Finding Pandemic Salvation at K-Mart

Today I walked into a repurposed K-Mart, rolled up my sleeve, and got the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

If you had told me on March 25, 2020 that the “problem” of the pandemic and the “solution” of receiving the vaccine would be bookended in almost exactly a year’s time, I’m not sure what I would have thought.

As all my Facebook memories from a year ago are now reminding me, the world was a different place when this thing started. First of all, there were more than 2 million people among us who were alive and well, and never dreamt that they wouldn’t be around to see this to its conclusion. That’s unfathomably tragic.

We also didn’t really know what it was we were facing or how long we’d be facing it. When 2020 dawned, quarantining was still just something your anti-virus software did to misbegotten files, and the grocery store aisles still flowed freely with toilet paper and cleaning products. We didn’t know that wearing a mask would become both a fashion accessory and a political statement. We didn’t know we were saying an extended goodbye to our grandparents and friend groups and classmates and restaurants.

After a year of living pandemically, it astounds me to see all the energy and creativity that we initially brought to the newfound challenge of a newly made-up word: social distancing.

Can you even remember those innocent days when you were trying so hard to make your life as normal as possible under these brutally abnormal conditions? Within a week of the stay-at-home order, we were writing encouraging messages with sidewalk chalk and cutting out teddy bear clipart to hang in our windows for neighborhood kids to go on “bear hunts.” There were Zoom calls with people we hadn’t seen in person for a decade because you knew that no one was “too busy” anymore. Weekly virtual game nights were established and social media became an even more primary outlet for creative expression and some semblance of human interaction.

But after a few months, a lot of those amusements started fading away, and we resumed a “new normal” without even realizing it. In areas where the virus was not yet overtaking large swaths of the population, the new normal looked a lot like the old normal. Resentment began to grow over restrictions as people wondered what all the fuss was about when they didn’t even know anyone who had the virus, and definitely didn’t know anyone who had died. In places where COVID-19 was decimating nursing home populations and filling up ventilators at a revolving door pace, caution mixed with fear and grief as people mourned the deaths of loved ones and disdained the carefree approach of those living outside the hot zones.

But no matter where you lived or your opinion on mask usage, it all made for an exhausting year—filled with so many other crises—that we were simply all burned out by any metric.

And so today I walked into this bizzaro former K-Mart to join a snaking, Six Flags-style line flanked by Army reservists taking my temperature, examining my ID and asking me the old familiar litany of questions about recent exposure and COVID-like symptoms.

“Feel free to tell that stranger breathing down your neck to maintain social distance,” one reservist barked every three minutes at those waiting in line. The queue actually extended outside the storefront and into the large and completely full parking lot.

The cavernous, empty department store served its new purpose quite nicely, however, with plenty of room for rows of registration tables, rows of tables for nurses administering vaccines, and rows of chairs six feet apart for the newly vaccinated to wait 15 minutes in an “observation area.”

It was all so weird, but also not that weird, because we’re all weirded-out by now. Unlike a year ago, nothing about this situation can surprise me anymore.

Even the moment of actually receiving my vaccination—which months ago I thought would be accompanied by the sound of a heavenly chorus singing on high about my return to freedom—was a little less climactic and a little more like what 2020 would have wanted all along: wearing a mask and sitting in a socially distant chair in an abandoned K-Mart with a band-aid on my arm and a timer set on my phone for 15 minutes.

But the first of two shots is coursing antibodies through my veins now, and my gratitude for science, human ingenuity and God’s mercy are telling me that it’s high time to reclaim some joy, the same way we tried to at the outset of the pandemic.

Let’s celebrate everyday altruism and the heroes in our midst, even if that doesn’t mean banging pots and pans as they drive past us after work. Let’s check in on the people in our lives with whom we’ve lost touch by doing more than just liking their latest post. Let’s eat dinner together as a family, even when we’re not forced by the government to stay home. Let’s hug our parents, even if we’re pretty sure that we will be seeing them again soon.

We’ve learned so much about ourselves and each other in the last year. We’ve seen how we operate under extreme duress and now we know that we can survive it. That said, we’ve all been scarred by this experience to varying degrees. I’m hopeful that, at least on the micro-level in our own interactions and in our own communities, the recognition of that fact allows us to extend a renewed compassion and understanding toward each other as we uncover the shared humanity that unites us all.

There’s a Blue Light Special on hope at K-Mart right now. I’d encourage you to pick some up along with your vaccine.





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