superego: As small children, we are all insatiable desire for the grownup taking care of us. Their milk, their arms, their eyes. It’s impossible to have their milk and arms and eyes constantly, though. They have to write emails and care for other kids and sleep. So the superego evolves to say, Do a little more for yourself. Want a little less. Follow these rules, and you might get a little of what you long for.
It’s a coping mechanism, my therapist says, but it’s inherently sadistic. And if you have a lot of longing and a big mean superego, things in your head (my head) will be noisy. Take your rightful place at the end of the vaccine line. Stand behind the pregnant women. Be perfectly pure, be abject and meek. Except for others: for them, be bold and strong. Maybe, eventually, you will deserve something.
To be a good parent, by society’s measure, is to put our children’s needs above all else. This is what birth parents do when they make an adoption plan. To be a good person, by some measures, is to put society’s needs above all but our own basic needs for food, shelter, sleep, and perhaps the occasional hug, but only if you’re already quarantining with that person.
What happens when my child’s needs—for social interaction, for an education that isn’t an app, for the joys and struggles of siblinghood—come in conflict with the greater good? This is why the debate about school reopening is so heated. It’s easy to dunk on privileged parents who want their kids out of their hair and back in schools. But we’ve told those same parents that they (we) are failing at work, failing when their (our) kids don’t complete their asynchronous learning, failing if they (we) don’t have time to advocate for progressive legislation.
Privileged parents are getting a dose of what poor parents have always known: When the system fails, we will be blamed and pitted against each other.
Our friend Mario is an ER nurse. Dash and his twin sons pushed a toy ice cream truck around our driveway while the grownups talked beneath our carport. It was a bright Sunday morning, tilting toward spring, bees murmuring around the lavender in our neighbors’ yard.
“What’s your take on vaccinated people getting together indoors?” Mario asked.
I was a little surprised. “I’m for it,” I said. “Isn’t that the point of the vaccine, kind of?”
You know, that and preventing death.
“I know vaccinated people can still be carriers,” I said, backpedaling a bit. “But if everyone at the dinner party is vaccinated—”
A vaccinated person could pass a virus to an unvaccinated person, perhaps, but not to another vaccinated person. Right? Then I realized that I’d assumed too much. I’d assumed that viruses followed clear rules, when in fact the word virus has become shorthand for all things sneaky and subversive.
“Oh, wait, I guess we don’t know if the virus could be passed through two vaccinated people, onto an unvaccinated person. I wish there was some kind of flow chart.”
The twins fought over a tiny plastic banana split.
When we all migrated to the sidewalk to say our goodbyes, our eight-year-old neighbor, Jasmine, spotted us. She said a chilly hello. She does not like being left out. After a year of quarantine, twenty minutes of ice cream truck play in a driveway was Disneyland, and we had not invited her.
Mario and scientists and public health types know the plan is not to eradicate COVID, but to manage it like the flu. Even though the disease itself is not “like the flu,” as our former president claimed. People will die from COVID, but in much, much smaller numbers. The rest of us, if we’re lucky, will shoulder the weight of our complicity, our helplessness. I’m not saying #WeAreTheVirus, but we are carriers. We carry all of it.
“I hope we’ll get to see you later, Jasmine,” I said cheerily.
“We might be busy,” she said, and I felt guilty.