THE PaNDEMIC BREAK OF A MOTHER’s Heart

It took just a quick tug and the cord to the baby camera was unplugged. Like the moment a child’s umbilical cord is snipped from its mother, it felt necessary. The unplugging, the separation was all overdue.

Today all four of my children, ages 4, 6, 8 and 10, are going to school — all of them for the first time. This day couldn’t have come sooner as my health took a pandemic hit like most moms trying to manage a virtual school. The acid my body produced — coffee by day, wine by night — caused my uvula to swell, prompting Google searches and doctor’s visits, and an elimination of the above-mentioned failed elixirs.

By August, five months into this new COVID reality, I thought all would be better. My throat burns on. This isn’t a symptom of COVID-19, I keep telling myself. It’s acid-reflux. I need medicine for a heart on fire.

To be safe, I schedule a physical timed to my kids’ first day of school. By then, I think, I will finally have a moment to focus on my health, to heal. But the kids’ first day is rescheduled. With COVID cases spiking in Georgia, the school switches to a hybrid schedule, kids divided in groups, for the few first weeks — and hopefully not more.

I keep my doctor’s appointment, hoping it’s nothing serious. I ask the grandparents to watch the kids so I can go. Yes, I tell myself, it’s okay for them to go to their house. We’ve been careful. I remember the first days of the pandemic, when we isolated them, left them lonely. To be with their grandparents seemed risky. Now, I’m convinced, leaving them alone is far worse.

“Your heart,” the doctor explains after an EKG, “we heard something different. It sounds like it’s injured.” She exits the room, leaving me with questions and no answers, a stack of papers, more appointments I cannot make until school is scheduled, my health on hold.

It’s just stress, I console myself, Induced again because this is the day I’ve been dreading for a decade. This is the day I was supposed to watch my “baby” walk away, out of sight, his smile under a mask.

Registration Day 2020. Mask on, temps required. SLIDE left or right.

Then, the long-anticipated night before the first day of school arrives. For four-year-old Tucker, my “baby” headed into PreK, it’s his first “big-kid” school. For his bedtime read, he requests Mo Willems’ The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! It’s as if he’s telling me what I needed to hear. He wants to go. I can read it in his joyful blue eyes as I made the pigeon squeal.

Moments later, six-year-old Valentina asks me to lay down on the floor beside her. She can’t fall asleep, the crib and her toddler bed moved out and sold just the day before. With Tucker no longer in her room, she needs to know she isn’t alone. Any other night, I’d pray with her, hit the light, and promise her I’d check on her later. This night is different. I want more time with her, too. I simply say “yes,” lay down and listen to her first-grader questions until I only hear her breathe.

As I’m writing this after midnight, I hear what sounds like a gunshot in the distance. Sirens blare off and on over the next hour. My kids sleep on. I keep writing, numb to it, my new normal.

After midnight, August 17, 2020

In the stillness of the night, laying beside my daughter, I look up to see the baby camera, unplugged and black. Its one dark eye looks where the crib used to be. Now it trains its eye on me. Then, out of nowhere, I hear a mother’s heartbeat. Thump, thump….Thump, thump.

How is that possible? I’d forgotten to turn on the sound machine, usually set to ocean waves. Once used to soothe my babies to sleep, the machine had taken on new purpose in the summer of 2020, It now drowns out the motorcycles that race I-20 unchecked, It overpowers any commotion outside my daughter’s window, like a stolen truck wrecking just a few nights ago, a gun hidden between houses in the back alley where our children play. It masks the sirens that now plague our city, the civil unrest that began after the unnecessary and heart-breaking deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and then Rayshard Brooks — gunned down at a Wendy’s just 4 miles from our East Atlanta home.

My kids look through the back-alley fence where a truck plowed through.

Thump, thump… Thump, thump. A mother’s heartbeat out of nowhere as I lay beside my daughter fast alseep. I hadn’t turned the sound machine on. But it mysteriously clicked on, beating loudly, too loudly. I look for the button to turn it off. I want ocean waves. I want the sound that soothed my babies to bed. Wishhhhh, wishhhhh….Wishhhh, wishhhh.

Listening to the waves crashing, I close my eyes and thank God as if He had turned something on in me. With mechanical waves splashing in my ear, I begin to see a completely different pandemic, a happy time with my family together. Home. Time standing still.

Tucker and Valentina build towers with Papa and Susu.

I begin to count this time as a blessing, God gifted me an extension, more time to embrace my children before reaching the next milestone. More time for them to wash cars with neighborhood friends, to play in the garden, to collect ants and build dreams of 3D-printed ant colonies.

And God didn’t stop there. He gave me the fantasy of motherhood I’ve been longing for: neighborhood children all home from school, untethered from sports and activities, forced to slow down their over-scheduled lives, playing together, at a distance outside, but together.

Yes, my children made beautiful memories and built new dreams. But what about me, my heart? My dream to finish my first novel by the schoolyear’s end came and went with the pandemic.

Wait. In the midst of the pandemic, God gave me a neighborhood book club, a virtual meeting with Tayari Jones, my neighbor and acclaimed author of An American Marriage. She shared her common roots near Champaign, Illinois, her struggle to finish her book, sleeping with it for a year. Oh, the serendipity. How did she and I both pick this neighborhood to call home? This moment to give me hope?

An encouraging note from author Tayari Jones mentioned my muse.

Is that you, Grandma Agnes? Did you tell God I needed a sign, a rebirth of my soul? Is this the reset that only comes once a century? An opportunity to fix what’s broken.

I awaken to Valentina telling Tucker it’s time to get ready for school.

“Time to put on your uniform,” she tells him. I smile listening in from the hallway. Then I hear her ask him, “Did you hear the wee-ow, wee-ow, wee-ow?”

“Yes,” I hear Tucker reply, as if it’s nothing new, and they excitedly search for his uniform.

Valentina helps Tucker get dressed for his first day of school.

Last night’s sirens, the sound of a gunshot. I check the neighborhood Facebook page to see if anyone posted an explanation. Nothing. Instead, I see a response from our neighbor and babysitter, Carol, sharing where she found a luna moth, a rare sighting due to their brief adult life.

It was right by our back alley’s broken fence.

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