My husband is there in the exam room; we don’t know yet that it is the last time he will be allowed to attend a prenatal appointment with me. The next day, our 2-year-old daughter says goodbye to her friends at day care, with no certain date of return. The country begins to shut down, and I spend the weekend rereading the same news stories about a handful of pregnant Chinese women with covid-19 who seemed to be mostly unscathed by the virus. I feel thankful that all of this will surely be over by September, when our baby is due.
In the pandemic vernacular, we will talk of how quickly we began to lose our place in time, unmoored by the structureless surreality of it all. And it’s true, I stop knowing with certainty what day of the week it is, which doesn’t matter anyway: I work late on Saturday nights, after my daughter goes to bed; I collapse, exhausted, on the couch while she naps on weekday afternoons.
But in another, deeper sense, I have never been more aware of our temporality. I watch my little girl, constantly before me now, as she grows and changes. I feel the first stirrings of movement in my belly, which begins to bulge. I mark the second anniversary of my mother’s death with a hollow ache in my chest.
Time no longer feels like something we move through with any clear sense of delineation. Still, we carry it in our bodies.
The first time I was pregnant, my mother was dying. I spent most of a year preparing for the beginning of one life and the end of another, every day unfolding against a baseline hum of anxiety and anticipation, an inescapable awareness of mortality. My mom held on until the end of May 2018, when her first grandchild was 13 weeks old.
When I learned I was pregnant again early this year, on a cold night in January, I thought: This time, it will be different. I’m not waiting to become a mother; I’m not waiting to become a grieving daughter. This time, I’m already both. I thought it meant I had found some deeper wisdom. I thought it meant that the months ahead might be peaceful ones, unshadowed by fear.
But then March becomes April, and in the rare moments when I’m neither working nor caring for my toddler, I read about families who say goodbye to spouses and parents and children through cellphone screens. I read about mothers who are intubated and unconscious when their babies are delivered. I read about studies showing the presence of the virus in amniotic fluid, in placental tissue, in the brains of newborns.
I am someone who wants to be in control, and I am not in control, so instead I chase its mirage. I vacuum the floors daily. I wipe our groceries with Lysol, knowing it is likely a waste of time and cleaning supplies. I order extra bottles of prenatal vitamins, a blood-pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter.
We are constantly at home, and so the boundaries of our space assume an urgent relevance, the one piece of Earth I can protect. While my daughter plays in the yard, I strip away invasive vines and scatter flower seeds. One warm afternoon, I spend an hour planting dozens of acorns harvested from a centuries-old red oak that had to be chopped down and hauled away from our yard last year, a loss I resisted fiercely until arborists assured me it was inevitable. The massive tree had been a concern for years. It was the topic of one of the very last conversations I had with my mother, who admired the oak’s magnificence but worried about how close it stood to my daughter’s bedroom window.
“You can’t save everything,” she told me then, both an absolution and a lesson in acceptance.
I try to imagine what my mom would say to me now — about the tree, about the state of the world, about the new grandchild she’ll never know. But the rhythms and routines of our existence are so distorted that I feel especially far from her and the past she inhabited.
I tuck the acorns carefully into clay pots and water the soil.
May becomes June, and my daughter stops asking to pet the dogs she passes on our daily walks, because she knows we must keep our distance. She stops singing songs about her friends at day care, and I wonder whether she still remembers them. One day, she tugs at the headband of a favorite doll, sliding the cloth down until it covers the doll's mouth. "It's a mask," she tells me.
There are facts I recite to myself, half reminder, half reprimand when I succumb to fury or despair: I am safe in my home. I have a stable, supportive workplace. I am healthy. My pregnancy is healthy. My husband and daughter are healthy. My mother is gone, but she died at home, surrounded by people who loved her. When so many are experiencing such colossal suffering, I am dogged by guilt that — despite all my luck and privilege — there are times when I feel so scared and sad.
Then there are moments when I’m startled by the sudden depth of joy. My little girl is swiftly becoming herself — an empathic kid who, when she sees my face contort as I read a news story about one horror or another, puts her hand on my arm and asks gently, “What’s wrong, Mama?” She recites the names of birds that visit the feeder outside our window: cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees. She says, “Hey, give me a hug!” every time she spots a rabbit in the backyard, though they never oblige.
All summer I watch her learning to love our fragile world, over countless workday mornings and afternoons that I never would have spent with her otherwise. It’s disorienting to be so grateful for a gift even as I rage against the reason it was given.
In the darkened room, I stare at the fuzzy image on the sonogram screen and ask, for the second time in five minutes, "Everything looks okay?"
“Yes, ma’am,” the technician says, and I can tell from the corners of her eyes above her mask that she is trying to offer a reassuring smile. I want to feel excitement. I settle for relief.
Back home, I examine the barren pots where I’d planted the acorns weeks ago, and find a single, pale green shoot jutting skyward, with two small leaves curled against the tender stem.
Most would surely take this as an auspicious sign, but I immediately feel afraid. I realize I’d been steeling myself for loss, for the resounding finality of our great oak’s absence. Now here is its tiny seedling. You can’t save everything. But to nurture life has always been an act of faith, or defiance.
The nurse coordinator on the phone is blunt as she explains the new protocols, the scenarios I should be aware of before I arrive at the hospital to give birth in a few weeks.
“We’ll test you for covid when you arrive,” she says. “If you test positive, your husband will be sent home, and you won’t be able to have anyone with you during the delivery and your hospital stay.”
“Okay,” I say, and for some reason I write this down, though there is no chance I will forget it.
“If you test positive, we’d want to talk about how to keep your baby safe,” she says, and I know this means: We would want to keep your baby away from you.
It is a theoretical scenario, one I can feel reasonably confident will not apply to me. But as I listen to her dutifully describe it, I realize I am shaking.
When our daughter sleeps, my husband and I talk about the threat of an unraveling democracy, and the masses protesting against police brutality in the streets, and the wildfire smoke that travels thousands of miles east until it veils our own September sunsets. We talk about the lives shattered by the virus, the nearly 200,000 dead and the loved ones left behind.
Soon I am officially full-term. We narrow down a list of baby names. We make notes of what to pack in our hospital bags and choose the outfit our child will wear home. We try to imagine who this new person will be. We try to imagine who we will be, in the time that will come after this, whenever we might find ourselves there.
One day the air carries the first hint of autumn, and I know it's past time to put the oak sapling in the ground. While our daughter naps, my husband digs a hole in the backyard. I lower the little tree into its place and pat soft earth around its delicate stem.
The baby kicks and wriggles. I don’t know to what extent I can shape the world this child will inherit, and I’ve grown fearful of hope, but I let myself feel it anyway as I kneel there in the presence of new life and new possibility. What I have, I understand, is not a promise or an assurance of the future I wish to create. It is only the most we are ever given, which is the chance to try.