Eight days after I was fully vaccinated, I boarded my first flight in 16 months. What a moment. I settled into my seat and took a deep breath, sucking in my mask to give it that nice, sealed plastic-wrap feeling. Then I combed my fingers through my hair and ignited a fire on the right side of my scalp.
What was this? I gently patted my head, which remained cool to the touch. Slowly, I walked my fingertips into my hairline and discovered one bump, two bumps, three bumps. I raised my right eyebrow and felt the sting of a dozen bees.
Shingles. Because, why not?
It ended up being a mild case, but I didn’t know that then. What I did know was that everyone in my daughter’s house had been vaccinated against chickenpox and no one would touch three bumps burrowed under my boxwood bush of hair. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing the two young grandchildren waiting for me in New England. For 16 months, they had known me only as the grandma whose face fits into their mother’s phone. I couldn’t wait for them to see my sneakers.
By the time my daughter picked me up at the airport, I had Googled what I needed to know about shingles. My habit. After a phone consultation, my doctor called in a prescription to a drugstore near my daughter’s house. Two hours later, when I dropped to my knees in the preschool foyer and wrapped my arms around those giggling babies, I had decided I was done worrying. I spent the next two and a half days feeling honored to wear a Wonder Woman tiara wrapped around my head.
This refusal to fret is not remotely my habit, but after a year of loss and worrying that I might never again see all the people I love, I am a changed woman. I hereby resign from my full-time volunteer job as conjurer of worst-case scenarios. Let somebody else borrow trouble, as my grandmother used to put it. I have seen the worst, and I am ready to expect the best.
This will require me to overlook some things.
Death mongers, for example. After the country was shut down last spring, some people started offering unsolicited advice as to whose lives were worth saving during a pandemic. Texas’ 69-year-old Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, for example, suggested that grandparents like him were ready to sacrifice their lives to keep the economy running for their grandchildren. I may have said, “You first, Dan,” and Grandma is not proud of this. On Twitter, I noticed a smattering of similar messages coming mostly from people younger and more conservative than I. Something along the lines of, “Hey old people, you’ve had a good run but I still want to eat at restaurants, so see ya.” Being 63, I may have escaped their first round of expiration dates, but the longer the pandemic dragged on, the closer I could feel their price guns stamping in my direction. Grandma clearance sale, aisle seven.
For a while, I collected screenshots of the worst of these posts. Boy, was that going to be an essay. At some point, though, I remembered that lecture I used to give my kids. About how our energy is like a bank account, and we can spend only so much of it in any given day. “Invest wisely,” I used to tell them. Amazingly, they still speak to me.
So, fine, I’m taking my own advice. I’m over those ageists. Besides, if they’re lucky, they’ll live long enough to regret ever thinking age is anything but an entitlement. I know how this works. I’m a Boomer, remember.
Reunions are upon us. Each new gathering of friends, I find, includes a conversation about How We’ve Changed. The conclusion is always the same: We’re not sure. Not yet. I do sense a collective hope that we’ll leave behind those parts we’ve outgrown, regardless of age. Pettiness. Spanx. Fear of dying.
I see signs of change in unexpected moments.
After my return flight to Cleveland, I kept my promise to my doctor and visited an urgent care. I was instructed to drop everything and race to an emergency room to make sure shingles was not threatening my eye. I didn’t panic. I didn’t even walk quickly to my car or ask anyone to meet me at the hospital.
My eye was fine, as it turns out. On the trip to the hospital, I reminded myself I didn’t have COVID-19 and drove 8.6 miles imagining designs for pretty eye patches I’d wear after a doctor plucked my eyeball like a grape off the vine. This is the new, previously unimaginable me. Just wanted you to know.