I didn’t feel weepy the first time I hugged my two granddaughters postvaccination. What I felt instead was a softening, a physical relief, a deep sense that things could be normal again, as I sank down to the floor with the 2-year-old and let her nestle into my lap. This relief, I thought, is what a vaccine has given me.
For months, our interactions had been delimited by fear—fear on the part of my daughter and son-in-law that they might infect me or my husband, fear on our part of somehow putting one of our beloved children or grandchildren at risk.
Unlike many grandparents, though, we were lucky enough to be able to see our granddaughters, nearly 3 and five and a half years old, almost every weekend over the past few months. We stayed outdoors whenever we met up, usually in our neighborhood, in Manhattan, or theirs, in Brooklyn. We kept our masks on and spent our time at playgrounds, which was fun for the girls but, I’ve got to admit, a bit tedious for the grown-ups after a while. We could talk with the girls through our masks, hoping that our eyes revealed we were happy to be with them. We could hold their gloved hands as we walked around the park, and we always ended our visits with a hug—but a hug in public, with masks, in layers of outerwear. It wasn’t quite what I needed.
What I needed, urgently, were the joys of an indoor life with my granddaughters: sitting on the couch with them to snuggle into a book; crawling on the floor, building with blocks; sharing a meal; giving them a bath; putting them to bed; breathing them in. These were the activities my husband and I used to do every Thursday, which was our day to pick up the girls from school and day care so their parents could have an evening off and we could spend one-on-one time with our grandkids. How could we have failed to recognize those simple moments—invisible in their very ordinariness—as the precious things they were?
Now we are indoors with them again, without masks, without distance. The first time this happened, the girls kept elbowing each other out of the way to get closer to my husband or me, calling our names, almost as an incantation, even when we were in the same room as them. We have all this back—the hugs and the books and the baths and the bedtimes—because of the COVID-19 vaccines, which no one really expected to arrive this quickly and with such robust protection. The vaccines have led to a subtle shift in my mindset, the first tenuous bit of optimism I’ve allowed myself this whole corrosive year.
Public-health officials underplayed this optimism for too long, apparently out of fear that vaccinated people would throw all caution to the wind as soon as we were jabbed. They’ve done a bit of course correction in the past few weeks. The CDC now says that vaccinated people can gather indoors with a handful of other people, either those who are also vaccinated or those who—and this was the most transformative part for me—are from the same household and unvaccinated but at low risk of serious illness from COVID-19. That meant, in our case, that we could visit indoors with our granddaughters and their parents, our daughter and son-in-law.
In many ways, my liberating vaccine status makes me luckier than I feel I deserve to be. My husband and I have benefited from the decision to begin the vaccine rollout by giving shots to people at highest risk of hospitalization or death—a group to which we belong simply by virtue of being in our late 60s. But it feels wrong, somehow, for us to get our turn before so many others who are essential workers or who are chafing to get back to living their life in public. Hunkering down a little while longer wouldn’t have been that onerous for us—we’re old and able to work from home and keep each other company. But here we are anyway, with vaccine-induced protection, and what a gift it is.
The hug that made me weep was not a granddaughter hug but the one I finally gave to my fully vaccinated brother, whose health problems this past year have been the subject of many anxious phone calls but no in-person visits. “First maskless hug!” he yelled as he greeted me at his front door. Hugging him felt so good, so familiar, and I realized as I held on that it felt a lot like hugging our long-dead father. My brother pulled away from the hug and looked me in the eye. “We made it,” he said. For reasons having nothing to do with the pandemic, I wasn’t always sure that he actually would make it. At the very beginning, when everything was so terrifying, I wasn’t sure I would either.
All is not yet normal. No matter how blithely my husband and I make plans as if postvaccination life is a return to our old one, the vagaries of the pandemic remind us that we still have to keep our guard up. Our granddaughters were going to come to our apartment for a sleepover, the first in more than a year, to give their parents a night of much-anticipated child-free time. But two days before the slumber party, my daughter received news that the 5-year-old had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. No sleepover now; instead, our granddaughter had to isolate and get a COVID-19 test. As part of the isolation, my daughter separated the girls, who usually share a room, and at bedtime, the 2-year-old kept calling out in the darkness for her sister. She probably wanted to give her a goodnight hug.