I’ve loved you since you were a faint blue line on a plastic stick, so faint that your dad wondered if our eyes were deceiving us. As physicians and Type A worriers, we both knew the statistics on early pregnancy. We loved you with caution until we had ultrasounded every inch of your anatomy and could start counting your kicks. I still remember the intersection in Houston where I felt you move for the first time – Montrose & West Gray. Tears streamed down my face as the light changed from red to green and drivers behind me honked and hollered. I didn’t care. You were sending me a message that I would be relieved to receive over and over during the ensuing months – “Don’t worry, mom. I’m okay.”
Worry has been a recurring theme in our lives over the past few months. It started in February, three months before you were born, when cases of a new and deadly virus were being reported in travelers from China. At first I shared the comfortable obliviousness of most Americans. We had been reassured by our public health officials, our employers and our president. I felt confident that infections would be mild and contained. That was until I saw Sarah, a young woman returning from mission trip in the Middle East. She had a hacking cough for three weeks – one that I could hear from the opposite end of my primary care clinic – with shortness of breath and fever for several days. She had not travelled to China. I did not wear a mask. I was told I didn’t need to, but still, I worried. As I drove home that day and several days afterwards, I counted kicks. You were okay.
It became evident over the next few weeks that I was right to worry. Coronavirus was one step ahead of us from the start. When we were screening travelers from China, the virus was in other countries. When we were screening travelers from other countries, the virus was in other states. When we were screening travelers from other states, the virus was already in our city, silently spreading among us at churches, barbecues, and birthdays. For weeks you came with me from room to room in clinic, seeing patients like Sarah with lagging CDC guidelines, suboptimal personal protective equipment and virtually no access to coronavirus testing. Every cough, wheeze and claim of “It’s just allergies,” felt like a threat to your safety. Every day I felt I was carrying you through a minefield.
Throughout March it felt like your dad and I, and other frontline workers, were the only ones that could see the writing on the wall. We were ringing the alarm for anyone who would listen. We cancelled our baby shower. We called friends and family, telling them to stock up, stay at home and stop socializing. We Tweeted at the president, the governor, the mayor, pleading for government action to slow the spread, to give you a safer world to be born into. And yet, our social media feeds were filled with weddings, happy hours and other gatherings. My heart sank as I watched a Boomerang of friends I considered informed and responsible clanging together bottles of Corona in a crowded restaurant weeks into the pandemic. We were shouting into a void.
It was only after COVID-19 took the lives of tens of thousands across the country that our city and many others ordered everyone to stay at home. The entire world came to a grinding halt. I began seeing patients virtually to avoid exposure, but your dad continued working as an intensivist in the ICU, returning home each day to an ultrasound photo of you taped up in our garage above our last bottle of sanitizer and disinfecting wipes – a reminder of the precious life we needed to keep safe and the good that was yet to come.
For the last few months you were in my belly, we removed our wedding rings (one less thing to disinfect) and stayed six feet apart. I imagined you wondering in utero why your dad’s voice had become so distant, why his hands no longer pressed against your reassuring kicks. To a fly on the wall it may have appeared that we were roommates, rather than two people in love, but I want you to know that it was precisely because we loved each other and loved you so very much that we acted like strangers during the weeks before you arrived.
As the curve flattened in Houston, the streets grew quiet, our favorite local spots closed for good, the price of gas (a barometer for the health of the local economy) plummeted, but the number of cases remained steady, even during the projected peak of the outbreak. It was in the midst of this bleak stillness that you came into the world – wide-eyed, screaming and flush with new life. I had always heard that newborns were very sleepy the day of birth, but not you. You stared right back at us for hours on end. It seemed like you never blinked, as if to say “I made it. Now what?” I hope you could see the joy on our faces despite the masks that concealed our noses and mouths. The hospital was eerily vacant and at times it felt like the three of us were the only ones left on earth. Your dad cradled you and paced for most of that first night. Waking up bleary-eyed from time to time and seeing you safe in his arms made me feel that despite it all, we were going to be okay.
You are almost eight weeks old as I’m writing this, and that feeling of safety is quickly slipping away. After a short time at home your dad returned to work, but it felt more like he returned to war. Yes, he comes home every night, but there is always a chance he will bring the enemy home with him, perhaps on the soles of his shoes, or under his nails or in the particles of his breath. (Believe me, we have imagined every scenario.) There are some who would say you two shouldn’t even share the same air, but we have accepted this measured risk to still live under the same roof as a family. Our city is now teetering on the brink of a major surge. Last week, as your dad waved goodnight to us from a safe distance on his first Father’s Day, he told me he forgot what it was like to hold you.
And again, I worry. I worry you won’t know the smell of his skin or the warmth of his hands or the steady sound of his heart beating. I worry you’re both missing a critical window to biologically bond. I hope you’ll look back on this sacrifice and understand. I hope you’ll look back on this and it will teach you more about your dad and about life than putting him on diaper duty ever could have. And that is why I wanted to write you this letter. It is a love letter to you, and to him, and to this beautiful and heartbreaking time in our lives.
On our very first date your dad told me that he chose his career as a critical care doctor because he wanted to take care of the sickest of the sick; he wanted to be the guy that was running towards the fire instead of away from it. Remi, I hope this will be impossible for you to grasp, but the world is on fire. And every morning your dad walks into the flames to help those in need. I’m not going to tell you he isn’t afraid – even if he never says it, I know he is. I see it in the hollows under his eyes, the weariness of his smile, his silence when I ask him how his day was. He is scared, and that is precisely what makes it so brave. This is real courage.
Many of those who are very sick are the most vulnerable members of society – poor, underinsured, undocumented, people of color. I hope the society you live in as you read this has remedied the disparities and injustices these communities face, but our current society is struggling to even acknowledge them. Unfortunately there are doctors who will measure their risk against their reward and shy away from caring for these patients, but not your dad. He knows who needs him the most, and right now, that isn’t us. In Sikhism, we call this “seva,” or selfless service, and it isn’t something you just hear about in temple or write in your med school applications; it is something your dad is practicing every single day.
So when you look back and wonder why there are so few pictures of us as a family, or where your dad was for your first smile, I hope you’ll understand that it wasn’t for lack of wanting or caring or love. It was a difficult choice made to protect your little life and help save the lives of others. I hope you understand that we were both called to duty in an unprecedented way. I hope you see how you’ve inspired me to advocate for change. I hope you see your dad now and always as not only an amazing father but a man of courage, integrity and compassion. I hope sometime soon we can both put our wedding rings back on and introduce you to all our friends and family. I hope in a few months I can kiss your dad and he can hold you. I hope someday years from now you’ll read this and be able to say, “Don’t worry, mom. I’m okay.”