COVID-19 anniversary: In this moment of hope, we can’t let vaccine make us complacent

I just received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As the needle was being pushed into my arm, I flashed back to a conversation I had years ago with a psychology student who was trying to convince me that human beings only have the capacity to experience one emotion at a time. I disagreed with him them, and I disagree with him today.

As the needle went in, I felt a flood of gratitude and a warm wash of emotional relief — finally, one step closer to a light at the end of this dark tunnel! But I also still felt a healthy stirring of downright fear and, yes, respect for this dastardly virus … because it is still deadly. It is still greedy. It is still infectious. In that moment, I felt grateful, relieved, appropriately fearful and mightily chastened, in equal doses. This hodgepodge-y swirl of simultaneous emotions tells me something important: I can honor all of these emotions without becoming complacent or careless.

A year ago, WHO declared a pandemic

A year ago Thursday, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic; not a joyous anniversary to celebrate by any means, but one that must be marked in our memories. It’s a grievous anniversary to observe — like marking the anniversary of a loved one’s death, a friend’s miscarriage or any other paralyzingly painful event that makes our hearts hurt — but mark it we must, because it’s wiser (and more respectful) to remember than to try to forget.

I must also remember that I cannot — I must not — get sloppy and overconfident now. I will (and must) continue to avoid large crowds. I will (and must) continue social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing in public. I will (and must) continue to hold myself accountable for acting responsibly and appropriately, not just for my own safety but for the sake of the larger collective good. We belong to each other.

COVID-19 vaccine on March 9, 2021, in Chicago.

I cannot let my sense of gratitude and relief yield to complacency. Yes, a few weeks after I get my second dose I’ll be able to step more toward normalcy, but not before then. I will continue to be cautious; I owe at least that much to the hundreds of thousands of souls who have succumbed to this virus, and to the front-line workers who are putting themselves at risk every single day to keep us healthy, thriving and alive. My relief and gratitude must not dilute my determination to act responsibly.

I will also be gentle with myself upon this reentry. After a year of living in lockdown, I must take my time unpacking all of these emotions as they burst back open into the bright light of day. I’ll be honest: Stepping back out is scary. I will take baby steps. It’s not only safer; it’s gentler, too. Easy does it. Baby steps are good.

On my drive home from the vaccine center I saw something simply lovely. While stopped at a red light, I happened to glance down a residential street and what I saw felt like a little bit of magic unfolding right in front of me: a little girl in a red sweater running down the street, straight into the arms of a tall, angular, elderly man who hugged her with everything he had.

Kristin Clark Taylor served as White House director of media relations under President George H.W. Bush.

I want to believe the man was her grandfather. I want to believe it was the first time they had seen each other since this world has begun to slowly restore itself to some sense of normalcy. This is the narrative I choose, not only because it feels so good to claim it but also because I need so badly to allow my heart to do a happy dance after being immobilized for so long.

The sight of that single embrace almost made me cry. It made me realize that simple things like long hugs and quick kisses and the healing comfort of the human touch are just within our reach. But we must move cautiously. Respectfully. Responsibly. The end of the tunnel is in sight. We cannot become complacent now. We must follow the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As more and more of us get the vaccine, let’s try to remember to be gentle with ourselves. Let’s try to remember that our continued responsible behavior will be what propels us toward the end of this dark tunnel. Let’s not mess it up now, not when we’re so close.

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After seeing the red-sweatered girl and her grandfather reunited (yes, this is the happy narrative I have chosen), I feel like I can almost breathe again. Full, unobstructed breaths that come deep from the diaphragm, not the short, sippy breaths I’ve been taking for the past year that seem to flutter in my chest. I feel like I can breathe again. This is the feeling of relief and gratitude.

Get the vaccine as soon as you can

If you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet, be patient; your name will be called soon. If you’re hesitant or fearful about getting the vaccine, don’t be; it will save your life. If you prefer one vaccine over another, get over it: Take whichever vaccine is offered. We can get through this, and we can get through this together, but we must continue practicing caution.

I don’t have grandchildren of my own yet, but the sight of the red-sweatered girl has made me grateful for the idea that one day I will, and one day I will be able to hug them. The sheer possibility is enough for me.

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This is what it feels like to experience gratitude and anticipation at the same time. Relief and healthy fear. Respect and healing joy. I’m feeling it all.

If that’s not proof positive that a human being can indeed experience a healthy hodgepodge of emotions simultaneously, then I guess I don’t know what is.

Kristin Clark Taylor, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is an author, editor and journalist. She can be reached at WriterKristinTaylor@gmail.com

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