Zen Buddhist priest Tenku Ruff reflects on her experience getting the COVID-19 vaccine — both the joy and grief.
A nurse who works in the same hospital system where I work as a chaplain was the first person in the US to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. I saw the news early in the day, and when I heard it again on the radio as I drove home, I teared up. She works in an ICU in Queens, New York, the area hardest hit by the first surge.
I got home, went to my decontamination zone (bathroom), put my contaminated samue into the hamper, showered off the remnants of the day, and then went to the kitchen and sat down to a hot meal, prepared by my husband, George. This is my routine these days, followed by zazen, and then bed.
So many people have worked so hard. They are tired and desperately need the rest that the vaccine promises.
“A nurse got the first vaccine today,” I started to say, then broke down in sobs. I still start crying every time I tell this story, or think about it. A nurse got the vaccine. Deep, belly sobs filled my entire body, filled the room, and beyond. So painful, and also such a relief.
I’ve cried deeply so few times since March, though a simmering sob seems to permeate all that I do. I cried in April when my cousin, Debbie, volunteered to come from Florida to New York to work as a respiratory therapist. I cried when the number of deaths passed 100,000, when my dad went to the hospital in July, and the day a pulmonologist told me I have scarring on my lungs from my own bout with COVID-19. I did not sob many other times when it may have been appropriate to do so.
Seated at the dinner table that night, sobbing, all I could say was, “So many old people died!”
I was thinking about an episode earlier that day. I had taken an elderly woman with dementia to say goodbye to her husband, the love of her life, dying of COVID-19 in another room a few doors down, alone. A few days later, still in the hospital on the day of his funeral, she said, “I’m so sad, I just want to lie in bed and cry all day,” and “I feel like there’s something important I’m supposed to remember, but I can’t.”
So many old people have died. Also young people. Brown people. White people. Fathers. Mothers. Children. City people. Farmers. Native people. Friends. People we don’t know.
I thought of people at my hospital: the young African-American man we all fell in love with who died in the ICU in the wee hours of the morning, terrified and alone. I thought of the young man from Guatemala, afraid and, like me when I was sick, not wanting to tell his parents, lest they worry, far away and unable to visit.
I also thought of the first person at my hospital to receive the vaccine, also an ICU nurse. She’s seen so many deaths. After getting the vaccine, she was elated, FaceTiming with her daughter, and buying sweets at the coffee shop. Later, I saw her walking near the river, hand-in-hand with her husband, smiling widely.
My arm was sore, my heart open and receptive.
So many people have worked so hard: ICU nurses, cleaners, respiratory therapists, bus drivers, nursing aids, chaplains, grocery store workers, doctors, and many, many more. They are tired and desperately need the rest that the vaccine promises.
A week later, as I stood in line to get the vaccine myself, I received a text from my sister, who had gotten it that morning in the hospital where she works, in a different city. I haven’t seen my sister in a year.
“I wish I could give mine to Mom,” I texted back.
“Me too,” she replied.
Evening zazen that night was deeply settled, filled with poignancy, and connected with the entire universe. My arm was sore, my heart open and receptive.
As more of us start getting the vaccine, let us not move too quickly to put the losses of this very difficult year behind us. Let us slow down and remember those we have lost, the dreams we gave up, the jobs that disappeared, our fears, our sadness, our anger. Let us take the time to feel the pain of each loss, holding it gently, like a smooth stone lifted from the edge of the ocean and admired in our palm for a while, before returning it to the sea.