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  • katherine halligan

Love In The Time Of Corona

In a former life (though isn’t everything a former life right now?), I was a publisher. This means that I would normally check that no one else had ever used this title. I would possibly have to clear rights for a punning title based on a bestselling classic, because I wouldn’t want to get sued for passing off. I would look up comparable sales of similar titles. Discussions would ensue about how close to the wind we might sail with our own similar idea. But now.... now! Ha! I can just do whatever I want. This is a blog. I didn’t check to see who had already done this. I just did it. Blogs are brilliant! Ha!

(But I do in fact sincerely apologise if in not performing due diligence —or indeed any diligence— on every single post title I accidentally step on anyone’s literary toes. I’m not talking about Gabriel García Marquez; his toes are way up there in the stratosphere of literary greats and are untreadable-upon. I am talking about whomever else has also resorted to borrowing his brilliant title and besmirching it by using it for an article or review or an online dating ad. Or a humble little blogpost.)

Creative synchronicity is a beastly problem: you have this fabulous idea and then you pitch it to your agent who pitches it to a publisher…. and then —piff (that’s the pitiful sound of a fabulous idea dying)— it’s dead and gone and swept into the dustbin of oblivion where It Will Never Happen because someone else got there first with a similar (but probably less excellent) idea. Piff! I have heard that sound more than once. No less than two novels that I started died before they even got as far as an agent; and more than one picture book text has gone the same way. Piff, piff, piff. Such a sad, forlorn little sound.

But I digress. This is not about books. It’s about love. Rather specifically the insane, overwhelming, all-consuming adoration that occurs when you have a baby and fall truly, madly, deeply in love with it. A dear friend just had her first baby mere weeks before her 46th birthday. If I was dubbed a “geriatric mother” when I had my first at 35, I can only wonder what they call women who are primigravida at our advanced age — or what my younger child recently referred to as my “middle ages”. Would she be superannuated? Ancient? Decrepit? She is none of those things, but rather young-at-heart, fit, healthy, vital and clearly capable of delivery a perfectly healthy and beautiful baby girl. Which she just did. Hurrah!

But what a time to bring a baby into this world. Thankfully her baby girl arrived, via caesarean, just a week or so before hospitals became impossible places for anyone without COVID-19 and even worse for those with it. So they are all safely holed up together, a tiny universe of three, while she and baby get to grips with breastfeeding, her hubby makes marmalade from their overladen trees, and they all get to fall in love with one another with no outside distractions or the only semi-wanted invasions of well-meaning relatives and friends. If it wasn’t for the danger or the awfulness that abounds in the outside world these days, it would be rather wonderful.

Because when a baby is born, the rest of the world falls away. Nothing else matters at all, and in that little, perfect universe, the parental planets revolve around their very own sun (not to be confused with a son, though of course it might be one; our suns are daughters) in a state of exhausted bliss, and the baby’s sustaining, life-giving glow is utterly mesmerising and essential and all-consuming. It is the most extraordinary and terrifying and impossible-to-describe time in a parent’s life — or at least it was thus for us.

But imagine if the baby had arrived now? When mothers must deliver alone, their husbands or wives or mothers or doulas cheering them via FaceTime, desperately wishing for their other half to be by their side as they are immersed in the primal and strangely solitary-but-completely-dependent state that is labour and childbirth. When the other partners-to-be are watching, helpless, from afar, utterly disconnected and excluded from that miraculous moment when the baby emerges. When — far worse — a baby is admitted to the NICU, and the mother must leave the hospital, not knowing when she will see her baby again.

The other night as I read about the separation of NICU babies from their mothers during the isolating awfulness of these virus-driven times, I began to cry. My heart broke for them. Because I have been there. When our oldest daughter was born, about 12 hours after her arrival I noticed her colouring had gone from rather red to a deep, bright crimson. Worried something was wrong, I asked a nurse for help and she suspected jaundice and immediately called a paediatrician. He in turn suspected something far more serious, and whisked us up to the NICU. There he confirmed his suspicions: our tiny, precious, as-yet-unnamed baby had polycythaemia, which meant that her body was overproducing red blood cells to oxygenate her blood (possibly because our placenta had begun to fail as she was 10 days overdue and therefore did not have enough oxygen in her blood), but paradoxically this meant that her blood was becoming too viscous to circulate, which would soon lead to major organ failure. They would need to dilute her blood with saline, via a drip. Not yet fully appreciating the severity of this condition, we took deep breaths and asked about the benefits and risks, but he cut us short, explaining that there was no alternative: they had to do this in order to save her life.

I fed her once more, we named her, we handed her into their care. My husband, exhausted from having been awake for 36 hours straight and without the benefit of the amazing hormones that were sustaining me, went home to sleep, trusting that all would be well. Driven by those same hormones to hover as close as possible to my child, I was unable to rest, unable to do anything but long to be with her. Three hours later, after an agonising wait in my bed on the ward below, our baby looked like a pincushion because they were struggling to get a line into her tiny veins and was in an incubator; I couldn’t hold her but simply stroked her little body through the two holes in the incubator with my scrubbed hands and sang to her through the glass.

Three hours after that I learned she was in respiratory distress because the saline drip wasn’t enough: they would have to put in a central line to perform an exchange transfusion (blood out, saline in) to save her life. Of course I couldn’t be there so I returned to the floor below to wait, again, during what would be the most frantically lonely hours of my life. When I next went upstairs, desperate for news, I finally was allowed to hold her in my arms: she had survived her ordeal, clinging fiercely to her brand-new life and showing at just a few hours old the incredible tenacity that would become one of her trademarks. The next morning she was transferred to the special care baby unit where I was able to hold and feed her and visit (almost) as long as I liked. After two days, we took her home and I rarely put her down again. Our dark night ended, and the sun at the centre of our little universe was shining once more.

As traumatic as that experience was, the holding her held me together. The times I was apart from her, especially while they were performing the life-saving exchange transfusion, were the darkest moments of my life — and that was because of the separation as much as the terror of her perilous situation. I know all too well the agony of not being able to be present, even if only a floor away; just that one flight of steps felt like miles to me that night. I know all too well the pain of not being able to touch or hold or feed your new baby.

Even so, I can only begin to imagine the heartbreak that these new parents are living through during their separation. I hope with all my heart that they are sustained by the photos the NICU nurses send, and that their babies come home soon to them, well and whole and unscathed, so that they can hold them and feed them and drink in the perfection of this little creature that is finally, completely theirs. So that they can all begin to heal together, however long it takes the world around them to heal.

For months after my daughter’s birth I struggled with post-traumatic stress, and remembering that time makes me wonder now: what will we all be like after this trauma? After the loss and the grief and the strange solitude of the world which we all now inhabit? Who will we be when we emerge from our COVID-induced chrysalis? Will a little bit of our collective soul shrivel and die inside? Or will we be butterflies, stronger and lighter and more beautiful? Solitude and separation are not what birth should be about, nor are they what life should be about either.

So I send you love, in this time of corona.

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