It was a warm spring evening, and I sat beneath our flowering dogwood watching my sons, George and Charlie, chase each other around the yard. Charlie, my one-year-old, squealed in delight as his three-year-old brother, George, blew bubbles in his direction.
“How are you all holding up?” a neighbor called to us from across the street.
“Best I’ve felt all year!” I replied. It was March 2020, the first week of lockdown.
My neighbor looked at me quizzically, and I felt it again: a twinge of guilt for taking comfort in the global health crisis. But I couldn’t help it. I’d been trying all winter to shelter my asthmatic baby from the threat of viruses—and I’d failed. Now, with the lockdown, I finally felt safe.
Months earlier, on Halloween night, Charlie first got sick, his labored breathing so troubling that my husband rushed him to the emergency room, terrified by his shallow gasps in the car seat. He was admitted to the ICU and diagnosed with acute respiratory viruses due to pneumonia. Nurses whispered the word intubation. We watched, fearfully, as our son’s doughy skin was pierced with needles. For the next two weeks, while his father and I took turns at his bedside, offering comfort and staring helplessly at monitors, Charlie breathed with the assistance of a hollow, plastic hose. Several times a day, orange tubes were dropped down his throat to his distended belly to release accumulated air. Machines monitored his health—or decline—at all hours. Lights flashed and alarms sounded when those numbers veered from an acceptable range.
Each day, I crawled into his hospital crib to cuddle with him, arranging the cords spidering from his chest to stroke his still-bald head and attend to his muted cries. Charlie looked like a baby scuba diver in the hard plastic BiPap mask that helped him breathe. Coated with condensation, the mask covered his entire tiny face, blurring his expression and muffling his voice.
As days passed, Charlie shrank; his baby pudge reduced to sagging skin. Eventually, though, after almost two weeks of steroids and antibiotics, his oxygen saturation began to improve. But the hardest part of Charlie’s hospitalization was still ahead.
“Weaning from the sedative might be the most difficult part of all,” his nurse warned. “He’s going to go through withdrawal.”
“Withdrawal? Like someone who’s addicted to drugs?”
She nodded. “It really is so hard. He’ll feel anxious and jittery. He’ll have sweats, and he’ll probably feel nauseated. And as a baby, he won’t have the language to express how terrible he feels. You’re just going to need to support him through it all.”
The nurse was right. For days, Charlie screamed and thrashed his legs in agony. I curled up beside him, trying to comfort him with my presence. I held his moist, shaky hands and stroked his sweaty chest.
Watching him suffer, I shook with anxiety, mentally reviewing our activities leading up to this hospitalization. Somehow, I became convinced his illness was my fault: a missed handwashing, an overcrowded schedule, a nutritional gap in our diets. Once he recovered, I told myself, I would take every precaution to keep him from experiencing this again.
After Charlie came home, I spent the winter focused on protecting our bodies. I traded Christmas memories for the hope of health. No shopping at busy malls, no sitting on Santa’s dirty lap. I saw danger in small gatherings and trips to the grocery store or the playground.
“We won’t be able to make it to the birthday party,” I told a friend, awkwardly. She had a little girl the same age as Charlie, and I worried she would take my rejection personally. But the sneezes of strangers, the coughs of neighbors—they terrified me more. “I’m afraid Charlie will pick something up. That he’ll get sick again.”
“Oh, but we’re not sick!” she reassured me.
This was not a comfort. It wasn’t as if anyone could ever fully know.
I still had to work, so Charlie went to daycare. During sleepless nights, I worried that he would be infected there. Taking comfort in caution, I baptized my hands in sanitizer and coached myself to keep my hands from touching my face during moments of distraction or contemplation.
Still, despite my care, another respiratory virus found Charlie, this one in early March, on his first birthday. Before we could slice into his cake, we found ourselves racing to the hospital.
There were more needles, more oxygen, more tubes. Again, I lay beside Charlie in his hospital crib, picking at the residue of medical tape on his pale arm, trying to comfort him.
Above Charlie’s bed a television monitor was tuned to CNN. As our nurse re-taped the pulse oximeter to Charlie’s big toe, a journalist onscreen reported a story about the COVID-19 outbreak on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship.
“How worried are you about this coronavirus making it here?” I asked the nurse.
“Not worried at all,” she said with a laugh. “You know how the media likes a story with a good scare tactic.”
After Charlie’s week-long hospital stay, he was diagnosed with asthma, in addition to several viruses and pneumonia. We were discharged and prescribed a seal-shaped nebulizer and plastic cartridges of albuterol. But as we walked back into our house on March 10, 2020, I felt defeated. Despite the medication we’d been given and the care he had received, I knew now that I could make Charlie no promises. I would never be able to keep him safe.
Five days later, everything changed.
An email from my boss informed me that my work was now remote. George and Charlie’s daycare shuttered. Outside, the world was thrown into panic. But on that first day of lockdown, as George and Charlie played beside me in our basement, I sat before my computer and felt an inner tension begin to ease. Isolated, but no longer alone, I took a strange comfort in knowing that everyone on the planet was experiencing the fear that had plagued me for so long: fear of ever-present, invisible danger, of mortality. My trauma was no longer individual but shared.
“Fifteen days to slow the spread” shifted to thirty. Another month turned remote—then the entire summer. With each extension of the lockdown, my anxiety lifted. Guiltily, I realized that the pandemic felt like a gift to me: finally, I could keep my son safe.
Sometimes I turned on the news and saw images of the sick and the dying, footage of hospitalized adults struggling to breathe. There were the needles, the lines, the tubes I remembered. Then I looked to Charlie, pink-cheeked and healthy with his twice-daily asthma treatments and isolation. It was because of all that suffering that my son was finally safe. But I didn’t let myself linger on this thought for too long. I couldn’t; working full-time while caring for George and Charlie kept me too busy to think about it—and that was a relief.
As the months passed and the world experienced a collective fear of illness and death, my own fear for Charlie eased. And as I watched Charlie chasing his brother in the yard, I couldn’t help longing for this distancing to last forever.
A year later, when I learned that I was eligible for the vaccine, I found myself staring at the email, unwilling to put my name on the waiting list. Not because I feared the vaccine, but because I didn’t want to return to a world with so much risk. It was then that I understood how contracted my life had become.
Sedated within my own pod, my world had shrunk to just George, Charlie, and my husband, our existence a predictable round of art at the kitchen table and screen time in my office, with walks around the quiet neighborhood our only adventures. It was a world with less pain but also less life. Along with everyone else, we’d missed indoor birthday parties and playdates, crowded beaches and amusement parks. Would I really forego those things forever, deny Charlie a full experience of the world because of my own fears for him? The belief that I could exist without risk was delusion. But to return to a more expansive life, I would have to go through my own withdrawal.
The first step was the party I planned for Charlie’s second birthday, a small, home celebration with grandparents. I greeted them at our doorway with a smile and a squirt of hand sanitizer. Charlie ran in circles around the house, balloons tied around his wrists. He squealed in delight as he tore the wrapping from his presents. At the dinner table, I placed a single cupcake with two candles in front of him, vanilla with sprinkles and buttercream, then struck a match to light the flame. There would be other steps in the months ahead. The first trip to the grocery store, the first indoor playdate, the first visit to the mall. None would be easy for me. But for now, I watched my son staring at the fire so close to his face, reveling in his delight as we sang and clapped. “Go ahead, Charlie,” my husband cheered. “Blow it out!” And he did. One healthy puff, and the light extinguished.