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The Quiet Ache of Children’s Pandemic Birthdays

8 minute read
Gutierrez is the author of the novel More Than You'll Ever Know

I first wrote to my children before they were born: my daughter, at 36 weeks gestation, and my son, the night before his birth. Time was a doorknob turning in the darkness, a pulse of movement soon to change everything, and it felt urgent to capture where we were right then. It became a tradition. On each of their birthdays, I write them another letter. I tell them about themselves, about us, about our lives that year. I think of the letters as memory-keeping, as loving artifacts I hope to be able to hand them one day.

Even before the pandemic, reflecting on the previous year was bittersweet. For every joyful milestone a child reaches, there is another phase of life left behind. The pandemic has sharpened this birthday ache, whittling it to a blade I feel behind my ribs any time I pay too close attention. Our son turned 1 last September and in April our daughter will be 4. His whole life and half of hers spent in a pandemic. At this point, they don’t know any different. They’re happy. I recognize that this is what matters, but I also see the last two years as they could have been; I see everything—everyone—my children have missed, and I can’t help but mourn.

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My husband, Adrian, is from Sydney, and in January 2020 we took our daughter, Jo, for the first time. We had debated for weeks about canceling the trip: bushfires along the eastern coastline had burned 7.3 million hectares of land and destroyed nearly 2,000 homes. At least 24 people had died, and so had, unfathomably, up to a billion animals. People were being evacuated to beaches, huddling on ashy shorelines beneath scarlet skies. In satellite images, the fires looked like a surreal rip in the skin of the earth, an unchecked bleed. And though the nearest fires were an hour away from Sydney, the air quality there was 11 times worse than hazardous levels. But we were trying to conceive. If we didn’t go then, when?

The morning before leaving, I found out I was pregnant. Seventeen hours on a plane sucking on ginger candy, trying to get Jo to sleep. As the plane lowered, bouncing, over the tarmac, a hush descended. Out the windows, everything was white. Fog, I thought, disoriented. But no. Not fog. Smoke. Sydney was shrouded in a layer of smoke so thick it obscured visibility in all directions.

We missed our connecting flight to Queensland, where we’d be staying with Adrian’s family for a weeklong beach holiday, and dragged our bags through a smoky haze to the airport hotel. We arrived in Noosa the next day exhausted. My sister-in-law was holding a glass of wine when we walked in. “You look like you could use one of these!” she said, as our two nieces surrounded Jo, plying her with Barbies.

“So,” we said, grinning over a late exchange of Christmas gifts. “We have some news…” Adrian’s mother burst into tears, and so did I. We laughed and cried and hugged while Jo and her cousins held hands and ran, shrieking, from one side of the house to the other.

You went with us on that last trip we didn’t know was the last. The last time we would board an airplane, breathe other people’s air, stand close enough to catch the sharp poke of an elbow while someone tried to stuff luggage wheels-out in the overhead bin. You were with us when we told your grandmother and aunts and uncle and cousins about you; when everyone embraced me, they embraced you, too.

We gathered so freely on that trip. Two dozen of us in one room, kids circling, bathing suits dripping, a new baby passed arm to arm. We ate indoors at restaurants and rode in cars together. If we had known how long it might be before we saw one another again, we might never have been able to say goodbye.

The first evening, we met Adrian’s cousins at Main Beach, where the surf is usually calmer than others in the area, better for kids. The beach abuts Noosa National Park, where we’d spent many mornings over the years walking the trails and breathing the rainforest smells of hoop and kauri pine. There were times we could see koalas nestled in the branches of towering eucalypts.

“This is your home, too,” I whispered to Jo, rocking her in the gentle waves. “This water, these trees—this is where a part of you comes from.”

You held me tightly, your salt-licked curls blowing. I pointed out little shimmering fish and stared out at the deep green headland. This is when the wildfires were raging down the coast, and I felt it then, like I feel it now with this virus, how fragile life is, how quickly everything can change. I wanted to memorize everything, starting with your arms around my neck, the velvet curve of your cheek in the sunset.

The night before we left Australia, a friend messaged me: “Are you worried about flying with this new virus?” I’d paid glancing attention to the headlines until then, not close enough. Soon after we arrived home, the first U.S. cases emerged. My pregnancy became high-risk. My OB cautioned me to reduce gatherings to 10 people at most. Then it went down to five. Then none at all. In March, we locked down. In April, Jo turned 2. We celebrated with our families over Zoom. Meanwhile, Australia closed its borders, prohibiting international travelers from entering the country and citizens from leaving. Adrian’s family had been planning to visit first that summer, before the baby was born, then the following Christmas, when he’d be a few months old. We’d talked about going for Easter. None of these trips would happen.

We hunkered down together, our new family of four. Your dad went out for essential things, and I worried each time. Thanksgiving and Christmas came, and we celebrated with just my immediate family. FaceTime calls to Australia. You already looked so different than when you were born, thighs so plump I could never resist squeezing. I wondered if you’d be toddler-lean by the time they got to hug you.

The night before our son, Jack, turned 1, I met a woman in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant near our home. I’d paid for a piñata over the phone, and she’d brought it to dinner so I wouldn’t have to trek half an hour to her store downtown. A small human kindness, a masked laugh as the sky marbled twilight-blue above us, a 27-inch papier-mâché lion passed hand to hand because we call Jack our little lion. We’d been planning a small party, but Jack got sick right before—not COVID-19, but no one wanted to take chances—so it would only be us, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, and one friend. I’d cried the night before, wishing things could be different. But as I drove home with the piñata, I imagined candy falling to the soft grass, frosting smeared thick on my children’s faces, the bright spectacle of their laughter. Small, good moments in a time when moments are everything.

Read More: There’s No End in Sight for COVID-19. What Do We Tell Our Kids Now?

Soon, our daughter will be 4. Another year when I see so clearly what she’s missed—what all of us have: family, travel, friends. Another year of mostly staying home, and yet our home is also this: pillow fights where she says, “This is way too much fun!”; books on the couch, bodies snuggled close; swimming and swing sets; my daily five o’clock walk with Jack, the pointing of his small finger toward an early moon, an unfurling contrail, a rock that must be picked up, hidden in the stroller’s cup holder, rediscovered with delight. Our home is our children, growing. The way they reach for each other, Jo yelling, “Hug attack!” Clumsy kisses. First teeth and words and steps. Our lives, our health, indescribably lucky.

I’m always exhausted by your bedtime, but when we sink down on the rocking chair, all I want is to hold you for longer. I’ve felt you grow in that chair, from seven pounds I could support with one arm to thirty-eight, limbs sprawled across mine. “What are we going to do, Mom,” you asked me a few nights ago, “when we don’t fit here anymore?” I felt the sweep of time against us, knowing that by the time we don’t fit, you may not want to, anyway. “We’ll get a bigger chair,” I said. I listened to your breaths deepen. All that matters, right here.

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