This Thanksgiving, Covid’s “not dead!” yet, but neither am I.

A persistent Covid infection to usher in your 62nd birthday and Thanksgiving is a fine howdy-do, ain’t it?

Fresh off my 6th vaccination, and just when I thought it was safe to “move about the country” unmasked in an airplane, Covid reared its ugly head in me for apparently the first time since the start of the 2020 pandemic.

It is an ill-timed holiday visitor, like a microscopic Cousin Eddie arriving extra early in his dilapidated, rust-pocked, smoke-belching 1973 Ford Condor II RV and backing into my driveway while taking out the mailbox and dumping his septic tank in the process.

My illness comes on the heels of gearing down from work for the 2nd time in 2 years. As of now, I’m calling it “the sabbatical I never took” instead of “full retirement.”  My plan is to keep my optometry licenses active for another year, but after safekeeping the sight and lives of 100,000 patients in 34 years of practice, I am both sated and exhausted.

Here’s how I got it.

S. and I traveled out West in celebration of our recent transition and course change. We viewed the pilgrimage to the high and wide-open spaces of a desert plain as a pledge to continue our practice of exploring and expanding physical and spiritual boundaries through travel for as long as we can.

After landing in Las Vegas, we hopped in a rented Nissan Pathfinder and made for the Grand Canyon post-haste.  It was her first visit and my second. The last time I was there, it was 1970 and I was a chubby, bell bottom-clad 8-year-old traveling with my family. The Grand Canyon was one of many must-see waypoints as we crisscrossed the country in our own Chevy Impala “family truckster,” cooled for the occasion with a freshly installed, under-the-dash AC unit.

On our full day there, S. and I stayed from sunrise to sunset. We hiked below the south canyon rim, “climbing” the “Kaibab” (Paiute for “mountain lying down”) for 800 feet to Ooh Ahh Point—dutifully exclaimed the words and took the obligatory selfie—then ascended “back down” again. We didn’t dip our toes in the Colorado River, but we still felt proud and privileged to have hiked part of an “inverted mountain.”

The next morning, we swooped through the canyon’s hollowed-out center in a helicopter, undulating amid carved, craggy cliffs and striped, stony walls painted with ferrous pigments conveying subtle shades of red, orange, blue, yellow, and green. We were humbled, like tiny visitors in the mammoth studio of a freewheeling artist who had no thought or notion of the residents, explorers, and pilgrims who would come along millions of years later and be both puzzled and awestruck by its masterpiece.

We then backtracked to Las Vegas for the “main event”—U2 at The Sphere.

The controversial, pulsating orb is art inside and out, and unlike the naturally carved Grand Canyon, manmade. The Sphere is a wonder nonetheless, fusing art and science into a multiuse venue especially suited for showcasing musical artists performing immersive “concerts of the future”—only now. It is a colorful, brightly lit beacon in perpetual motion that, rather than warning away, beckons to all, shouting, “Come all who serve above and below, come all believers and those who don’t know.”

The concert was good “church,” plain and simple, a full-immersion baptism in sight and sound. I was caught up in a familiar liturgy of lyrics and melodies that have soothed, sustained, and inspired me for over 40 years. Bono, the rest of “the lads,” and I are all the same age. I see them stretching beyond previous boundaries after decades of hard work, searching for legacy and ways to remain “useful.” I can relate.

While we grew up far apart and walked separate paths, U2 have always felt like my spirit brothers, expressing their faith through words, deeds, and beats that took hazy, diaphanous concepts and transfigured them into solid and practical ways of thinking and doing that are helping me “work out” my own “salvation.”

Like them, I long for something I can’t quite find, but I will keep on looking.

Still walking on a sinusoidal sea of sound, we headed for the airport. All good pilgrimages involve a return leg to one’s “default world,” and now it was time for ours.

The flight was full of Crimson Tide football fans from all over the West Coast traveling to Birmingham and then on to Tuscaloosa for the game between LSU and the University of Alabama. I spotted one person with an Auburn shirt and another with an LSU ballcap. Outnumbered, they were both targeted for some good-natured razzing and a serenade of “Roll Tides” which they endured gracefully. Even the pilot got in on the act with a farewell “Roll Tide” call and response just before final touchdown in Birmingham.

I sat next to “Tide Guy from San Diego.” It was his first-ever pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa, and as he stared intently at his phone, I noticed he was studying the lyrics to “Dixieland Delight,” the perfect opening for a conversation.

“Why is there so much mention of ‘Tennessee’ in a song performed by a group called ‘Alabama’?” he asked.

That is an excellent question,” I responded.

We tried to remember the words of the “unsanctioned” and spicier student version of the song and talked barbeque.  I shared with him a story I wrote for The Huntsville Times years ago describing my experience of attending the first game of the Saban Era in 2007.

This fired him up even more. “Great wordplay! Did you major in English?” he asked.

He then turned toward his travel companions and shouted over the roar of jet engines, “Hey guys, you’ve got to read this guy’s story about what it’s like to attend an Alabama game!”

I leaned toward him and stage-whispered, “Correction: it’s ‘Hey y’all.’”

We talked quite a bit, and all the leaning and Roll Tiding is probably when I got Covid. But hey, no hard feelings “Tide Guy from San Diego.” I trust you were thoroughly entertained. Roll Tide, good sir.

The next few days are a bit of a blur. I woke up the next morning and wrote a eulogy for my nephew, and the day after that, I traveled to Montgomery to deliver it. I felt fine, just a little fatigue which I attributed to the trip.

On the return trip to Huntsville, I realized I was getting sick. I walked into the house, grabbed a Covid antigen test, and isolated in our master bath.  I probably wasn’t the only person harboring the virus at the memorial service, but I was likely “Patient Zero” for several. My apologies to those, and the four family members that I know of, whom I unwittingly infected.

After treatment with the antiviral Paxlovid, my symptoms improved, and I tested negative. A few days later, my symptoms returned, and I tested positive. Classic “rebound” or the first signs of “long Covid”? Too early to say at this point, but my heart sank this morning when I tested positive again. The day before Thanksgiving—and everybody’s coming.

Unlike years past, we are not “cancelling” the holiday gathering. Almost everyone has had multiple vaccinations, and most have had at least one infection. Positive antigen testing doesn’t necessarily mean I’m contagious. Most likely I’m not, or at least very little. But with a few lingering symptoms, for safety’s sake, I will assume I am.

“New normal” means recognizing that Covid is part of our lives forever, but still living on. We will disinfect surfaces, but not obsessively since we know the virus spreads primarily through airborne particles. I will always wear a mask, and others may mask or not, their choice. I will eat by myself but be close enough to participate in the Thanksgiving meal banter.  I will keep a safe distance from everyone, especially my 86-year-old mother-in-law <insert joke here> and nearly 1-year-old granddaughter.

I won’t get to hold E., which is greatly disappointing, but she has her inaugural birthday party in a couple of weeks, and hopefully I will be testing negative and be symptom-free by then.

I have not had any Covid crises at this point, and I doubt I will. But considering the way it is dogging me, I shudder a little when I think about what might have happened 2-3 years ago if I had contracted the coronavirus without an immune system already primed and pumped to fight it.

My “new normal,” both Covid and retirement-related, also means recognizing and accepting trade-offs. If someone had told me prior to our trip that I would contract Covid and have difficulty clearing it, I would have taken my chances and gone anyway. The experiences we had on that trip were transformative. I wouldn’t have missed any of them for the world.

I’m not writing this to evoke pity–“Welcome to the club,” most of the world would say. I’m just trying to process the last few weeks and work through things in my head.

One thing I have figured out is that Covid, like the poor, misunderstood peasant being carted off in the corpse wagon in Monty Python, is “not dead!” yet.

But the bottom line is, I’m not either. For that, and countless variegated blessings, I am thankful.