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The Personal Choice Not Everybody Gets To Make

Protesters hold up signs opposing vaccine mandates.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Our daughter was born during the pandemic. There was a period of a few weeks there where new parenthood meant we were already exhausted and unwashed and unfit for public display, and the fact of the pandemic was, for a time, no longer our primary reason for staying resolutely out of sight. When we did begin to emerge, during those first few intense months before the vaccines were released, statewide shutdowns, mask mandates, and a perhaps overdue but surprisingly swift and painless culling of our personal social circles meant it was easy enough to be in the company of people who, for one reason or another, were safe to be around. The Delta variant was not yet a thing. Everyone in the grocery store was masked. Every friend I had on Earth was distancing and isolating and masking and sanitizing as if and because their lives depended on it.

Vaccines were supposed to bring a wave of relief, the letting down of anxieties built up over an interminable year of worrying. That has not been our experience. As our friends and families got vaccinated, some of their vigilance understandably melted away, just as the version of the disease that is most dangerous to our child conquered the globe. They're returning to bars and restaurants and movie theaters. More than one of them has talked about cathartically burning or otherwise permanently discarding their store of N95 masks. They've gone back to offices and subways; their attention for updates and new information about the virus's new mutations has perceptibly waned; they are no longer quite so staunchly allied in the push for ongoing formal mitigation measures. It feels distinctly less safe to be in the company of some of these people than it did a year ago, when none of us had gotten the jab. Even when the company of others is broadly safe, having a child who cannot be vaccinated changes the equation. I skipped the celebration of Defector's first successful year of business out of concern that it would not be possible to attend while being as safe as possible for my child, and it has not been lost on me that there will never be another moment quite like that one, when the people who made this thing get together, shake hands, hug, and celebrate for the very first time.

When the political will for formal, proper shutdowns evaporated once and for all, my wife was forced by shit-or-get-off-the-pot dynamics to reopen her small business, which means physically interfacing with a stream of clients and taking on the burden of trying to verify their vaccination status, with no safety net should those efforts drive away business. With holdouts polluting the pot and no official mandates to force people to behave responsibly, we've been left to enforce our own mandates, with painful results. We held a long overdue memorial service on Oct. 3 for my wife's mother and stepfather, both of whom died alone and hundreds of miles from loved ones during the pre-vaccine stages of the pandemic. Because we have a nine-month-old child who cannot be vaccinated, we asked that only vaccinated friends and family attend the service. In response we received a handful of scolding emails admonishing us for making such an important event off-limits to people who'd considered themselves dear friends of the departed. But evidently not so dear that they wouldn't risk passing along a deadly illness to their loved one's infant grandchild.

All this was my own personal context for this week, first on Tuesday night when Shams Charania over at the Athletic decided to pass long Kyrie Irving's anti-vaccine talking points uncritically and with no context, followed on Wednesday by Irving going on Instagram Live and expressing solidarity with "all those that are dealing with similar things that I’m dealing with," who as Irving sees it have been forced "to put your livelihood on the line in order for a mandate that you don’t necessarily agree with all the way." Irving said he has chosen not to be vaccinated, and unless we are prepared to send in Seal Team 6 with a syringe full of Johnson & Johnson, I suppose that's a conclusion we're just going to have to accept. He says this is simply "about my life and what I am choosing to do," and is "not a political thing" and "is just really about being true to what feels good for me." 

Within pro basketball, Irving is an outlier. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported last month that the league already was 95 percent vaccinated. The WNBA is at 99 percent. That part of Irving's peer group is among the safest demographics anywhere, and perhaps is strong evidence of the efficacy of just the sort of vaccine mandate he's rejecting. But there's a whole dug-in cohort of strangers Irving is presuming to represent with his "voice for the voiceless" stuff. His martyr act breathes sustaining oxygen into their deranged, misguided stand, and those are the people turning around and breathing this deadly virus into the air of my local grocery store.

I worry every day about inhaling the Delta virus into my nose and then exhaling it into the face of my child. I have found that it's impossible not to exchange spit with an infant. When I hum her to sleep at naptime and again at bedtime, she likes to jam several of her fingers into my mouth and feel around my teeth and gums, and because she is a baby her hands are constantly returning to the inside of her own mouth. One of the things that most amuses her is taking her pacifier out of her own mouth and putting it into mine, and then taking it out of mine and putting it back into hers. I probably don't need to tell you that I absolutely cherish these disgusting little interactions, the times when she is so sublimely innocent and unselfconscious, and decides that this is the moment when her entire slimy fist will finally fit all the way into my left nostril. I'm not her mom. I can't feed her from my literal body. These moments when her curiosity and bizarre sense of humor propel her grubby fingers onto my face are the absolute closest that she and I will ever get.

I am an old dad, and not an especially healthy or vigorous one. I think sometimes that this makes me more like a grandfather to my child than a father. Her mother and I are so much more settled into our lives than we were when we first tried and failed to have a child more than a decade ago. Consuming anxieties about the meaning of my own impossible-seeming adulthood are long gone, and gone with them are vicarious ambitions and hastily triangulated concepts of childhood development that I surely would've foisted upon her if she'd come along as initially intended. What she gets instead is this washed-up but stable old dad, who cares not at all if she ever even sets foot inside a school, let alone does well in there. I think because I am old and washed that time is more urgently on my mind. All I want from myself and for her is the opportunity to show her things, every fascinating thing I can think of. I am so excited to just take her outside and point at things, and dig up handfuls of dirt and point, and drive here and point, and fly there and point, and to cut her loose with all her chaotic energy and unbridled curiosity and let her point at fascinating things for me.

The pandemic isn't solely to blame for that project having taken longer than anticipated to really kick into gear. For one thing, it turns out literal newborns do not care too much about the clematis you planted out front to grow up the side of the porch with purple flowers in the spring, although I can confirm that they find wind chimes extremely bitchin'. For another, you will inevitably surprise and disappoint yourself with the concessions you make for work, and for errands, and to catch some desperately needed sleep. My job comes with six months of paid family leave; for reasons passing understanding and which, in retrospect, seem to have possibly sprung from a period of sleep deprivation-related insanity, I used fewer than three of them. Some portion of every day of that unused leave was spent scowling at a laptop and determinedly ignoring the squeals of the tiny person tumbling around the living room. I did that to myself.

But also the world is not as welcoming a place for her as it would've been even as recently as 2019, to say nothing of 2006, when her parents were foolish children who were saved from premature parenthood by the frustrations of body chemistry. In nine months, my daughter has been inside fewer than 10 buildings that are not her home or her doctor's office. Worse: I think I could count on two hands the number of non-immediate-family members to whom she's been introduced and whose entire faces she's seen. She has never seen the nose or mouth of her pediatrician. She cried and squirmed while having her blood drawn for the first time and looked pleadingly into parents' faces covered by black N95s. She met my uncle for the first time in September, when he showed up at our house with a bag of frozen fish he'd caught on a trip someplace. He's been diagnosed with COVID-19 twice, once with serious illness, and he still has not felt it necessary to go back for his second shot. He met my daughter from across eight feet of outside air, masked. I wonder if she will ever in her life see his mouth. There are whole wings of her extended family that she hasn't met, not because they're unvaccinated but because going anywhere means moving through some unknown number of the unvaccinated, and some unknown number of the vaccinated who for perfectly forgivable personal reasons are no longer taking the pandemic quite so seriously.

The thing she finds most delightful and fascinating in her little world is other small children, who—because they also cannot be vaccinated—are for now completely off-limits. We took her last week to a nearby farm to pick pumpkins and sunflowers. Families were spread out across a wide patch of lawn, little teeny kids were laughing and chasing and tumbling all over the place. With no way of knowing whether their parents are among the 66 percent of people ages 12 and up who are fully vaccinated or the 34 percent who are not, we stood off to the side holding our kid, who despite the distance was giggling and squealing and clapping at the funny little goofballs running around. What do we do? Which option before us represents the more reckless fucking-up of this precious little person? Do we risk the small but significant chance that she could catch this disease, and the small but significant chance that it will make her very ill, and the small but significant chance that it will leave her with permanent harm? Or do we hold her over here to the side, clutching her protectively, and comfort ourselves that there'll be other opportunities down the road?

But when? When she's five years old? Do I set down this worry, tell myself she'll probably be fine, and cut her loose to face odds that are far beyond her powers of comprehension? Something that smacks you in the mouth the very first long night you spend walking, cradling, and rocking your newborn child to sleep is that you are already making decisions about what kind of life this person is going to have. I don't necessarily feel super entitled to that authority, but so long as it is mine, I just want to be able to decide that her life will be normal, something like the normal that was possible before all this started. Before approximately a third of Americans decided to dig their heels into this condition of tedium and caution and misery and drag it out endlessly, in order to prove something to themselves and their neighbors and enemies, something now long lost down a rabbit hole of labyrinthian shape and scale.

Whole huge institutional failures birthed this moment, when the United States is too confused and exhausted and stupid to adequately protect itself from a deadly illness. The sequence of compounding failures has left us devastatingly vulnerable to one single counter-punch from this virus. It’s cheap, I guess, cheaply cathartic, even if only over the course of one blog, to unleash much more than an annoyed shrug at prominent holdouts like Kyrie Irving, who despite their wealth and influence exist at the victim end of those big failures. That's part of what Irving had to say Wednesday night, too: "I’m just a hooper, right? I’m just a person who’s being utilized as an example. For some odd reason, people love to have my name in the mix of just some B.S." Probably the wisest and most mature way of handling this would be to figure out as accurately as possible how to route all the anger and frustration and despair back up the channels of power so that they land meaningfully at the feet of people who have control over the institutions.

But it's not as though the people who are angry at Irving today aren't also working on that project. It's just that the wealthiest and most powerful in our country have for many generations been perfecting the art of obscuring and even obliterating the routes by which the dissatisfaction of even a large majority of Americans makes it to the feet of the people in power, much less with any force. For any groundswell to profoundly disrupt the system and its failing institutions in a way that meaningfully improves the lives of those of us at the consequences end—and just to be perfectly clear, I do not believe this will ever happen, not in your lifetime or mine or that of my child—those of us who are angry will need to come together in overwhelming, unprecedented numbers. So far we are not even able to agree in sufficiently large numbers to build up a barrier between our most vulnerable and a rampaging disease. The prospects for overturning the system do not look real great.

Today, as I sit here, grouchy and exhausted from not sleeping and all the other new parent shit, the job of fixing a broken system and its failing bureaucracies seems both impossibly large and wholly abstract, far more distant and abstract than the existential threat posed by a virus that in very literal terms is working around the clock to find its way into my child's sinuses. Irving and Cole Beasley and all these oversharing unvaccinated idiots, in service of their own insecurities and arising from their own ignorance, routinely turn what they insist are personal choices into another layer of cover for the bad neighbors and coworkers and clients whose primary pandemic preoccupation is outlasting the expectation that they give a shit about anyone but themselves. I wish I could leave them alone with their determination to defy society at all costs, but unfortunately some of us still want to live in it.

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