Like many Cubans, Emma grew up separated from members of her family. She is using her ‘distancing lessons’ to stay closer now and welcome her baby.
Ten weeks before my due date, my mom and sister hosted a baby shower full of children’s books, my favorite pollo imperial, and family. Our relatives are spread throughout many different cities and countries: after the Cuban Revolution my parents’ siblings scattered across Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Miami, and cousins in my generation have put down roots in half a dozen different cities.
It was quite a shock when half the women in my far-flung family surprised me at the door of my mom’s apartment that day, and an afternoon shower became a weekend of sharing favorite traditions and practicing lullabies. My two-year-old niece cried when my tías ran me through the lyrics of “Duérmete mi niña,” thinking she was being put to bed early, and we switched to a chorus of “Había un sapo.”
My shower embodied a belief that is at the core of my writing for children: that Latin America and the United States are connected, and that family transcends distance. I didn’t grow up near my cousins or aunts, but you would be hard-pressed to find a tighter knit family. At the same time, I grew up hearing painful stories about parents and children separated in frenzied efforts to leave Cuba.
Maybe because of these stories, I chose to live near my parents. Maybe because of these stories, my parents were and remain ever-present. The one time they were cajoled into sending my sister and I to a sleepaway camp, they ended up visiting every few days, in violation of camp policy. They didn’t care. We know that we’re lucky to be near and together, and we’ve never wasted it.
A good thing, too. Days after the shower, COVID-19 hit dizzyingly close to home. As New York City climbed to a peak whose death toll dwarfed 9/11 week after week, we realized that, as my mom would say, “Esto va pa’ largo,” and it would be a very long time before the next family party. We live a few blocks from a hospital, and all I can articulate about those early weeks is that it was like living on the inside of a snow globe, where the snow was whirring red lights and constant sirens.
We worried while my mom recovered quickly from a mild case, while my 91-year old godmother caught it but was sent home after only a few days. We have been lucky, blessed with little scares instead of heartbreak, and our gratitude is deep—but in this long shutdown, I miss the certainty that my baby will be surrounded by sticky-fingered cousins and abuelo kisses.
When hospitals began support person bans (which have thankfully been reversed) it occurred to me that I had assumed that whatever its other challenges, having a baby would be about togetherness—my husband and I becoming a new kind of team, the knitting of grandparents and tíos—but that instead our new baby might be born in a time of separation.
It is May now, and around me the city is waking up to fresh sunlight, blooming trees; stretches of honking and birdsong between siren cries. But it is a dissonant kind of May, the first time I’ve ever wanted to shield myself from neighbors laughing on their stoops or crowded park lawns.
I want to snuggle my baby when she arrives, and dread a coronavirus infection preventing that closeness. It hurts knowing my family can’t celebrate Mother’s Day together this year and it clashes with the knowledge that any day now—maybe today, even—I’ll become a mom myself.
Here are the things I am holding onto: my Tía María wrote ‘This too shall pass’ on a diaper during a silly shower games, my godmother shows every sign of waiting out the shutdown to meet our baby, the descendants of my maternal grandmother dance bachata and ask to see the baby bump each night on Zoom while a WhatsApp thread of my paternal grandmother’s descendants is filled with prayers for our little one.
Baby’s kicks tell me that she is cheerfully unaware of the world outside, and as I have been loved my whole life by family near and far, so will this girl.