HADDONFIELD, N.J. (AP) — There it was, the finish line, beckoning me to cross it.
There I was, running at top speed, eager to be over it.
I'd been on my best behavior since March 2020, when the pandemic reached the United States. Twenty months of not setting foot inside a restaurant or getting on a plane or seeing my 88-year-old father-in-law on the other side of the country. Twenty months of eyeing people who wore their masks dangling off one ear (or not at all), or packing together for birthday parties, baby showers and weddings. I'd lost co-workers to COVID-19. Earlier this year, I lost a beloved aunt.
We spent last Thanksgiving at home, just the four of us. Same for Christmas. My husband and I juggled our full-time jobs while trying to get our two sons through remote learning, me editing stories while cursing under my breath as I coached my 10-year-old through long division.
When I became eligible for the vaccine, I desperately searched for an appointment and drove an hour to Atlantic City to get the jab. Now there was hope.
I started to allow myself small indulgences, telling myself I had earned them. Over the summer, we got together with family (all of us vaxxed except for the kids). We drove to Rhode Island (limiting ourselves to outdoor activities). I went to a wedding (just the ceremony, not the reception).
Then my husband and I took the biggest leap of all. We booked plane tickets to California so we could spend Christmas with his dad. We knew the vaccine for kids was right around the corner, and we had already registered our sons for the clinic set up at their school. My husband and I had signed up for the boosters. I could see the finish line.
The day before the CDC gave final approval to Pfizer’s kid-size COVID-19 shot, I woke up with a sore throat. My 10-year-old had a stuffy nose. It'll pass, I thought, like so many of our other false alarms.
Except it didn't. My 10-year-old tested positive for COVID later that night, running a high fever, throwing up multiple times and alternating between shivering and sweating. I lay next to him, sharing all the same symptoms.
A few days later, my 8-year-old also tested positive for COVID (fortunately, he was asymptomatic). My husband, spared, assumed the role of sole caregiver. We canceled the kids' vaccine appointment; I canceled mine for the booster. The finish line had receded.
The judgment that I had reserved for the unmasked and unvaccinated came raining down on me. After all, you can't tell if a person has been partying through a pandemic or sequestered in their home just by looking at them. All you know is that they have COVID and there's a good chance they somehow messed up.
And maybe I did mess up. Maybe I allowed myself one too many indulgences.
Or maybe, even if I hadn't gone anywhere at all in the last 20 months, I would have still gotten COVID. Or gone everywhere and dodged COVID. Because that's the thing with this damn pandemic: Sometimes, it just comes down to luck.
In my darker moods — and there are many — I look at all the people who went on far-flung vacations and bragged about having the beach to themselves, or got together for birthday parties and seemed genuinely happy. I think to myself: If I was just going to end up with COVID anyway, perhaps I should have at least tried to enjoy my life.
Then I realize things could have been a lot worse. I could have ended up in the hospital or died. My children could have gotten much sicker. Any one of us could have passed along COVID to my elderly mother or father-in-law — or anyone else, for that matter — if we had not been careful.
My family and I are now mostly recovered. We rescheduled the vaccine for the boys. My husband got his booster, and I'm about to get mine. And I'm trying to be less judgmental, because you never know what people's lives are like unless you're in it yourself.
I've also come to realize: Maybe I really am lucky after all.
Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Pia Sarkar is a news editor in the Business News department of the AP. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PiaSarkar_TK
Pia Sarkar, The Associated Press