Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
We never thought we’d be Zooming with our newborn, sending love virtually, kissing the screen, unable to touch her. In February, our baby was born three months early. I was only 25 weeks pregnant when I woke up gushing blood and was rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital for an emergency C-section. My baby and I both survived—against the odds in our situation, we later learned. For the first six weeks after her birth, my husband and I visited her daily, scrubbing our hands down for two minutes, putting our phones in plastic bags, sitting beside her for up to eight hours at a time. She was learning our voices, our smells, and our touch.
Then, just as her condition was becoming more stable and the incredible stress we were living under was beginning to thin, the coronavirus pandemic came rolling in. UCLA, the hospital where she’s living in a futuristic plastic crèche tended by ’round-the-clock nurses, first said that visiting parents had to start alternating days—one allowed in the NICU at a time. That lasted for two days before the head of the NICU told my husband, who was glowing after a two-hour cuddle and changing his first diaper, that we would have to choose between the two of us who would visit. That meant one of us would be without holding her, singing to her, seeing her grow, for at least seven more weeks. He couldn’t help but burst into tears in front of the nurses and doctors, because he knew he would be the one excluded.
I knew people were using this video conferencing platform Zoom for everything—sex, school, film pitches—and that it helped ease loneliness and isolation. I started using it myself and for my husband’s 40th birthday: I threw him a surprise party on Zoom. He blew out the candles on his cake, and with a stuttering internet, we all sang “Happy Birthday.”
Because of the new visitation policy, and at parents’ urging, the NICU finally got their long idle Zoom system up and running, and my husband and I were able to “video conference” with our baby. Our first time using it, she appeared on screen, taking tiny but sturdy breaths and sleeping on her belly. We gave the grandparents and our friends, her aunties and uncles, the meeting ID, and they logged in. More than a dozen people watched her that night, her micro movements, her peacefulness. It wasn’t the real thing, but it was better than nothing.
Since I am still allowed in the NICU, every day I drive 25 miles, find street parking, put on my mask and gloves, go up the elevator touching buttons only with my glove, then scrub down for two full minutes at the hand-washing station. At that point I am ready to spend time with my baby, taking a bounty of photos and videos to send to my husband. When I leave, I do the same thing in reverse, and once home, I promptly strip down at the door and shower. After I dry off, I scour my memory to recount every last detail I can. Her lungs are getting stronger, her lips are bigger, she has real butt cheeks now, and her hair is the color of a shiny copper penny. “It’s like a long-distance relationship,” my husband says as we cook our 100th quarantined meal. “I miss her so bad.”
Every night after dinner, we let a few hours pass before we open up the laptop and call the NICU. Her image appears pulsating while the iPad focuses on her tiny body. “She doesn’t smell like mac and cheese anymore,” I told him. “Now she smells like burnt McDonald’s coffee with toasted almond creamer.” She makes more sounds too, her soft squeaks and grunts coming into focus as her vocal chords recover from weeks of being intubated. He always touches the screen, petting her image, tracing the shape of her growing body: “When she was born her head was this big. Now it’s probably this big, right?”
The sound is muted on both ends, and although she can’t hear the simple lullaby he made up for her, he sings it anyway. “I’m here, I love you, I love you, I’m here. I’m here, I love you, I love you, my dear.” He says we’ll make up lost time when she comes home. He’ll “paint her in kisses from head to toe.” He’ll “never put her down.” We can’t be together in the same room as a family right now. Instead, for now, and the next weeks, we set the laptop between us.
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