To say that I had an unorthodox childhood would be an understatement. As the niece of one of the nation’s first naturopathic physicians, vaccines were considered voodoo medicine. While medical providers wore white coats rather than nose bones and body paint, our family followed our uncle's advice for everything from toothaches to strep throat.
All of this homeopathic behavior came to a crashing halt when the New York City Board of Health wouldn’t admit my brother nor I to public school without proof of smallpox vaccinations. Despite a respectably-fought legal battle to fight this mandate, we were dragged — kicking and screaming — to a doctor. And that just described the antics of my mother.
Fast forward a decade or two. As vaccines came to market, my mother remained dug in. New vaccines came and went. Some were delivered by hypodermic needle, others on cubes of sugar. Our family remained hold-outs in New York and we took our unvaccinated bodies and beliefs to Florida where we remained bastions of anti-vaxxing behavior decades before the phrase was even coined.
Throughout this decades-long journey, our uncle advised and consented and eventually, state legal systems gave up on their mandates and threats. But by the time my kids came along, laws had been strengthened and there was plenty of muscle behind legislation prohibiting any and all schools from registering non-vaccinated students.
My siblings folded fast. I tried to hold out. I was selfishly building a career and quite frankly, I didn’t possess the level of commitment my mother possessed, so I folded too. Both kids wailed as vaccines came and went. I assiduously avoided questions asked of me that related to my own vaccine history.
If life seems to be a repeat of every battle you’ve ever waged, it’s no illusion. When COVID-19 plopped itself into our lives a year ago, my personal anti-vaxxing commitment kicked in. My adult kids told me that they would be delighted to take my place because they had not made a deal with the devil to maintain bodies free of vaccines, but I persisted.
Then, I made one of the most foolish promises of my life to friends, all of whom were jockeying for position on Carle and Champaign Urbana Public Health Department lists; all of whom wore badges of honor: signature band-aids worn on the upper arm. As someone who won’t make a promise I’m not willing to stand behind, I flippantly told friends that if John Ossoff and Rev. Rafael Warnock took those Georgia senate seats occupied by Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, I would get the vaccine.
“It’s not going to happen,” I told everyone. “And as far as I’m concerned, when Perdue and Loeffler win their races, that will be just another sign from on high that the smallpox vaccine I received as a kid would be the only one.”
Then, the race was called. As dilemmas go, this one was a doozy. And let me add that while my contemporaries and I are piling on the years, our memories are perfect. I believe one of them waited an entire day before sending me an email to ask when I would be going for my shot.
A deal is a deal. I got on the vaccine list with great trepidation, got the shot and then waited for parts to fall off my body, but my reaction to the injection was a yawner: Sore upper arm, a little fever 24 hours later and to be honest, I really needed the 15 hours of sleep I got while sleeping off those minor reactions.
I’ve gotten more than my fair share of congratulations for sticking to my promise, but my biggest reward came the day after I was vaccinated. I watched, sleepy but undaunted, Vice President Kamala Harris deliver the oath of office to both Ossoff and Warnock, the two dudes who have tipped the balance of the U.S. Senate.
Now an official vaxxing veteran, and while I’m not about to run around convincing other people that they, too, should get the vaccine, I do wonder if our uncle began spinning in his grave the moment the tip of that hypodermic needle was plunged into my skin. I guess I won’t find out in this life, but if I hear from him before I die, I promise to let you know.