The seasons had passed seamlessly in Los Angeles with a gentleman’s handshake of ten degrees difference between them. Spring had warmed to summer, had warmed to fall, and now we were here having surpassed the crest of the heat in Southern California. The climate fires had all been put out, but the air was still dry. The Santa Ana winds were still blowing. My husband and I had stopped turning the calendar pages months before. A new baby can do that. Two new babies will assure that. Two new babies, two young children, and a global pandemic will render all markers of the passage of time useless. Los Angeles was still on lockdown on multiple fronts: COVID, protests that turned violent, job loss, an economy in free fall, a country held hostage. Isolation was a word that was trending. The topic had become the source of research and art.
How was isolation affecting children?
How was isolation affecting teenagers?
How was isolation affecting parents?
How was isolation affecting people who were single, living alone?
It was both noun and verb, study and action, feeling and fight. There were different degrees of isolation. Different levels of seriousness, levels of urgency and concern. Isolation to one was not isolation to another. Isolation from one’s community could lock them in perpetual community with only their family. Isolation with one’s family could lock them in perpetual isolation from themselves. We were no longer multi-dimensional people out and about in the world. We were now only mom or only dad or only daughter or only worker and yet we were also all things at once. We were only nurse or only patient or only survivor and for some, all things at once. And yet, we were not all in this together.
We, the people.
We, the families.
We, the mothers.
Isolation was dangerously subjective, a word suddenly lost on a sliding scale of definition. There were many moments to choose from:
This. This right here is it. This moment in time captures the depth of my despair.
Giving birth in a locked down hospital during a pandemic could be one.
The look on a three year old’s face when she finally understands her two baby brothers are not going anywhere and neither is she could be another.
The look on a five-year-old’s face when her mother cries from the pain of raw nipples and exhaustion and asks, “Are you okay, Mama?” and the answer she hears is an honest, “No,” followed by a promise too difficult to believe, “But, I will be” could be one.
The first time a mother notices her baby’s eyes bounce and a jolt of fear rips through her center could be another.
But none of them were.
It wasn’t during the windy drive over Laurel Canyon, the quiet of a mostly empty minivan carrying a mother and her baby to the hospital. Me—that mother—catching glimpses of Bo—that baby—being rocked to sleep by the curves in the road and the lulling flicker of sunlight between treetops. His eyes closing, his tiny hand still raised towards the rays of light filtering through the car window, still clinging to the world of the wakeful.
It wasn’t passing by boarded up shops and shuttered restaurants along Melrose Avenue, the graffiti a plea for basic humanity for Black lives. I had seen LA like this before – the disorienting light traffic on a Thursday morning, the unfamiliarity of moving through the city with such ease, the cries for justice spray painted on buildings, a city half ghost town / half powder keg.
It could have happened when I entered the parking garage and it struck me how comfortable I had become with pulling up my mask whenever faced with the outside world. The instinct to protect myself from a disease in the air whenever lowering my window to take a parking ticket had become second nature in the most absurd way. We were trying to outlive something we couldn’t see.
I thought it might happen when I strapped Bo into his stroller, his eyes bouncing once, twice, and then landing on my face with a smile. But it didn’t happen then, nor did it happen with the warm flush of anxiety that waved up my spine when I turned the corner of the hospital’s plaza and saw a sea of masked nurses and doctors and slow-walking patients. And it didn’t happen when I got lost and found myself heading the wrong way onto a hospital floor doing temperature checks, the raised gun ready and cocked at a line of people trying to pass go. I had breeched the levy and desperately swung the stroller around looking for a way out. But, I found my line.
They took our temperatures and then handed me a yellow mask without wire so that I would be permitted on the MRI floor. It could have been then, but no.
It came close when they put us in a bed next to a woman headed for gall bladder surgery, the hesitation in her voice when she asked the doctor, “Will it hurt?”
The doctor paused.
“It won’t hurt anymore than the pain you’re already experiencing,” he said to her.
“Do I have a choice?” she asked.
Perplexed by her question, he responded, “You always have a choice.”
It wasn’t the moment Bo’s eyes darted between the doctor’s eyes and mine as they placed a gas mask over his mouth and nose.
It wasn’t when the anesthesia kicked in and knocked his tiny body deeply into the world of the sleeping.
Arms dangling, feet flopped forward, consciousness sunk.
It wasn’t my quick exit from the MRI room and a sudden burst of tears prompting a male nurse much younger than me to reassure me that they would “take good care of him.”
It was the turning away. It was the pivot from the MRI machine, the retreat from my 4-month-old son, and the walk forward into the unknown.
In the waiting room was where I really felt it. Floating towards an empty corner with salmon pink walls and forest green chairs, nature photography, a hand sanitizer machine. It was sitting down with an empty stroller before me and feeling the heaviness of my bones, the soft padding of my postpartum body—a life jacket too big for its person.
This right here.
A fellow mama of twins wanted me to know that I wasn’t alone. But I was. Despite the pandemic lockdown in California, despite the isolation invoked by newborns, despite motherhood in and of itself, despite the marriage running on grocery lists and The Office reruns, despite the boxed-in nature of working from home, despite the overall sadness and loneliness of it all, for the first time in months I found myself alone in a new way. It wasn’t the isolation one suddenly finds plunked into when grief strikes. It wasn’t depression. It wasn’t physical; there were people in the waiting room. The check-in nurse saw me crying and offered me a glass of water. She left her desk, stepping over big white dots lined six feet apart, past taped off chairs meant to keep social distancing, and she handed me a white paper cup filled with cold water. When I reached for it, my hand shook. I thought, We shouldn’t be doing this. You are too close to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
She nodded. She must have been a mother.
This is my idea of how mothers should be even though my own had not been around much. There had been a time when she handed me things like cold glasses of water and held me when I was scared. There was a time when I handed her glasses of cold water and held her when we were both scared.
But this was new. This was fear unlike the fear that clutched my childhood. That fear was the twilight to the night sky of this fear, the fear of the possibility of losing a child. It was fear that whatever that MRI machine found set forth everything else that followed. It was the fear that everything was already set, but for the knowingness of it. What would appear or not appear on my son’s brain scan was already determined. There was no magical thinking, no prayer, no deal-making that would change what was already in creation or not. There were two outcomes – one where he was fine and one where he was not.
One where I was still intact and one where I was not.
One where it hurt and one where it did not.
The depth of my powerlessness had pulled me into the finite reality of the present moment. I started whispering into the palms of my hands with what I reluctantly called God. I had been let down before by this God and I knew better now than I did then that my feelings of disappointment in this idea were unwarranted. If there is God, perhaps a cauldron of spirits and energy and chocolate, they are not doing anything to me personally. They exist purely to offer the option of a life with make believe or a life without. I can walk through this world paying attention to its beauty and making meaning through patterns, or I can experience everything as its own isolated event.
A butterfly floats past.
An old letter reappears.
A child is born.
Two children are born. Twins.
Their eyes bounce, one more than the other.
One is sent to specialists. Ophthalmologists and neurologists.
One child has a heart murmur.
There are two more children in this picture. Two sisters. A family with four young children.
A baby receives a COVID test to clear him for an MRI. A nasal swab disappears into his nose.
Eyes flutter. But, oh those baby lashes.
I didn’t have a choice in whether or not the technicians and doctors would find a brain tumor in my son’s head. The only choice I had if they did find one was whether or not I would walk through that experience and possibly that unbearable loss alone in the depths of this chasm. Or with some belief that the cauldron of magic on high was burbling above me somewhere and that somehow my life would go on. Somehow, I would return to this boy’s twin. Somehow, I would continue to be a mother to three other children, no matter the impossibility of it all. I didn’t pray for the tumor not to be there because I don’t believe that God is magic. I prayed for whatever God was to be with me and to be with Bo while we waited.
While I held his limp body against mine.
While they removed the IV.
While I waited for him to join me again in the world of the wakeful.
After some time, his eyes peeked open one at a time. I looked into my son’s eyes as they wandered until landing intently on my gaze. Bo smiled.
A baby and his mother.
Me—that mother—his mother for however long or short we both lived and goddamn, I was lucky for that. He opened his palm and reached for my face grabbing hold of my chin, leading me out of the dark. I landed back inside my body. My breasts tender with milk, my eyes burning with lack of sleep, my hair scratchy and dry, dead from stress and pregnancy and nursing and trying to outlive the invisible. We left the hospital, my son and I—just me and Bo.
I adjusted my mask.
He chewed on the nipple of his bottle.
The Santa Ana winds blew.
We strolled through the half-world, in between the wakeful and the sleeping, while we waited for a phone call, together.
Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione is a mother of four and a writer who lives in Los Angeles, California, her hometown. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her essay Our Body is Not Ourselves is forthcoming published in an anthology by Callisto Media.
Featured Post provided by Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione.