A year in quarantine

It’s been a strange year. The world effectively shut down in March of 2020. Like many parents, I was working from home with my 3 year old son, trying to manage him and his needs while doing my regular full time job. The daycare was closed, my office was closed, stores were closed; people were losing their jobs, their homes, their sense of time. At first the quarantine felt immensely isolating, and my world felt as though it had become very small. But over time, I became good friends with the parents on the block, watching our kids play in the afternoons. I had video calls with family and friends, some I hadn’t seen in years, because it had never occurred to me before to video chat with friends who had moved away.  

Despite the oppressive uncertainty, Mark and I pressed on with our plans to have another child and in May 2020 I found myself pregnant in the middle of the global pandemic. There were upsides to being pregnant during the pandemic; if everyone is staying at home, dressing in comfy clothes, over-eating and sleeping, a pregnant person is in good company. Since I didn’t have to go to the office, I could wear whatever was comfortable, eat as often as I wanted, take breaks as needed, and nobody tried to touch my belly in public because of social distancing.

Yet being pregnant, and working with my son at home, I felt exhausted most of the time. Despite the risks, we sent him back to daycare in August, wearing a child sized face mask every day, his temperature taken at the door, and no parents allowed inside the school building. I felt grateful to have a school to send him to, as all the older kids began their school year remotely, learning from teachers via tenuous video connections, if they were lucky enough to have devices and internet, and many millions of kids didn’t even have that much. Millions of mothers left the workforce, overwhelmed by the necessity of helping their kids at home navigate their schoolwork.

As the virus spread across the world, and the bad news kept piling up, I felt a deep anxiety. What kind of world were we bringing these kids into? How many millions of people would this virus claim, would the recession make destitute, would wildfires burn, would hurricanes displace? Our government seemed not only incapable of helping, but at times politicians and the public slammed the scientists and protested the safety measures that were our only hope. Even with all the terrible things happening, and his disgraceful behavior, half the country seemed enthralled by Trump, and would vote for him no matter what he said or did. I felt myself sliding into despair, quick to lose my temper and snap at my family. So in September I started seeing a counselor and taking anti-depressants, and that provided some relief.

Trump did lose the election, though he refused to concede. The virus cases increased through the fall and into winter. My mother had health problems, so I focused my energy to helping her and my stepfather move into a smaller home closer to me. Thanksgiving came and most people kept things small and didn’t travel.  The Christmas seasons arrived, and people were desperate for something to celebrate, but it was subdued. People were worried the pandemic assistance would run out, there was widespread economic hardship and food insecurity, and the post office was so overloaded with delivering gifts bought online that many presents didn’t arrive until days after Christmas. The only reason we had a visit with my mother in December was because my son’s entire class was quarantined for 14 days because a classmate had tested positive for COVID. My birthday came and the neighbor moms surprised me with flowers and came over in the evening for cake while Mark was at work.

In January I was so uncomfortable in my nineth month of pregnancy that I begged the doctors to induce me. I had carpal tunnel in both arms, making my job difficult and while sleeping on my side one arm would prickle with pins and needles, making me toss and turn. I couldn’t lean forward to eat over the table because the baby would kick me, so I had to eat with my plate aloft, and I had heartburn after every meal. My lungs were hindered and I was easily out of breath. My knee joints were sore so that resting any weight on a bent knee was awful, making it that much harder to get up from a squat or sit on the floor, a common practice when you’re helping a little kid get dressed or pick up toys. With Mark working nights, I was looking after my son alone, miserably uncomfortable and exhausted. I was worried I’d go into labor in the middle of the night, home alone, with a four year old to care for, and Mark an hour away, driving home through a blizzard.

My doctor’s office finally agreed to induce me at 39 weeks, on Friday February 5th. Mark brought me in to the hospital at 6 in the morning and they gave me Pitocin to get the contractions started. They gave me the epidural at mid-day and by that night I was ready to start pushing. When the nurse put the IV into my hand, I passed out and felt my consciousness leave the material plane entirely. Often in dreams you are still yourself, you see people or places you recognize, there’s a narrative quality. This was not like that. I was without a body, without a name, dancing in starlight in another dimension, without thought or care, entirely free. In a blink I snapped back to my body in the hospital bed, people shouting my name, painful contractions seizing my body, Mark’s worried face beside me. I knew that this was not a good sign of things to come.

I was afraid this baby would be sunny side up like my first delivery and I told my doctor I’d rather have a c-section if this baby was not forthcoming. After more than an hour of pushing without progress, she agreed to do the c-section. They wheeled me into the operating room, hung a sheet so I wouldn’t see them cut me open, and 20 minutes after midnight my healthy baby boy was lifted up like bloody Simba, 8 pounds, 5 ounces. Mark held him up for me to see… and that’s the last thing I remember. I woke up 4 days later in Intensive Care.

According to Mark and my surgeon, after the baby arrived I was bleeding severely. The uterus is meant to contract after birth, but mine didn’t. They gave me several units of blood and inserted a uterine balloon to stop the bleeding, without success. They gave me blood transfusions via a midline in my right arm and performed a supracervical hysterectomy, but the bleeding persisted. Finally, they used an interventional radiology technique called catheter embolization, injecting foam into my veins to stop the bleeding. I was so swollen by this point my airways were closing so they intubated me and put me on a ventilator, which required me to be sedated until the swelling went down.

The chances of life threatening complications like these were infinitesimal for someone my age, having a single healthy baby, after a healthy pregnancy. I was lucky the birth had been in a great hospital with first class doctors, where these treatments were available. If I’d been at a smaller hospital, or even a great hospital 20 years ago, I would have bled to death. My surgeon told me I had extraordinary bad luck to have these complications, but the extraordinary good luck to be in a place and time where I could be saved.

I woke up Tuesday afternoon swollen and bruised, unable to remember anything after the birth. My voice was so hoarse from the removal of the breathing tube tearing up my throat that I could barely talk above a whisper. I had an enormous bruise on my arm from the blood transfusion. My hands were so swollen my iPhone didn’t recognize my fingerprint, and my brain was too fuzzy to recall my passcode. I was so weak I couldn’t walk, so they transferred me to the maternity ward in a wheelchair. I needed a walker to get around for days afterward.

Once the ordeal had been explained to me, I was so grateful to be alive, I ordered all desserts for my dinner. I finally got to hold my baby and he was precious, with chubby cheeks and skeptical eyebrows. Mark looked much the worse for wear, as he’d spent that last four days worrying about me, dealing with my parents, looking after our older son, and visiting me and the baby in the hospital. He looked like he’d been through a war, while I felt like I had slept through the movie. Mark told me that I had described to him an out of body experience. During the surgery I had been floating above my body like a balloon and the nurses kept pulling my ribbon back down, keeping me from floating away. I have no memory of that experience, or of my describing it to him afterwards.

I spent three more nights recovering in the maternity ward, where the nurses were incredibly kind. While I was in ICU, the nurses had doted on my baby, they knew Mark, and they all knew what I’d been through. I wasn’t broken hearted about the loss of my uterus, since I had already decided I didn’t want to get pregnant again. While I was pregnant my uterus had displaced all my other organs, but with it gone, I could eat and breathe normally again. I also didn’t need to wait the weeks or months for my uterus to contract back to its usual size; aside from the swelling, I didn’t even look like I’d just had a baby. My greatest discomfort was having a hacking cough from the extubation, after just having abdominal surgery. The post-partum bleeding was much less than I’d expected too. And without a uterus, I likely won’t have periods or need birth control ever again. That’s not a trivial advantage, considering in my first delivery I begged for death, and the second one nearly killed me. Even with those silver linings, there is still a sadness in having lost some part of myself that I can never get back.

While I was sedated my sister made a post on Facebook that I was in the ICU, asking my friends to ‘send healing energy’ to me so I could recover and go home. She meant well, but it created a headache for Mark, who suddenly had dozens of people asking him about my condition and making offers of help he didn’t require. Her message was useful though, because everyone was eager to help me, willing to run errands, babysit and bring meals. It’s odd to me that someone else has to bring your struggles to everyone’s attention, or to celebrate your milestones, in order to get that supportive response. A person can’t throw themselves a baby shower, or a going away party, or proclaim on Facebook that they’re in the hospital, fighting for their lives. It comes off as attention seeking, cringy, or melodramatic. Someone else has to shine the spotlight on you, for the support to materialize.

On Friday February 12th, they sent me home. My mom came over immediately, eager to hug me tight and see the baby. My neighbor moms came over the next day to meet the baby and see how I was faring. We ordered brunch and drank mimosas, celebrating my escape from death by childbirth. The next day was Valentine’s day, and the neighbor dads came to bring Mark a bottle of scotch. A married couple that we’ve known for years came by with dinner for us, and their kids played with our son, while their new baby cooed at our new baby. Everyone who heard how close we came to disaster said that they cherished their spouse a little more on this Valentine’s day, when the pandemic made the typical expressions of appreciation seem less important.

In the weeks that followed, I let Mark take care of me and the baby, tried to take it easy, and bask in the joy of each moment with my boys. The first time I sat in the nursery with a boy on each arm I cried, grateful that I was alive, that I could hold my children in my arms and watch them grow up. To think that I almost lost my life, that my time with my children could’ve been cut short, and that my boys might have grown up without a mom. That my older son might barely remember me, that my baby would never have known me at all. That Mark could have been left to manage everything on his own in a house that had held all our dreams for the future, every room full of memories of his late wife.

While we were both on family leave from work, Mark and I enjoyed a feeling of an ongoing weekend, eating big breakfasts together and having long conversations. Mark wanted me to rest and heal, he told me “I need you. You have to get your strength back.” But I felt I had so much to do, my sense of mortality was heightened, I didn’t want to leave things undone. I had a photographer come to take a family portrait, because it seemed important to have a picture of us all together. I wanted to do spring cleaning, clean out closets, organize and purge our possessions, declutter. I wanted to do the things the pandemic had postponed, see the dentist, get my car maintenance done, take the cat to the vet, catch up with former coworkers and friends. Mark told me to slow down, but how do you remember to heal, when you don’t remember how badly you were hurt?

After Easter, his leave ended and he had to go back to work, and by then I was stronger, capable of managing things on my own. Baby and I napped together in the rocking chair, went for walks in the spring afternoons, enjoyed a leisurely routine. When my first son was born, I was so lonely at home, I was ready to go back to work before my 12 weeks were up, eager for the company of my coworkers and adult conversations. But this time I’d already spent 12 months in my house, getting cozy in my homebound cocoon, accustomed to the small world I now inhabited. Since all my work meetings were held remotely anyway, I could participate at my leisure, and stay in touch with everyone. Maternity leave felt just like quarantine with a bonus baby for company.

Now I have to go back to work. Mark and I have been vaccinated and the world is starting to open up again. The neighbors have their kids back in school, with soccer and scouts after school, schedules getting full weeks in advance. Offices are reopening, encouraging employees to return. People are planning trips, family is visiting from out of town, people are making reservations and buying tickets again. Plans for the future are taking shape in a way that was impossible to consider months ago. And I’m not sure I’m ready for all that. I liked the way it felt to have no obligations, there was nowhere particular to go, nothing to get dressed up for, an unhurried attitude. To not be in a rush every evening to leave the office, drive through rush hour traffic, pick up the kids, and get dinner on the table.

I realize how lucky I am, in every conceivable way. Lucky to be alive, to have a home, a healthy family, a job, the luxury of leisure time, the support of family and friends. I don’t want the world to go back to exactly the way it was before the pandemic shut things down. I’ve seen a better way of being, a tempo to life that suits me better, fewer expectations to please others, having more time to breathe. And in spite of all the hardships the last year has brought for so many people, I’m grateful for how those events have taught me to appreciate every little thing I once took for granted.

Some moments are so perfect that I wish I could capture them with a bookmark, fold a dog ear on the page, so I can come back and relive them again. Sometimes they’re so ordinary, so routine, that no particular instance stands out, and so they’re more likely to fade from memory. A weekday morning with my baby snuggled in my arms. A nice afternoon, sitting on the porch swing with an iced tea, neighbors walking over to chat, watching the kids play, as the sun casts dapples through the maple leaves. Some moments are special because they come only once in a blue moon. Going out for brunch on a friends birthday, or having lunch with a former coworker after a year of few social gatherings. Watching standup comedy with Lydia until she falls into a nap.

And some moments are so rare, so much a time capsule for this strange year, that they’ll never be repeated. A zoom call with Santa. A January baby shower alfresco. Lydia and Yan’s wedding in a forest in Indiana, with Mark officiating, and only a handful of guests. A neighbor child’s birthday celebrated on the sidewalk with homemade cupcakes and very little fanfare, no expectations of elaborate decorations or fancy gifts. Whitney sitting on the front porch with us moms, holding my new baby in her arms. This life is so beautiful, so fleeting, every moment is precious. Every moment is a gift.

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