By Mary Schmich
My car was smothered in snow when I woke up Tuesday, the streets were drowning in slush and, when I glanced out my living room window, I instantly knew that my little Prius might as well have been stuck in cement.
“Why, oh why,” I cried to the weather gods, “would you make this happen on this day, of all days?”
The cruel gods chortled and replied in chorus: “To test how much you want it, honey.”
How much did I want it? Passionately, desperately, now. And so I put on three layers of pants, three top layers, two pair of socks, a mask, a hood, a scarf, a set of Yaktrax ice cleats and, with a trekking pole in hand for navigating piles of snirt, set out to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Three miles on foot to get it, 3 miles back. That’s how much I wanted that needle in my arm.
By the time the coronavirus pandemic is over, millions of Americans will have a story of the day they got the vaccine, and they’ll want to tell it. I hear new tales every day.
“If I live another 30 years, I will remember it in the way I remember my polio sugar cube,” said a friend who described her vaccination at a Chicago Walgreens on Saturday as “exciting.”
Another told me about the “comforting and kind” Walgreens pharmacist, Kishon, who gave her the shot on Sunday. “I almost cried,” she said.
A friend in Baltimore did cry.
“I got one Tuesday, by sheer luck, after registering everywhere and haunting every site and growing increasingly frustrated as people all around me secured shots,” she emailed. “When they waved me over to a desk for the shot, to my huge surprise I got choked up. All the tension of weeks of struggling for an appointment after 11 months of anxiety. I sat down with this very nice tech and I said, ‘You won’t believe this but as I walked over to you I got teary.’ And she looked up reassuringly and said: ‘Lots of people cry.’”
The only thing I knew Tuesday as I embarked on my vaccine expedition was that I might cry if I missed that shot. So I slogged through the slush, clambered over unplowed curbs, and cursed only mildly when a snowplow whisked by and splattered me with crud.
I took heart in the fact that the sun was out and the wind was down and it felt good to see the city. An hour after I left home, I wheeled through the doors at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital, sanitized my hands, took an obligatory yellow mask, rode the elevator to the third floor, stood in a short line for a spot at one of the registration tables and soon was herded toward the giant vaccination room.
“Thanks for making the trek,” said the man who waved me onward.
I knew he applied the word “trek” to everyone, but I enjoyed the way it made my walk feel like scaling Mount Everest.
Then I was sitting at vaccination station No. 35, in a vast room full of masked people. What a curious ritual, all of these strangers baring their arms together.
I noticed the OB-GYN badge on the woman who prepared to jab mine. Yes, she said, when I asked, she was a midwife.
“But no one was in labor,” she said, “and so I came to help.”
The room had that vibe: people here to help, to be helped. It was full of talk and laughter.
“It’s very convivial in here,” I said.
“People are very excited,” the midwife said.
And then she plunged the needle in my left arm. A brief sting, a quick burn. And that was that. Weeks of waiting, over.
“One down, one to go!” a man near me rejoiced.
In a steady stream, the newly vaccinated masses were waved toward an “observation” space where everyone is asked to sit for 15 minutes to make sure they don’t react badly. A few people quietly exchanged vaccine war stories, of pharmacies called in vain, of websites that led them over and over down the path of frustration, of landing today’s appointment just when they almost had given up. One man recounted making 130 calls before he finally got an appointment miles from his house; when he arrived for that vaccine, the site was closed. All that frustration made today’s vaccination even better.
In the end, I didn’t cry. But on my walk home, I saw Chicago just a little differently. I passed “For Lease” signs in windows of what once had been stores. At Water Tower Place, the big signs in the window of Macy’s, which is leaving, proclaimed “Entire Store on Sale.” I passed empty shops and tents for outdoor dining.
It was a city conspicuously changed by the pandemic, and still struggling. But getting that vaccine made it easier to believe that we’ll make it through, just as surely as the snow will melt.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
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