The Bond House had a baby. Well, Michael and Claudia had a baby, and the rest of us are proud aunts and uncles. Mara was born into a strange world on a Friday morning after 3 days of labor. Shortly after, she stopped breathing and turned blue. After she was stabilized, doctors informed the new family that their daughter would have to remain under observation for five days before coming home. We were relieved that there was a plan in place, to know that she was getting the care she needed; but while Mom, Dad, and Abuelita focused on their Little Love, the rest of us were coming to the realization that our lives would soon be upheaved by more than just this small new life.
I want you to know that this isn’t normal. What is happening around the world right now isn’t normal. What we are living will be in high school history books. Where you were quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic will become synonymous with 9/11, the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion. It’s important to acknowledge the distinction between those events and the elongated tragedy inherent in a pandemic, which is less like a single senseless moment of violence and more like war. Only people aren’t dying in trenches, they’re dying in their lungs. Meanwhile, many of us can only stand idly by and pray it doesn’t happen to us or our loved ones. In a time when we would come together and collectively grieve with our candles, we are forced to stay inside with nothing to connect us but our screens.
The Friday before Mara came home, I sat in a late afternoon meeting with my bosses. At that point, tele-work was something we would eventually move to, a suggestion more than a panicked necessity. We were taking the threat seriously, but we thought there was time to move to virtual classes for a few weeks; graduation would probably still happen; this would all be over soon as borders closed, international travel was reduced (not canceled); and people committed to washing their hands a little more often. But as I gave a departmental update, the Harvard Medical School listserv received an email that all non-essential travel was to be grounded immediately. Two minutes later, the chair of the department (and a world-renowned champion of global health) called our director.
As his mumbled voice conveyed its urgency over the phone, sirens screamed by our office building. My fingers hovered above my laptop keyboard, trying to make out his words, frustrated that I couldn’t. When they hung up, the director immediately made another call, telling someone in no uncertain terms that going out of the country for work was not in their best interest. “What happens to your family if you’re quarantined abroad for three weeks? Think about your kids.” It was that moment that made the pandemic real for me. Leaders of global health were being asked to stand down, to not put themselves in danger after having done so for years, even decades. What wasn’t said, and maybe not even considered at that moment, that there was a high likelihood that they would be needed at home. There would come a time when Americans would need all the help they could get. That afternoon, March 6, I took my laptop home just in case I needed it.
That weekend, Italy began to drown. COVID-19 was no longer a hypothetical danger in China—it was a very real threat, and I was at risk. Between the global health population I work with and the Biogen COVID patients brought to the hospital a block from my office, it seemed to me that sickness was inevitable. Another part of me felt like I was overreacting. After all, most of my day is spent tucked into a corner of the building, away from everyone. By Sunday, the death toll was already starting to climb into the double digits (which is appallingly few as compared to now). The virus reaching America was inevitable. On Monday, as my partner got ready for work, I asked him, “Do you think I should go into the office?” I felt guilty that I had the option to stay home while he couldn’t. I guess, at the time, he seemed at higher risk because of his work; in hindsight, my decision to stay home with my laptop a week and half before the rest of Boston seems a wise one.
Of course, I had more than myself to think about: Mara and Josefina. With two of my housemates working in hospitals, removing as many variables as possible from the COVID equation seemed prudent. I’ll be honest with you again, working from home is great—not without its frustrations, but great (I get to do my job and be with my pets? Yes, please). While the rest of the House took a little longer to transfer to tele-work life, I made sure to help keep surfaces sanitized, meals cooked, and lunches packed. We made sure to implement a protocol of taking off your outerwear in the Sun Room before coming in and immediately washing your hands. The beloved “cholera spoon” (the communal spoon used to stir sugar into coffee) was removed from the cutting board. We bought some canned provisions from Costco. It felt like we were battening down the hatches.
Then Little Love (Mara) finally came home; but there was no fanfare, no party, because that didn’t feel prudent. Scrubbed hands, face masks, and clean linens reigned supreme. The day I finally met her, she was asleep on Josefina’s bed. Her lips were parted as she took deep baby breaths, blissfully unaware of the chaos in which she had been born. I sat next to her with freshly washed hands, uncertain if touching would be wise before finally settling on stroking the fine dark hair on top of her head and the tips of her ears. You know I cried. But crying at life is normal, it’s expected. A baby is potential, its life stretched out before you in a way that it will not comprehend for years to come. For me, in that moment, there was a sense of fear that Mara’s life would not be off to a normal start. When that fear creeped up, my anxiety quickly informed me that life would never be normal for Mara, for any of us. When I held her, I had to stop myself from hugging her too tight, as though my body would keep her safe.
Michael and Claudia made it a full week in the House before deciding it would be in Mara and Josefina’s best interest for the family to relocate to a less crowded place. While a fair decision, especially now as we see the pandemic escalating here in Boston, it felt like they were abandoning us. Isn’t it funny, that irrational part of our brains? To want someone to be safe but to want them with you at the same time? After seeing the devastation in Italy and the real-time disaster unfolding in New York, I’m glad they left.
With the four of them gone (plus our opera singer Ana who is quarantining in Chicago with her boyfriend), we are down to 5. While not the fewest amount of us to be in the House at once, there is something eerie about it. Brennan, Dan, and I are home all day in relative silence, each of us coping with being cooped up as best we can. I will say that I’m a fan of what Brennan is doing to maintain his sanity, which is baking breads, bagels, and pies. Lark, Lizzy, and I tend to do some form of yoga together. We eat most dinners together (with the added challenge of trying to cook with items gathering dust in the cupboard—last week I made a delicious cold couscous salad with such jarred sundries as sundried tomatoes, spicy peppers, and buttery masala), finding that shared meals during this time give us an opportunity to joke and commiserate. While there are precious few hugs right now, I don’t feel alone. There are even talks of starting a D&D group with an online option. (Good Lord, what have I become?)
While sharing these things is normal, the fact that we all have to be home isn’t normal. Last weekend while we were all home, serious conversations had to be had. It is inevitable that our medical housemates will work with COVID-patients (in fact, the house doctor will be transferred to a COVID unit next week). What do we do? What else could we do but agree that moving Brennan into the House and Lizzy out into the chalet with Lark was the best course of action? And sure, we committed to cleaning with bleach, but what about all those other questions? What do we do with hospital linens? Where do we place laundry baskets? Who cleans the linens? Should we wear masks all the time? How should we approach getting groceries? Can the hospital workers come into the House at all? How do we split cooking responsibilities? Cleaning duties? Who are the caretakers if one of us gets sick? How long can we sustain this?
In the coming weeks and months, we will have answers to all of these questions, and that’s terrifying. But I know that we will get through this together, because we have to. Living in a communal house presents a different level of danger because of the tangled infection chains that many of us are exposed to on a daily basis, but I’m not sure how I would manage through this time without an in-person community. Caring for others gives me a sense of agency; having others care for me gives me a sense of security.
In these uncertain times, we see that humans need one another, that it is through relationships that we are defined. I am defining myself by the adoration I have for these people, the commitment I have in keeping them healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Their safety is my safety, and vice versa. That’s what love in the time of COVID-19 is.
Be well, stay at home, and wash your hands.