Shanice Atkins is Press & Policy officer/ freelance writer from Derry.
“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” Marie Curie
It happened as I sat there on the squeaky, plastic seat. The air of anticipation gone, a giddiness still lingered. All those seated, waiting their 15 minutes smiled at one another, nodding in a silent appreciation of what we had just received. The promise of days beyond COVID seemed just within reach.
Moments before I was joking with Rhonda about the ‘lockdown stone’ as I struggled to pull up my sleeve to allow her to administer my vaccine. Now, I had opted to put my phone away to mete out my time in quiet reflection when it hit me; the sucker-punch of overwhelming emotion of the previous months’ events and the significance of what everyone in this hall was now a part of.
With the onslaught of COVID and subsequent lockdowns my overbearingly tight-knit family, like many others wondered how we’d get through it- not if. Cruelly just a few weeks before the vaccination roll-out my family’s matriarch died alone in Altnagelvin’s ICU ward another victim of the pandemic: woman, aged 60-79 dies with COVID-19 in Derry/Strabane.
The month prior, news of the vaccine was met with relief in our house and my Nana was patiently counting down the days, “Not long now love, not long please God.” Yet here I was availing of what others did not live to see, suddenly taken by the unfairness of it all.
From the outset the public were told we were all in this together. Except we weren’t. A fact which became apparent as lockdowns bore on, a few weeks became a few months and those making the rules saw fit to break them. So many law-abiding citizens and their families were denied fairness even in death. Every inch of my Nana’s passing was sanitised just like the previous 10 months. We were sold the sanitised version of grief as well because it was easier to forget that our family and others were denied the closure of an Irish wake. The value of which has never been keener felt; seeing and preparing the body of a loved one, gathering to tell stories, to laugh and surround ourselves with comfort in our collective mourning.
We couldn’t even take comfort in the hug from a family member. Instead my sister and I kept lookout for one another at the door of a funeral parlour as each of us stole a hug from a cold, closed casket- the hug we longed for all year and never got. My grandfather, who has yet to grasp sending a text message, had to watch the funeral of his wife of 50 years via videolink. Never granted a final goodbye.
Just months beforehand, our family Whatsapp was peppered with photos of my five-year-old daughter’s daily rainbow sketch for her Nana which escalated to a 6ft by 5ft chalked rainbows proudly displayed on the garden fence in the latest attempt to stave off our shared boredom. In my naivety I’d allayed her fears about Coronavirus, assuring her that no-one we loved would die from it and not to worry. It was the very first words from her mouth when she learnt of her Nana’s death and it crushed me. Children of this generation got an early awakening that their parents haven’t got all the answers, they too get scared and just sometimes we get it wrong. Playground chat in my daughter’s primary 1 class has now shifted from Paw Patrol to whose family members have died from COVID. A fact she had nonchalantly thrown into conversation as we sat in the garden searching for rainbows. It has been our coping mechanism ever since the day of the funeral when we exited the chapel and a beautiful rainbow appeared overhead. Now the grandchildren look for them as signs of their Nana’s presence somewhere in the ether- I pretend I do it for the kids; in reality I do it just as much for myself. Our situation is not unique and I’m cognisant that so many families will have experienced similar which makes the almost militant, anti-vax argument so difficult to understand.
My mother upon putting away a few of Nana’s belongings in the months following her death, found a diary entry written in late December which read:
“THE THINGS I MISS…
“Wednesday nights with my girls (referencing our beloved family weekly get-togethers with the daughters and granddaughters.)
“Getting my hair and nails done/ pamper days.
“Dinner out with the family.”
And the last line, underscored twice “How selfish is that?!”
To all those reluctant to take the vaccine, it is important to understand that people were counting down the days to access what you now have the privilege to. Don’t waste your chance because of unreliable facts heard in passing at the local chippie or a Facebook post from questionable sources. I fully appreciate the need to be informed and not following blindly is a positive thing. However somewhere along the way, I fear people have missed the truth amid the web of conspiracy theories. Losing a loved one to this virus, that is cruel and unjust not the encouragement to take a potentially life-saving vaccine to protect yourself and others. You’re not sticking it to the man, you’re sticking two fingers up to your fellow man.
The fatalities of COVID had plans for tomorrow- they too looked forward to a time beyond lockdown and the confines of their homes. Even if that was just holding out for the day they could enjoy a meal in a restaurant. I get that the goodwill which embodied the early days of the pandemic has long since evaporated but we can’t let anger or fear jeopardise the vital opportunity we are so lucky to have been given.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.