Sometimes the only way to make it through a difficult holiday is just to push on through — kind of like Clark Griswald in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
You just don’t give up. You roll with it.
A few hours after I turned in the first installment of this month’s “COVID Christmas Special,” things took a dark turn.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the noisy and ancient heating system at my house went on strike, just in time for the temperature to start edging downward at night.
According to my phone and the thermostat, I’d have stayed warmer sleeping in the front yard.
I called in professionals. I got an estimate. Repairs were both expensive and ineffective. I was told it would cost more to maybe fix it, but that I would be better off replacing a heating and cooling system that wasn’t that far from collecting social security.
Then my sisters, who’d planned to make a brief trip (though long drive) to Charleston to see me at a reasonable social distance, had to cancel. One of my sister’s daughters, my niece, tested positive for COVID-19. My sister needed to stay close to home.
My other sister seemed to be surrounded by people who’d suddenly found themselves awaiting test results.
It felt like the coronavirus was circling my entire family — including me.
Right after my sisters backed out of their trip, I got word that Valley Gardens had abruptly canceled its wreath workshops over a potential COVID-19 exposure. Workers were being checked, including Chris Higgins, who was my wreath-making tutor.
We were outside. We both wore masks and kept our distance. He was probably fine. I was probably fine.
I was maybe more than fine.
A few weeks ago, I volunteered for AstraZeneca’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine. They are one of several companies in late-stage trials to bring relief to the public.
I’d signed up because I wanted to do some good, because I thought I had something to offer. I still deliver for Meals on Wheels. After six months of taking boxes and bags of food out during the pandemic, most of the people on my route don’t open the door.
Nearly all of the folks on my deliveries are elderly and have serious health concerns. Opening the door for some odd guy in a comic book T-shirt would be iffy during the best of times. These days, keeping the door shut until the food is on the doorstep and the delivery person is gone is just sensible.
I signed up because people I care about are diabetic, have heart and lung problems or are susceptible to respiratory infections. They keep colds all winter. I know people who have undergone or are undergoing cancer treatment.
And here I am, the healthiest I’ve ever been. It seemed like a waste not to put all those push-ups to good use — and I have some experience doing things that make me uncomfortable, so I volunteered for the study and have already taken one of two injections.
No side effects yet. Also no mutant powers, like in the comic books.
According to recent reports, AstraZeneca’s vaccine may be up to 90 percent effective and for all I know, the coronavirus bounces off me like darts from a Nerf gun.
Of course, I don’t know for sure. A third of the participants in the trial don’t get the vaccine. I don’t know if they even tell you whether you have been given the vaccine if you get sick.
I tried not to get too worried about any of it.
Like I said, Chris was probably OK and so was I. My niece who’d tested positive was young, healthy and, so far, asymptomatic. No one else in my family had tested positive.
And with the heat, this wasn’t even the first time something like this had happened during the holidays. It might be the fourth.
I’d managed before and I had reasons to be grateful. I might not have central heat, but I did have an army of people willing to loan me space heaters. I had a lot of friends, a whole stack of Christmas cards to get in the mail.
I love Christmas cards.
Often, I send Christmas cards outside the holiday season. It’s a very dumb joke that always cheers me up, but it’s also meant to be affirming. The message is out of season, but always heartfelt. I wish my friends joy and hope whether it’s late December or early July.
Often, I throw in stickers, temporary tattoos or fake mustaches purchased from a coin-operated “bubblegum” machine at the grocery store. Everybody likes an unexpected present, even a cheap, silly one.
I tried to make this year’s batch of cards more thoughtful. I couldn’t help but make a joke here and there, but I also tried to be more earnest with my well-wishes and encouraging.
I think we could all use that right about now.
This wasn’t what I’d planned to do in the beginning. I was going to send a bunch of cards to celebrities, some of whom I’ve had long, simmering grudges with — like American music icon Bruce Springsteen.
It used to drive me nuts that one of the most celebrated American songwriters doesn’t actually play West Virginia. He hasn’t played the state since Jimmy Carter was president.
Let me be clear. This is not his fault. Bruce doesn’t have it in for coal country (as far as I know). Smart business people book his tours and schedule his shows. He has other things to worry about, like keeping the lyrics and chords to all his songs straight. The smart business people are more concerned with keeping his shows as profitable as humanly possible.
For a while, I did have some hope that Springsteen might one day play The Greenbrier Classic.
Before he was governor, Jim Justice used to throw quite a bit of money at the concert lineups for his golf tournament. More than once, the Classic brought in bigger music names than appeared anywhere else in West Virginia during the rest of the year.
In a phone interview, the future governor told me Bruce Springsteen was at the top of his list, but that was back when the Classic included concerts and Big Jim might have been a Democrat.
I was going to send a card as a token of good will — and I don’t know — maybe somehow put it on someone’s radar that it would be really cool if Springsteen played a show in my home state.
I also wanted to send cards to Stephen King, President Donald Trump and the CEO of Hershey’s, which discontinued my favorite candy bar, “The Bar None,” years ago.
I thought a card could be a pitch to give my chocolate bar another try, encourage Mr. King to consider a phone interview with me after his next book or convince the president to appoint me to a cabinet position — if only for a few days, even a couple of hours would be good, just until lunch maybe.
Imagine how “Former Secretary of the Interior” would look next to my byline.
But guys like superstar musicians, bestselling authors and, particularly, presidents have people who screen their mail. My favorite musician, favorite writer and the man more likely than anyone else to give an important job to someone as poorly qualified as me were never going to see what I wrote.
My friends needed my good will and silliness more. Beyond COVID-19, it’s been a hard year for so many.
I know a mother whose young son is battling cancer, a dear friend who has struggled with her health for a year and a half and so many others who all but howl on social media out of loneliness and grief.
I sent cards to everyone I could. Each card was personal. I tried to be thoughtful, tried to be funny, tried to make the words mean something a bit more than a thumbs up on Facebook.
I’m still working on it, still buying stamps and licking envelopes even as I contemplate how I’m going to pay for a new heating system. One way or another, sooner or later, I’m sure it will get done.
That knowledge is something to be grateful for.
I’m also grateful to still be healthy. A few days after his potential exposure, Chris at Valley Gardens texted me, “COVID not detected.”
That was pretty good for both of us.