WE’VE WAITED FOR VACCINES
by Rebecca Entel
Of when my father had polio, I’ve heard disjointed details but no narrative. Scalding baths, quarantine, how many adults held him down for the spinal tap, the iron lung, paralysis that one day disappeared.
In the world outside, my grandmother lengthened his Hebrew name with Chaim, Life, and my grandfather delivered bread through the night. Under the covers, his sister plucked the braces from her teeth with scissors.
Each time visiting hours ended, my grandparents stood outside the hospital staring up at a window.
Polio came to him in 1954. The vaccine came to him in 1955.
We’ve spoken of 2020 itself as a golem. We’ve started posting pictures of injections or envious responses to others’ pictures of injections.
No social media archive exists indicating whether my grandparents dreamt of a vaccine/knew it was coming/raged it had come belatedly for their kid/had never felt such relief when it came, even when they thought they could feel no more relief than three of them leaving the hospital, six legs walking.
There’s one photograph of the bicycle bought for him after, with pooled money, and in it my father’s blurry with motion.
We’ve let words into our hourly vocabulary: quarantine, distancing, strains, herd, cases. Daily math problems so vast we can’t see each individual number. We’ve said/meant we, but we’ve been mostly wrong.
Both of my parents remember waiting their turn at school for the shot. When I ask them for memories of receiving the vaccine, that’s the only one: standing in line.
My mother tells me I had the Sabin oral vaccine—drops on my tongue—rather than the Salk injection. She tells me to google, just for curiosity’s sake, the sugar cube version. My mind conjures an image of children not chewing or sucking but letting the cube slowly, slowly dissolve. Thinking of it, I can feel it. A year of sheltering has been something like this: mouth, tongue, et cetera, holding still but activating in anticipation of the sweet.
We’ve reached for metaphors.
Salivating sounds bestial, carnal, silly. I mean more like a waiting that demands all focus. I mean more like a wanting that can’t be helped.
Rebecca Entel is the author of the novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Her short stories and essays have been published in such journals as Catapult, Guernica, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Joyland Magazine, and Cleaver. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches U.S. literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. You can find her at rebeccaentel.com, on Twitter @rebeccaentel, and on Instagram @rebeccaentel.