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Keeping my kid from his grandparents has been our family’s pandemic heartbreak

One morning, several weeks into staying home, my 20-month-old pointed to the frying pan drying on the stove from the night before, smiled, and in his most adorable voice whispered, cheeesssse. He looked at me and said GuhGuh, the name he lovingly calls his grandma. I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was reminded of my mom and the buttery grilled cheese sandwich she makes for him when she visits each week … well, each week before the COVID-19 pandemic separated us all indefinitely. 

He then pointed to the door, threw his hands up and repeated her name like he does while waiting for her to arrive. When I told him that we would see her one day soon (wishful thinking, right?), he then asked for my dad, who he calls Papa. And that’s how my day began. With a punch in the gut. We promptly FaceTimed GuhGuh and Papa to say good morning — and their day began with a punch in the gut, as well.

When FaceTime isn’t enough

Of course, this wasn’t the first time in the past almost two months that he’s asked for his grandma and grandpa. We have been social distancing and following stay-at-home orders here in New York City while they are doing the same (to the extent that my dad is an essential worker) in New Jersey. My perceptive little guy realizes that his grams isn’t here each week, that he hasn’t had a surprise weekend visit from the two of them in forever and that we haven’t been to their house in what feels like a lifetime. But he is constantly thinking about them and saying their names … when we sing a song they often sing with him or when we read a book they gave to him, when he hears the FaceTime ring on my phone (even if it isn’t them) or when he finds the G or P piece in his letter puzzle.

Sure, we see and hear them virtually, which is invaluable these days for all of them, but even FaceTime is getting kind of old. Sometimes my son will be fully engaged in sharing his toys with them and showing off the new words he seemingly learned overnight. Other times, he will ask to see them on the phone, wave, try to kiss them through the screen, sometimes jokingly press the home button to pause the screen (because, well, toddlers) and then go back to playing. It’s like he just wants to make sure they are still there. He just wants them to be with him in the same room, in any way they can.

The tradeoff of keeping him safe

It’s also hard for my parents, who are just on the other side of 65 but physically and mentally young (and extraordinarily involved in both his and his younger cousin’s lives). Just before the stay-at-home and social distancing orders went into effect, we were debating leaving our New York City apartment for their suburban home for a few weeks. A backyard! More space! A quiet room away from the chaos for my husband to work! 

This was probably the first time they wouldn’t allow us to come see them. Saying no to a visit from us, especially their grandchildren, prior to this pandemic would have been unfathomable. Unlike many other parents and grandparents, though, they weren’t worried about their health. They were concerned that my dad, a practicing OB/GYN, might inadvertently expose their grandchild to the unknown.

It wasn’t a decision they made lightly — because now they are missing milestones in real life. At this stage in my son’s life, every day is a new adventure, a new skill mastered, a new word said, an adorable discovery. In normal times, they would see him daily on FaceTime but only as a supplement to regular visits. They might see him recognize the letters of the alphabet on a screen, but they’d be even prouder when a few days later they’d see him master this knowledge IRL. 

My parents missed not being able to celebrate Passover with the grandkids, and celebrating Passover during a plague means a virtual Seder void of the tastes, smells and actual feels of family (which is what holidays are all about to us). We read from the preschool Haggadah that we first started using when I was in nursery school, and we laughed at song renditions that were anything but in tune. My little guy was excited to see his grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin all on one screen, but it was, of course, not the same … especially since this year, as my mom lamented, the grandkids were older and could participate even more in the tastes, smells and feel of togetherness.

My mom ends each FaceTime call with us saying she just wants to hug and kiss him.  

Distance is unbearable, but proximity would be a tease

So why not do a drive-by, like so many other grandchildren and grandparents are doing, and stand an acceptable distance apart just so they can catch a real life glimpse of one another? Well, my sweet boy would just want to jump into their arms, cuddle up for story time and snuggles with my mom, and laugh and sing a silly song with my dad. He would be upset that he couldn’t. And while he might just be 20 months old and somewhat sheltered from this reality, he can certainly hold a grudge. 

He can also already feel that things are different. Why make it even harder right now?

So we continue to connect virtually. We know we are lucky that we can do that. My dad tells us that he has seen firsthand in the hospital grandparents who have met their grandchildren via FaceTime during this pandemic — and don’t know when they are going to be able to hold them and kiss them and breathe in their newborn scent. We are lucky that my son is old enough to know them and miss them, and therefore also old enough to take comfort knowing that they are there. We know that, in the scheme of things, we haven’t lost in the way that others have. But we have lost precious time — time that is finite and irreplaceable.

From day one of our life at home, not seeing them — not seeing all of his loving grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — has been the hardest part of this pandemic. As a stay-at-home mom of a young toddler, some days in our apartment aren’t all that different from a bitterly cold winter afternoon or a sick day indoors. I try to make sure that each day — filled with books and dancing, Zoom music classes and crayons — is cheerful and fun. (He unknowingly, of course, does the same for me.) But not knowing when he will be able to jump into his grandparents’ arms and hug and kiss them again is becoming unbearable. It’s cruel, open-ended heartbreak — every day — for all of us.