My baby spent his first year in a world marked by distance and death. But the pandemic story I'll tell him is one of survival.
- My son was born in the early months of the
- In his first year, he experienced the loss of his great-grandmother, plus the larger-scale loss of living through the death of more than 400,000 Americans.
- There are two ways to tell him this story. One is: We failed you. But another is: We survived.
My grandmother was born during the last great pandemic. When I ask her what her mother told her about giving birth during the Spanish flu, she cannot remember. After I give birth, a century after my grandmother was born, I want to know what strength I may have inherited from her mother. But my grandmother cannot tell me the story.
How we tell a story matters.
I work on telling the version of my story that makes it possible to move forward. I work on saying: I gave birth during a pandemic and showed myself how strong I am. I avoid saying what is also true: My grandmother died without ever holding my baby.
"What a story you'll have to tell him," people say, over and over.
But there is more than one way to tell the story.
Even the story of his birth has many versions. There is the one I write in my journal five days after it happens because Rachel, our postpartum doula, suggested it. "I know it seems impossible now," she says, "But you are going to forget." Her theory is that we need to leave behind the mind-bending pain of childbirth. Otherwise, no one would have a second kid.
And so I cover 10 pages with every image my memory can conjure - his slippery body on my chest, the midwife's face shield, the call broadcast over the intercom for anesthesia to come to the hospital's intensive care unit, the COVID tent in the parking garage. It was orange.
In my journal, I have described my birth as a beautiful experience. "It ended with a gush of love and my baby, whom I loved immediately," I have written, and this is how I will remember it, because Rachel is right. Soon, I have forgotten the details I have not written down.
This is how we live in quarantine: we forget in order to survive
There is a less triumphant version of his birth, one that creeps in later. In this version, I mourn what I did not have - my birth doula, an exercise ball, a bathtub deep enough to soak in, nitrous oxide, any option for pain relief besides an epidural. In this version, I have lost something that I had not noticed at first, like leaving the house without a mask on, like forgetting that someone you love is gone. I cannot retrace my steps and so I acknowledge the loss and try to move forward. I focus on what is bearable, on what is beautiful.
My son will remember none of this. So how will I tell the story?
"The year you were born, hundreds of thousands of people died from a pandemic in this country, your country. We kept you safe by staying away from the people we loved. The year you were born, your great-grandmother died without us, in a nursing home twenty minutes from our house."
There are two ways to tell that story. One is a bottomless guilt that threatens to burn a hole in my throat: We were not there. We did not hug her goodbye. We did not fulfill her wish, the one she talked about for months as she knitted blankets for my baby and my sister's baby, due a week apart. She wanted to hold those babies before she died.
The other version is the one that my family and I tell each other in the days after she has gone: She lived a long and full life; she lives on in our memories. She chose to end the blood transfusions that kept her alive, even as the spread of COVID kept us away. Just before she died, the hospice nurse told her what we could not: that we loved her.
My grandmother lived in a way that taught us how to accept her loss. She knew how to be grateful, and how to focus on what she could control and let go of the things that she could not. This is not forgetting, I realize. It is something else. It is learning to live with certain facts in the center of your view, and certain facts in your peripheral vision.
She taught me to tell stories that way. I would sit in her living room, across from the brown arm chair where she always sat, tall, thin and elegant, with a wide, easy smile. I would listen to her talk about how much fun she had at her wedding on the eve of her husband's departure for war, about how she worked in a factory while he was away, about how she learned to live one day at a time. Her husband was an alcoholic, and she found solace in Al Anon, a program that teaches you to tell your story in a way that brings strength and hope to others.
Here is how she would tell the story: She lived to see her great-grandchildren. (She would not say: only outside, only at a distance.) I know this because it is how my grandmother told stories, even about the most painful moments in her life. I know this because after her death, when my father and I go to clear her things from her apartment in the nursing home, a stranger stops me and says: She got to meet those great-grandbabies, didn't she?
My grandmother has rewritten a difficult story before
My grandfather died several weeks after I was born. When I was a baby, and he was dying, she drove him from New Jersey to Massachusetts to meet me. On the way home, he told her it was the happiest day of his life. This is the story she gave me, like a gift.
Later, my father told me a different version of the story. He told me: Your grandfather had a cough. He was afraid to hold you. And so he never did. There it is, in my memory now: a loss within a loss.
My grandmother wanted to hold my son, my son who will not remember her.
I comfort myself by imagining a cavern that contains the collective
"Why are we not all angry, all the time?" I ask my therapist as the death toll climbs, as people I know lose people they love, as it becomes clear that my grandmother will die without us. She explains that we cannot survive if we are angry all of the time. We cannot hold an emotion as incendiary as anger for too long. We must turn our attention to the logistics of forward motion. Forgetting makes it possible to survive but it also ensures that we are doomed. I think: What force would we awaken if none of us could forget?
I resolve to tell my son the story including the parts I don't want to remember. I read about a little boy who died with his dog in his lap after trying to drive his grandmother to safety, away from wildfires accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels. I turn my attention to my son. I feel him suckling, feel his warm body on my lap in his soft pajamas. I try to accept what is unimaginable - that I might forget this feeling, too.
There are two ways to tell him the story.
One is: We failed you.
Another is: We survived.
Both are true.
My grandmother cannot remember my son's name. In the weeks and days leading up to her death, she is consumed with anxiety over the absence of his name in her memory. She asks for it, again and again. "Tully," I say, "Like your name, Sally, but with a T-u." I curse myself for not naming him William or Charles. But my sister's baby, born 10 days before mine, is named Emery, my father's middle name, the name my grandmother gave her own son. And my grandmother - who read voraciously, who clipped articles from the newspaper for me, who always had a jigsaw puzzle on the card table by the door - cannot remember her great-grandchildren's names. I wonder if it is because she has not been able to hold them.
Forgetting is a condition of the very young, and the very old, and of new parents. When my father calls to tell me that my grandmother has died, I panic because I have forgotten what we talked about during our last video conversation, only a few days earlier. I flail around in my memories, which are muddy from lack of sleep. I search my call logs, interrogate my partner who was in the other room. But it is lost.
The litany of lost things includes my grandmother's memories of motherhood. When I sit in a rocker feeding my son at three in the morning, I imagine my grandmother doing the same. But she cannot tell me what it was like. She remembers only that she was happy. Before my father was born, my grandmother gave birth to a stillborn baby. The loss is there, part of the vast expanse of her life. She sees it, always, but she does not dwell on it. She tells me over and over again how happy she was that my father, her baby, was alive.
During our video calls, my grandmother often tilts the phone so that all I can see is her forehead, spotted with age, framed by her soft, silver hair. But I can tell from her voice that she is smiling as she looks at my chubby son. A few weeks before her death, she asks if he can see her. "Take a good look," she says. "Remember me." She and I both know that he will not. But I write her words down so I don't forget them. The last time I see her in person - outside, shouting behind a mask - she tells me that it will be up to me to choose what to tell him about her. Or, I think, the choice will be made for me by the relentless capriciousness of memory.
My son will remember nothing of this time
He will not remember the fires or the disease - unless, a small and terrifying voice whispers, they are all we have from now on, unless it is too late. But I need to believe in a different story. There will be an after. My son will not remember the before. Perhaps - the sweetest thought of all - he will find it difficult to believe us when we tell him. I resolve to tell him the parts that make it possible to live and also the parts that make it imperative that we change the way we do so.
I will tell him: Your great-grandmother died loving you dearly. The day before she died she looked at pictures of you on a screen and they made her smile. You were so loved by someone whom you cannot remember. What a gift she gave you, loving you that way. It was a difficult time, I will say. The loss was unfathomable. It was stadiums of loss, coliseums of loss, cities of loss. I do not know how to describe it to you, other than: It was bigger than anything you can imagine. But set it aside for now. Go play, be happy, be alive. The story is yours.
Amy Littlefield is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersection of religion and
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