Small Things That Have No Words
When my father suffered his first heart attack in October, 1979, other farmers from our township brought their combines to our fields. They harvested our soybeans, loaded them onto their grain trucks, and drove them to the elevator, all on behalf of my incapacitated father. They did what their fathers had done, and their father’s fathers, and on through the preceding generations. Caretakers of the land, and of one another, they saw one of their own in need, and they combined their resources to help. They did this without complaining or thought of compensation.
I’d seen my father do the same over the years, giving his time and his equipment to members of the community who needed it, driving up the lanes of elderly neighbors just to make sure they were well, slipping a hundred dollars here and there to families who were down on their luck. I never had to ask him why he did it. His actions made it clear; everyone, at one point or another, needed tending. I learned as much from a book I had as a child, The Dale Evans Prayer Book for Children. Dale, of course, was the wife of cowboy star, Roy Rogers. I watched their television program each Saturday morning. One of the prayers in the book was as follows:
Dear Father, hear and bless
Thy beasts and singing birds.
And guard with tenderness
Small things that have no words.
These days of the pandemic, I think of that prayer, a cry for protection in a difficult time.
My wife Cathy and I were recently back in our native Illinois. We were in the land of soybeans and cornfields and melon patches and oil wells. Cathy works remotely for the small hospital in this county. She serves as the Director of Risk Management and Corporate Compliance. Her job includes a number of things, but chief among them is her duty to mitigate risk, not only for the patients but for the hospital itself. She’s on-site four days out of each month, and that’s why we were in our homeland.
We’d gotten our COVID-19 vaccines as soon as we were eligible, and we’d headed into the summer with hopes that we had the virus on the run. Then we had to face the fact that too many people were going unvaccinated; consequently, the Delta variant was gaining steam and indeed would continue to do so in the weeks that followed our trip home.
“It’s maddening,” Cathy said, referring to the fact that only fifty percent of the workers at her hospital were fully vaccinated. Then with a sigh, she added, “You can’t control the world.”
But I want to. I want to reason with the unvaccinated. I want to tell them our only chance with this deadly virus is through herd immunity, and the only way we achieve that is if enough of us get the vaccine.
Those who resist always have a reason. They’ve heard the vaccine can make them sick or even kill them, can contain a microchip that will allow Bill Gates to track their every move, can make them magnetic, can alter their DNA, can lead to infertility. They’ve heard all sorts of misinformation via rumor or social media, or worse yet from elected officials who are supposed to keep us safe but prefer to propagate lies for the sake of political gain.
I heard one man say, “I already had the COVID. I’m immune.”
This wrongheaded feeling of invincibility stems from a history of fierce independence passed down through generations of pioneer settlers who cleared the land and built their homes, and made lives that were hard-earned but also solely theirs. Even today, a good number of folks are reluctant to give up their freedom to live by their own choices.
It’s easy to vilify those who refuse the vaccine, but my mother always told me not to criticize anyone until I’d walked a mile in their shoes. It’s hard in this case. The science is clear, and those who ignore it anger me, but when I stop to think about why so many people in my homeland remain stubbornly unvaccinated, I start with the fact that this is an economically depressed area. People have watched their industries disappear. They’ve watched their jobs go. They’ve seen their children graduate and then move away for better opportunities. It’s a forgotten place in so many ways, barely on the radar of politicians. It’s the flyover zone, the middle of nowhere, just a podunk place out in the boonies, barely worth a notice.
So when someone with a big voice comes along, it’s easy for folks to believe that voice is speaking for them. When the big voice shouts the virus is a hoax, or prevents mask mandates, or refuses to enact safety measures, essentially telling the forgotten not to give up their freedom, it’s easy to hear the vaccine resisters of southeastern Illinois and other parts of the country, answering, “Hell, yeah!”
Finally, after feeling invisible and powerless for years, here’s something these people can control. They can say no to the vaccine. They can stand together, taking strength from their paranoia, their stubbornness, their arrogance. United, they can resist.
But that explanation may be too easy. It may even be misguided. Frankly, when it comes to this question of why people continue to risk their own health and the welfare of others, my tongue goes dry. I’m a small thing without words.
What happened, I wondered as Cathy and I drove away from our homeland, to harvesting grain for your neighbors, to checking on their welfare, to doing what you can for the common good?
She told me again we can’t control the world, but I can’t stop hoping, while at the same time, I wonder what happened to duty. I wonder what happened to love.
Copyright © 2021 Lee Martin
Lee Martin is the author of six novels, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the recently released, Yours, Jean. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.