By Melissa Scholes Young
Mom calls to negotiate on a mid-November Sunday afternoon. It’s been eight months since our last visit and almost a year before that. We want to gather for the holidays, but she thinks I’m being stubborn about our plans. Mom and Dad are out walking in their trailer park neighborhood where they’ve retired on a finger of the St. John’s River in Florida. I’m grading essays in my campus office in Washington, D.C. From my window I can see students huddled in winter coats on the quad watching their breath freeze in the air.
Mom huffs hard into the phone and hands it to Dad. “It sure is steamy today,” he says. “Too hot to go fishing.” Then he passes the phone back to Mom.
Mom multitasks, a skill she mastered raising my brothers and me on a dirt road in the rural Missouri countryside. She also managed customer accounts of our family’s exterminating business by a dedicated line in our house and worked night shifts as a telephone operator. I don’t know when she slept. It’s hard to catch Mom.
Holiday travel and plans are complicated. My husband and our oldest child have chronic illnesses and rely on immune suppressant therapies. In early 2020, my kid had pneumonia from probable COVID, and we spent a night in the Emergency Room at Children’s Hospital. COVID might trigger a relapse in my husband’s condition, and we worry he’ll lose more mobility from his immune system attacking itself. They both need community protection to keep them safe from what their bodies can’t fight on their own.
My parents are unvaccinated and live in a community that resists masks. Last summer, Mom said our phone calls might have to stop if I kept bringing up ‘the virus.’ I was pleading with her to get vaccinated. My insistence was excommunicating me even more from my estranged, unvaccinated family.
My parents are in their seventies. I worry about their health, too, and I wish they were closer. When they retired five years ago, I remodeled the basement of our home in Maryland into a studio apartment hoping to lure them for more visits, but they’ve only stayed in it once. When I share the science that supports vaccines, Mom says there are many versions of science. My parents are suspicious of the government and doctors. Their phone service is unreliable, and their Internet connection is limited. “Fox & Friends” is their only news source.
“We’ve already had COVID and didn’t die from it yet,” Dad says as if he’s earned a badge. His body is strong. He supported our family on manual labor, and I never saw him take a single sick day. Dad doesn’t get sick. Weak people do. If he followed this logic one more step, he’d be applying it to my husband, my oldest child, and Mom, who also has an autoimmune disorder, but that would just be cruel, of course. Like much of our western culture, my origin family preaches survival of the fittest. A new variant of COVID could be fatal for any of us, but that doesn’t fit the narrative of my hometown tribe, so they reject it.
“We’ll get a COVID test,” Mom offers. “We’ll stay in a hotel. I may even be able to talk Dad into a mask.”
“Really?” The last time I saw Dad he threatened to get back in his car and drive away when he saw our faces covered with masks. “What game are you playing?” he asked.
Now, Dad hollers into the receiver. “Whatever your mom says, Missy.” Time apart has made our negotiations more acute.
“We’ll do anything, honey. We just want to see you and the kids.”
“I want that too. But you won’t get vaccinated, Mom?”
“No. We’re not going to do that.”
I’m asking my parents to choose, and they’ve already chosen. The truth is that I don’t want to accept their choice because they haven’t chosen me.
I want to make snickerdoodle cookies with Mom. Dad and my kids will play guitar and sing all the verses to “Jingle Bells.” My husband will stoke the fire, so Mom doesn’t get chilled. Dad will make gingerbread houses and pretend to eat all the candy canes. Mom and I will talk about how much we both miss Grandma while our hands are occupied with a puzzle. I want to be a mother, wife, and daughter, and I don’t want these roles in conflict.
How am I to compromise when what I’d be giving is permission to endanger my chosen family? It’s unnatural for me to think of my parents as a threat and since we’re vaccinated, maybe it’s my parents who are most vulnerable. COVID has wedged my already politically fractured family even more, and I’m the piece that fell out.
“Well?” Mom says. “Do we have a deal?”
I don’t have an answer. I want to see my parents. I want to protect my family. I’m not sure which compromise will cost me more. “Let’s keep talking,” I say hoping that our next call will bring us closer together.
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novels The Hive and Flood and editor of Grace in Darkness and Furious Gravity, two anthologies by women writers. Born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, she is an associate professor in Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @mscholesyoung.
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