“Happy birthday, dear Dad/Grandpa/Uncle Joe, happy birthday, to youuuuuuu!”
The group of well-wishers hung on to the last word for what seemed like eons in Joe’s ears. The notes mixed with the antiseptic smell in the air that crept into his room at the assisted living facility where his family had parked him ten years ago. They’d expected him to die much sooner. And why wouldn’t they? After all he was 107 when they brought him here. Any reasonable person with any kind of respect for normal life would have died by now. Given up his spot in the daily bread line. Turned over his table in the Restaurant of Life.
But not Joe.
Here he sat. Still able to walk the halls. He didn’t even need the hand under the elbow from family or visitors that most of the residents, all much younger than him, needed if they could walk at all. Not that he saw much of his family. Except for “official” visits like today or a holiday when relatives were invited to have lunch with their resident (on his tab, mind you) he rarely saw, much less walked around the halls with many of them.
Still able (and very happy) to chat up and wink at the women, young and old, although he’d never done anything beyond flirting the few times when circumstances had led in that direction. Not for lack of ability or interest. Joe still had both. He might have been a little slower on the draw, but he was certain the old “love gun,” as that silly band KISS had sung a million years ago, could still fire a round or two. Rather, no woman, no matter her age, even looked at him, much less saw him as an interesting, capable, viable partner of any kind, much less physical.
And still sharp as a new tack fresh out of the box. That expansive family? He still called every one of his seventy-two kids, grandkids and great grandkids by their proper name, no hesitation at all. And don’t get Joe started on current affairs or politics or sports or culture or – most especially – music and movies. He could back just about anyone into an inescapable conversational corner, tongue-tied and feet tangled in their knotted, and often only half-tied rhetorical rope. Nothing worse than an ill-prepared or lazy adversary, Joe often chastised after winning another argument.
Still, most days, Joe Barker was not happy. Especially on his birthday.
“Hey there, Dad,” his son, Matty, said. “How are you feeling today? Doctor says you are doing great, for a man your age. Heck, you’re doing great for a man of any age!” Matty dropped the zinger loud enough for the room of relatives to hear. As planned, it drew the fawning, cooing, polite but insincere laughter he intended. It almost seemed like he was waiting for a drummer to add a rim shot. Ba-doom-doom. Csssss! Matty was the youngest of the four kids he had with his wife, Claire. He was far too old to still be called by the diminutive nickname, but it stuck, glued to him by eighty years of life. It was both ironic and sad, Joe thought, since the older kids – Joseph Junior, Monica, and Jean – had all died long ago. Matty, the “baby,” was now the adult. Had been for many years. Except when visiting Joe, Matty was usually the oldest person in the room. Heck, Joe’s youngest great grandchild was twenty-nine, and carped incessantly about turning thirty, like that was something worth complaining about. Joe appreciated Matty’s high spirit and good nature. He loved his son’s sincere, well-intentioned effort to inject some levity to counterbalance the wailing sobs from the old woman across the hall that hung in the air like smog. But Joe couldn’t look past the very old elephant in the room.
“Matty, you know how I am. I am here. I am awake. I am healthy. I am breathing. I am hearing, talking, eating, reading, listening to the radio when I can get Alexa to answer me, watching television when I can find something that interests me. But I don’t want to be.”
“Dad come on now,” Matty interjected. What was coming was inappropriate for the day and the room of guests who’d gathered, no matter how many times they’d all heard it before. “We have talked about this.”
“Yes, son, we have. So, you should know by now how I feel,” Joe said. Eyes turned toward his rising voice, still as clarion and crisp as that of a man half his son’s age. “I want to be dead. Like everyone else of my generation. I should be in the ground or in an urn on top of your fireplace. Instead, I am here.”
“But Uncle Joe, we all love you,” said one of his nieces, Catherine. “We don’t want to lose you any time soon.”
“Catherine, sweetheart, I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. And I love you for saying it,” Joe said, smiling at the beautiful middle-age woman. “I know you all mean well for me. But I want to be dead. I’m not sad, or depressed, or suicidal, I promise. It’s just the natural order of things. A man my age should be dead. And I would have been if not for that stupid COVID-19 vaccine.”
Few in the room had lived through that god-awful pandemic. Fifty years ago, an unknown virus gobbled up and shat out most of the world’s human and financial resources for nearly three years. They had not lived through the plague, yet not knowing its reality didn’t make its truth any less real.
“I did what I – what we were all – supposed to do,” Joe said, evenly, with the practiced flatness of tone of someone who’d told the story many times. “I wore my mask, I social-distanced, I stayed away from everyone I loved for months at a time. And then, the first vaccine came out, a month before election day that first year, just like you-know-who said.”
A glancing smile broke quickly across Matty’s face. To this day, his dad refused to speak the former president’s name as if in ongoing protest.
Joe looked around the room, filled with everyone with even a scintilla of concern or affection for him.
“To this day, I don’t know what was worse – him winning re-election, or the millions of people who died after taking that first vaccine. And not just died. But died horrible, painful, terrible deaths because they had been willing to believe anything anyone said, just to get it over with faster. So they could stop wearing masks and go out to dinner,” he said.
“I cannot even begin to put into words how angry and betrayed and guilty I felt, because I’d been ‘smart enough’ to not take that first vaccine.” Joe’s bony, knobby index fingers waved in front of his face, making air quotes. “I knew it wasn’t safe. How could it possibly be? They rushed it into production as soon as the government waved all the safety regulations. Any fool would have known it wasn’t safe.” Joe took a deep breath. “Except those that didn’t. Including your mother. She believed everything that man said. Boy, we fought so much that first term…” Joe’s voice trailed off, drowned under a wash of memories. “Look what her faith got her.”
A tear crept into the corner of Joe’s 117-year-old eye. He quickly turned in his chair toward the wall and wiped it away.
“Dad, I think it’s time for us to go,” Matty said softly. He and his father had had this conversation so many times over the last half-decade that it’d taken on a life of its own, breathing its own sorrow into the air around Joe. The loss of his mother was the real source of his dad’s bitterness, at least as much as the politics of a plague that killed many millions of people, including two younger cousins, Matty knew. “You need your rest.”
Joe’s head swiveled back like he’d been slapped. “Rest? Rest? Rest for what? To play another round of Old People Who Should Be Dead Bingo?” he yelled. “Matty, you cannot possibly understand what it means to be so old that the oldest people around me are considered youngsters by comparison, and yet I can’t die! I have absolutely nothing in common with anyone. I am utterly and literally alone on an island. It’s not that I have lost touch with the world, Matty. The world has lost touch with me”
“But Dad, you could have taken your chances with the next four vaccines. You chose not to,” Matty said smoothly, trying to calm his father.
“And it’s a good thing, too, seeing as how they all failed. It’s like the virus kept getting smarter every time and laughed at us with each new vaccine. Ah, but then they came out with a sixth one. And every scientist and doctor worth their lab coats said this was the one. This one would cure COVID forever — and not just the current strains. It would even prevent new strains that hadn’t even formed yet. Well sir, that sounded too good to be true, but I figured, what is there to lose? The sixth time must be the charm, right?”
Matty dropped his head. He’d heard the inevitable answer to this rhetorical question a thousand times before.
“It worked, all right,” Joe said. “Only too well! Now I am trapped by my own bad luck and some sick, twisted cosmic irony! Here I am, a living, breathing testament to the power of modern medicine!” Joe shouted. His vitriolic cynicism was as clear as the spittle now on his lips. His anger drew surprised glances from a few people floating around the edges of his room.
“Dad come on. You know there’s nothing to that. There is no proof that the vaccine caused you to live longer, or stop your natural aging, or whatever it is you think happened. It could have been a fluke. It could be that you’ve got incredibly good genes. Maybe God has a reason for keeping you alive so long. Who knows? Yes, there were problems with the first six vaccines, but the next one worked the way it was supposed to. Maybe not for everyone, but at least for a few people. The others who lived all had happy lives and eventually died just like we’re all going to do” Matty said. “Including you.” His voice carried just the faintest wisp of exhausted exasperation.
Joe shifted in chair. Several relatives had quietly slipped out of the room, lingering now outside the open door or down the hall near the dining room. Those remaining watched the ballgame on the television. “Bears are losing again,” Joe noted to no one in particular. “Some things never change.”
Matty lifted and gently held his father’s right hand. He spoke respectfully, but firmly, as if reprimanding a child whose countless good deeds far outweighed this one bad one. “Dad, all we know, all any of us care about – “ Matty waved his right hand over his shoulder toward the thinning herd as it now issued a collective groan at yet another Bears fumble – “is that you are still with us. For whatever reason. It doesn’t matter. Your life is a blessing. And we cherish it.”
Joe quieted for a few seconds, reflecting on the journey he’d taken, but would have never wished on anyone. A wistful chuckle escaped through a melancholic smile. “A blessing? Hmmm…fifty years of memories that no one else understands, of a colossal human disaster that we brought on ourselves.” He stared at his and his son’s hands, intertwined. “Somehow, this blessing feels more like a curse.” He raised his eyes to his Matty’s face. “Son, you are a caring and conscientious man. I have always been most proud of your heart. So, I know you understand when I say this: I love you, but I don’t want to see you ever again.”
A loud cheer erupted behind them – thankfully, loud enough to hide Matty’s gasp. The Bears had scored a rare touchdown.
“Now Matty, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just want to be left alone until I die. Lord knows when that will ever be, or how it will happen. I don’t want to bother you with all that.” Joe smiled and winked at his son. “Plus, at your age, you shouldn’t be driving anymore.” The attempted joke fell flat. Matty stared at his father, unsmiling.
“Matty, all I do anymore is sit around here and review my life. My freakishly long life. You know I’m not particularly religious. Never have put much stock in all that ‘Invisible Man’ stuff, but sometimes I think that if there is a God, He was using that virus to teach us a lesson in humility. You know, they called it a ‘novel’ virus because it was new. But really, there was nothing new about the situation. As usual, we humans saw something small and thought we could just crush it under our giant feet.” Joe said.
“Six times, we rushed. Sacrificing safety for speed and profit,” Joe said. “Six times, our arrogance told us our size and strength would win out. That our superior firepower would win the war because it always had. But none of that mattered to the virus.”
Matty had long been in awe of his father’s wit and intellect. But he was astounded by the words Joe now spoke.
“Dad,” he nearly whispered, “to be fair, the scientists and doctors finally got it right with the seventh vaccine.”
“Great!” Joe said, looking away. “Lucky Number Seven, I guess.”
Joe took a deep breath. For the first time in many years, he called his son by his adult name. Decades of kind, mature patience with his father had earned him this small token of his father’s respect.
“Matthew, here is what I have learned these last fifty years when I should have been dead and spending eternity with your mother,” Joe said, wryly.
“I won, I suppose, but we failed,” he said.
“Our leaders failed us, our doctors and scientists failed us, the media failed us. Heck, even that God of yours failed us. But mostly, we failed each other. As individuals, as a community, as a species. And why? Because doing the right thing took too long and was inconvenient.”
Now Joe stood, walked to the door, and stared down the hall. A man who looked older than Joe toddled down the corridor, clinging shakily to a sparkling, aluminum walker. He turned and reached back to his son, hugging him with all his might.
“I don’t believe in much these days, Matthew, but I have come to believe that God of yours gave us that virus to remind us that we’re supposed to find our strength by working together,” Joe said.
“But we didn’t. We never do. Instead, we died from something too big to kill. Our hubris and greed.” Joe exhaled deeply. He slumped into his chair like a deflated balloon.
A groan rose from the remaining visitors. The Bears had lost again.
“I guess God just gave us a taste of our own medicine.”