Hope is the thing with feathers and the thing with dimples that coos and squeals and giggles.

Babies, birds and grandparenting during COVID-19

My first grandchild was due on October 18, 2020 in London, across the pond from where I live on the East Coast of the USA. I took months to decide whether I would make the trip—I was scared—yet how could I not be present during this momentous event?

I began to do intense research asking all manner of questions in order to determine how safe, or unsafe, was airline travel: What were airlines and airports doing to protect and support travellers? How did the ventilation systems on planes work? What were the rates of infection among flight attendants? Among passengers? What rules were in place in the air and inside airports? Which airports were enforcing social distancing and mask wearing?

My ex-husband decided long before I did, that he was making the trip, so a little bit of competition may have snuck into my decision making. Being present and united to support our daughter in this life-changing experience was a powerful incentive.

I had scores of conversations with family and friends, assessing the risk with whatever information there was available. I soon realized that so little was really known—the virus was novel and nerve-wracking. It was a dizzying, head-splitting lead up to a decision that at some level, although I hadn’t realized it, I had already made. I’d summoned up courage before, to deal with a cancer diagnosis, for example, so, it wouldn’t be the first time (nor likely the last) that I would just have to be brave. After all, Baby K was doing his part to enter the world safely and healthily to meet me.

Baby K was growing on the inside, preparing himself perfectly in every way, while my daughter was doing her part on the outside, eating well, exercising, thinking positive thoughts and talking encouragingly and singing to her baby.

From the size of a grain of rice he grew. Each ear that began as a little fold of skin at the side of his head shaped themselves to match his dad’s. Tiny buds grew into arms and legs with bendable joints; cartilage hardened into bones with a little tups for his nose, shaped like his mommy’s. Fingers and toes grew as he got ready for what would become his first favorite song in the fourth trimester,“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.

Yes, my grandson was hard at work, getting ready to meet me and I was determined to meet him, face to face, cara a cara, virus or no virus. All I had to do was board a flight.

Flying Covid style

I booked a seat on Delta, the first airline that was meeting the realities of the pandemic head on. They limited the number of passengers by blocking middle seats and promised no change fees if at the last minute I got cold feet. I dressed to the nines in PPE, and made my way to JFK International airport to begin the adventure of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The trip went without a hitch or much cause for worry. The airport wasn’t crowded, and on the plane, not only was there no one beside me, there was no one behind or in front or across the aisle—the flight was far from full. Nevertheless, I ate nothing and kept my N95 mask on the entire time. I sipped water to keep hydrated and visited the facilities just once.

London—what pandemic?

It’s not like everyone was wearing face coverings or practicing physical distancing in Philadelphia, but when I arrived in London, I was truly horrified. My daughter had warned me but still, I was incredulous.

Few were wearing masks indoors, much less outdoors, even when in close physical contact. There was an air of business as usual and I was honestly appalled. Whereas in March at the start of the pandemic, mask wearing was a surreal experience, when I arrived in London months later, it was surreal in reverse to see so many people without face coverings and no attempt at social distancing. It felt as though the world had forgotten to copy in the Brits on the memo that a pandemic was raging around the world and, actually in their own country. Did they know something I didn’t?

Except for a handful of times when our bubble was pricked—a well-baby visit to the GP, a work meeting Dad had to attend in person—which caused us to social distance from each other, it has been an incredibly close and special visit which I will forever cherish.

Falling in love - the bewitching nature of my grandson

Meeting your first grandchild is always profound. That I was able to meet him in person despite the surrounding anxieties, made it even more special: The first time he seemed to really see me, the first time he smiled into my eyes, the first laugh and the first time he fell asleep in my arms. I felt myself falling in love.

I arrived bearing gifts: age-appropriate books, of course, for his growing library, wall posters with the lyrics to some of my favorite rhymes and songs to encourage a language rich environment and an Audubon bird clock to begin what I hope will be our pastime as he grows—birdwatching.

I can’t wait to share the wonderful world of birds with him and the clock seemed like the perfect entry. Every hour on the hour is marked by a different bird call. Baby K’s parents loved the gift but asked tentatively, “Does it chirp through the night too”? The answer is, no, it has a clever light sensor—birds need their sleep too.

Birdwatching will invite us outdoors to be still, to pay attention, to look closely at these fascinating creatures, learn their names, their shape and movement and learn about their feeding and mating habits. We’ll take binoculars and bird identification books and move quietly through the woods. After we’re done, we’ll have a picnic.

Baby K is now three scrumptious months old. He’s enjoying being able to see across the room, working on holding up his head and maneuvering his hands, and he never misses a pretty bold picture on a wall or an interesting pattern on a fabric—he smiles at them in appreciation.

I’ve been dreaming about who he is and who he will become. What will his nature be? What will he enjoy, what will be his talents and interests? To think that a little bit of me is in him, to think that my daughter carried him just as I carried her, to contemplate what I want to pass on to him—these are the things I think about.

Through the pandemic, I’d read about and seen many poignant pictures of grandparents who were meeting their newborn grandchildren for the first time from far away, on Facebook or Facetime, or through glass windows and doors, so close and yet so far. A baby born anytime, gives our lives purpose and a sense of hope. It has given my life a new purpose and made me think about how and where I want to spend the coming years—I give thanks for this gift.//

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-Emily Dickinson