The Best Worst Year

On pregnancy and grief during pandemic lockdown.

Chelsea Murray is a writer and editor in Halifax, and co-founder and associate editor of The...

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                                                            “So it is

if the heart has devoted itself to love, there is

    not a single inch of emptiness. Gladness gleams

all the way to the grave.” 

From “Honey Locust” by Mary Oliver

I find out I’m pregnant in late January 2020. I’ve never heard of Covid but I’m heavy with dread. I don’t suffer from traditional morning sickness—it’s some other kind of illness that sinks into my body and brain. I’m revolted by the strangest things: decaffeinated Earl Grey tea, the sight of this one blue dress in my closet, other pregnant people. Within a few weeks, I start thinking of the embryo as an invader, taking from me a life I’m not sure I want to give up. I’m afraid this child will rearrange my brain, and exist, incessantly, on the edges of my every thought and experience. Soon I will unfold the world for them instead of myself. I try explaining this to a friend one day and apologize because I don’t think I’m making any sense. No, she says, I get it. Motherhood is a kind of suicide. Motherhood is also love; I can see that. But I’m scared of the cost.

Walking to work one morning in the lightest of flurries, tiny snowflakes drift down from thin clouds, catching sunlight in a way that weeks earlier would have brought me joy. I weep quietly to myself for blocks. I can tell the darkness at the heart of these feelings isn’t part of me, but I can’t rid myself of it. My husband, Matt, and I share the news with our families the week before the world shuts down and it feels like I’m watching their excitement from underwater, the emotion distorted.

*

My father was born before the end of the Second World War and grew up next door to the house his mother grew up in. (And I grew up next door to that one.) He’s a cherubic baby in black-and-white pictures—chubby and joyful. But even as a kid he was industrious, serious about work: he hoed turnips in the fall and learned to drive a horse and plow when he was eight. When his parents wouldn’t buy him a pony, he trained one of their calves to pull a cart instead. Fun always had something to do with horses. When they were little, he and a friend would sneak away to a neighbour’s pasture, even though his friend’s mother forbade it, to watch stallions playing in the field. Such an innocent act of defiance. I imagine him lounging there on the grass, watching the horses run around and dreaming of the life he’d one day lead.

In his early-1960s high school years, he looked more like the lead in a 1950s cowboy movie than a hippie teen—forever out of his time. He ran the neighbour’s riding stables (a business he’d buy at the age of 18), guiding wannabe horsemen and women on rides through the field and forest around his home. After he and my mom met when she was in Grade 10, he in Grade 11, she started stopping by the stables, learning to ride and getting his attention. She’d tease him and he’d playfully slap her horse with the end of his rein, pretending he was trying to get it to run off with her. In a picture taken before they were married, they sit side by side on horseback at the stables, looking so young and happy.

*

The provincial borders in Atlantic Canada close in mid-March. We’re cut off in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from my family in New Brunswick for what we expect will only be a couple of weeks. But the weeks turn into months and the tiny ball of cells inside me grows. At my first prenatal visit in April, the nurse asks if I want to hear the baby’s heartbeat. I lie down on the little hospital bed while she slides the Doppler over my skin. There it is: a quick and distorted whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Proof of life.

You can record this for your husband, she says. Covid restrictions meant he wasn’t allowed to come. I grab my phone and hit Record in the voice memo app, and she waits a few beats before she shouts, Congratulations, Daddy! The darkness doesn’t fall away all at once in that moment but dissipates day by day until I’m left instead with a buzzing in my bones.

We buy a stroller and a car seat; prepare for new life. I track the fetus’s metamorphosis via an app on my phone, and the more baby-like the creepy graphics start to look, the more urgency I feel. I start calling my parents every day. Dad sends me texts signed with the racehorse emoji—his signature for a few years now. Sometimes, while Dad is sleeping, Mom sends me secret messages she deletes later so he won’t see them. 

He was very weak today.  

He’s sleeping longer in the afternoons.

Don’t talk too long when you call; he’s having a hard time breathing today.

I spend my days working my day job in our home office and my evenings talking to scientists about hope and the probable extinction of an endangered whale species for a book proposal I’ll later shelve. Restrictions start to lift in May, but the borders between Canada’s Atlantic provinces stay closed. I feel caged, like I could rip my skin off. The thought of my father dying while we’re separated, while I’m pregnant, before he can meet my baby sends me into a panic. How obvious time’s conveyer belt is becoming and how powerless I am to stop it.

*

My parents dated for four years before they truly started their life together. My mom was expecting a marriage proposal for her birthday one year, but she got a new pair of rubber boots instead. Dad wasn’t thinking about the quick passing of time yet. Lucky for him my mom knew what she wanted—what he needed. They were married on a snowless day in March in the first service ever held in the brand-new United Church in Gunningsville, New Brunswick. The grass was green, Dad often reminded us, and they left the parking lot by horse and wagon, covered in confetti. We have an album full of pictures: Mom, smiling in her bright long-sleeve white dress and red hair. Dad, staid, with his hands on the reins.

In his early thirties, Dad quit his customer service job at Goodyear Tire to start farming full-time. He’d spent too many days looking out the window, he said, wishing he were somewhere else. He told me this as a lesson one day: it’s never too late to take stock and change course. Don’t waste your precious life being someone you’re not.

Another picture: men standing on the skeleton of a new barn, before anyone milked a cow in it. Dad is there, filled with so much ambition, but oblivious to the future he’s building. By this point, he was a father of three. In seven years, I’d arrive, completely unexpected, one year after Dad’s father died, and just months after his mother passed.

One day when he was clearing the land behind the barn for pasture and hay, he looked back and realized he could see all the way home. The forest that had been there since long before his own birth was now gone. How exciting and mournful it must have been to be in a place at once so familiar and strange.

The borders finally open in July. I’m seven months pregnant, bobbing in the Northumberland Strait, being pushed and pulled between the ocean and the shore. My knees on the sand and my arms stretched out across the water. My family’s cottage is at the top of the hill, where I know my father’s keeping an eye on the sea from his recliner at the window, wishing he could leave that perch and breathe the thick summer air without struggle.

The baby flutters and spins inside me and I put my hand to my belly and feel him floating too. When we’d first arrived, earlier this week, my nieces had been a giddy flock of small hands on my belly, hoping to catch a kick. My father was delighted at their excitement, saying, they’re so comfortable with you. Later, he grabs me by the arm and pats the horseshoe tattoo he’d forgotten I had on my right forearm. I don’t like the tattoo, he says, scrunching up his face in the way he does when he feels affection or joy, but I love the arm it’s on.

How much like salvation familial touch feels after separation, when my body grew and split, isolated from so many people I loved.

I live here sometimes, across a temporal border, just to see him again and feel like the person I was when he was here: Daughter. Dependent. Naive. I sneak away to that feeling of being held aloft between one life and the next, hyper-aware of the ocean current and the tide. My father, alive. My life, expectant—at the precipice, but still unchanged.

*

A few years before I was born, my dad, in his mid-thirties then, and my grandfather decided to clean out an old grain tank full of feed. They worked for hours inside it, unmasked, inhaling clouds of mould spores. Both of them got sick, but my father never recovered. It could have been something in his genetic makeup that made him more susceptible to mould, or maybe it was chance, but a persistent hacking settled into his chest. He would fight for breath the rest of his life.

Doctors called it farmer’s lung, which is essentially an overzealous and permanent allergic reaction to dust and mould that causes inflammation. They said he didn’t have a lot of time—a decade maybe. They told him to take it easy, to please make a living doing anything other than working in the dust and damp of his farm. His compromise was to take a job plowing snow at the airport each winter so that he’d spend less time in the closed-up barns. But he never stopped farming.

Farmer’s lung became chronic inflammatory lung disease—commonly known as COPD—and emphysema (both typically smokers’ diseases), and still he ignored them. We chided him: Stay out of the hay. Don’t walk so far. Get off that horse. Let me do that for you. He scoffed. No one would tell him how to live. Even as a little kid, I was acutely aware of how precarious his health was. He had a basket full of medication, took puffers and tested his oxygen levels in the evening. I’m not sure I thought about him dying back then, but I was terrified of the loss.

He got sicker every year that passed, but something unbelievable happened inside his chest too: his unflagging heart grew stronger, compensating for what his lungs couldn’t do. Decades later, doctors would look at him, confounded. When he should have been confined to a wheelchair, he was in the back field making hay.

One winter day in 2017, I stumbled upon this passage in “When Things Go Missing”—Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker essay about her own father’s death—and cried. She could have been writing about Dad: “More to the point, against considerable odds, he just kept on being alive. Intellectually, I knew that no one could manage such a serious disease burden forever. Yet the sheer number of times my father had courted death and then recovered had, perversely, made him seem indomitable.”

*

 All summer we drive back and forth between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The baby moves so much I find it hard to sleep. Limbs and head press out from all the corners of my stomach with such force, like he’s trying to push his way out through my skin. During the day, I mostly love the activity. It reminds me there’s life inside there, and it’s wild.

I think the transition to motherhood is already happening, but truthfully, I’m just brewing: both anxious and at peace—adrift. On one of the hottest days of the summer, Matt and I decide to hike one of my favourite trails in a nearby national park in New Brunswick and I feel lighter than I have in weeks. My heart races with each hill, so I slow down to breathe. I soak my feet in the river, clear and cold; feel the smooth stones, slippery, and sweat baked on my skin. Matt takes a picture of me looking back at him smiling, my hair half wet from dunking it. I stare at that picture of myself now and wonder who that person is. Two fragments—Chelsea/mother—still not stitched into any kind of whole. For supper I eat a fried fish sandwich the size of my face and I’m still not full.

Later, I’m watching the news with my dad before he goes to bed when the baby starts to move. It’s hard for Dad to stay up. He used to be so good at hiding pain, but it’s plain now. He pulls himself up from his recliner, and as he shuffles over to his walker, he stops in front of me on the couch and places his hand on my stomach. But the baby’s not moving, and I’m so worried about Dad standing there in front of me for too long with no support. I want him to wait and feel it, and yet I’m so scared he’ll fall. But then: a tiny flutter, and Dad says he feels it, but I’m not sure. 

At the baby shower my parents’ neighbours throw, a sudden wind rips the retractable awning off the back of their bungalow while we eat sandwich triangles inside. After supper Matt packs up the car with toys and baby blankets and clothes and I stand outside wondering what we’re going to do with it all. My mom asks me if I hugged my father. You won’t want to look back and regret it, she says. I criticize her for being dramatic, but I’m really so afraid.

Dad hugs me tighter than you’d think a man who’s mostly bones could squeeze. I love you, he says. I love you, I say back.

*

Dad talked about turning windrows of hay with the reverence of an artist. Now watch the wind twist between them. The tractor bouncing up the back field to get the cows and Dad’s hands on the skinny black steering wheel worn smooth. We belonged to the dirt under the tractor’s spinning wheels. My father and home, synonymous; as much a part of me as my skin or my lungs or my heart.

I see the sun rising over an alfalfa field on our way to the county fair. Just look at that, Dad would say every year, moving his hand through the air in the truck like a wave, mimicking the grass moving in the breeze, like he was part grass too. I hear Dad telling me how to clean a stall, shaking his head at the way I’d always back the wheelbarrow in and spill manure all over the floor.

On May evenings we’d look for brook trout, the light stretching out over new grass and the air not quite warm. He’d do too much—he always did too much—and lose his breath, but he’d smile. And the peepers would be singing when we got home.

Staring out over back hay fields one night outside the horse barn he said, hardly thinking about it: The best thing in life is to plant something and watch it grow.

*

The baby’s birth in October is a blur. Afterward, I have the world’s worst headache mixed with both vertigo and tinnitus thanks to the side effects from a botched epidural. Restrictions mean no one can visit us in the hospital and I barely make it through a long string of FaceTime calls. We name him Ewan. At some point a nurse comes in and pricks Ewan’s heel with a tiny needle before squeezing drops of blood onto what looks like a sheet of blank paper.

During birth, Ewan had breathed in a bit of mucus and his little wheezes and coughs keep Matt and I up all night. I become so desperate for even 10 minutes of sleep at one point that I ignore every warning about SIDS and stomach sleeping, and tuck Ewan into my hospital gown, his chest against mine. It’s the only position that allows him to breathe normally, and it’s so reassuring to feel his little body on mine.

For the first few weeks after we get home, I hate when it gets dark. I feel so lonely without family here to guide me through these first hard weeks. I become acutely aware that I am responsible for the life of the tiny human living in my house and I feel wholly unequipped. I crave sleep, to be alone, realizing I’ll never be truly alone again. How foreign mothering felt in those early days, like a new appendage I didn’t yet know how to use.

When I can’t take it anymore, we plan a trip to see my family. Covid cases are climbing again but the borders are open. And Ewan and I are both doing well more than two weeks after his birth.

I’m in the drugstore getting vitamin D, which the nurses at the hospital had recommended for Ewan’s newborn immune system, when my phone rings. Is this Ewan’s mother? It’s a counsellor from the hospital. The heel prick in the hospital had been for a standard test called newborn screening, and Ewan’s test showed he had too few T-cells. He’d been flagged for a rare genetic disorder: SCID, or severe combined immunodeficiency. Treatment for the disorder requires a stem cell transplant.

It’s likely just a lab error, the woman says, but can you bring him in to do the test again? In the meantime, we should think about keeping him away from people—just in case. I ask her about seeing my family. She says it’s up to us. They take more blood the next day and we drive to New Brunswick.

My parents, my three siblings, their partners and kids all wear masks. Ewan lies squeaking in his little rocker in the middle of my parents’ living room like a miniature deity everyone coos over but no one can touch. Dad smiles at him, calls him handsome. I cry over his diaper rash that’s become an open sore and Dad tells me Mom knows all the old tricks before she hands me a shaker full of cornstarch, made out of an old parmesan cheese container. The cornstarch never works, but I keep that shaker on the diaper caddy for more than a year. My father was there when Mom gave it to me. It’s proof that he was part of Ewan’s life.

*

We get another call. I’m in the shower, still in New Brunswick, when Matt raps on the bathroom door, and I can barely hear him. There’s something wrong, he says. We have to go back. I cry in my sister’s arms and my mother helps us pack. This time, no one stops me and reminds me to hug my father.

Over the next few weeks, they take vial after vial of blood from Ewan’s arms with tiny butterfly needles made just for babies, and we have to hold him down, screaming. They save some of it for DNA testing, but the rest will be flown to a lab in Cincinnati for something called a mitogen test to see how his white blood cells respond to infection. We talk to a genetic counsellor. My sister-in-law in Calgary asks her doctor about donating bone marrow. Matt reads too much about genetic disorders that cause T-cell deficiency in infants. He becomes so obsessed and terrified he can’t think about anything else. He can’t work. He can’t eat. I can’t console him. And we’re alone again, isolating so Ewan doesn’t catch a cold and die.

A couple of days before we expect some answers, Ewan’s immunologist calls with bad news. The hospital lab mistakenly froze Ewan’s blood sample, which was supposed to be fresh. When it got to Cincinnati, they threw it out. More tiny needles and screams, and then we’re waiting again. That week, Dad falls while trying to get to his walker.

*

Ewan is nuzzled up close to me in bed, where I’d tucked him in after he woke up whimpering before the sun came up. Around 9 a.m. the Do Not Disturb setting on my phone turns off and the buzzing wakes me. It’s my sister. She’s been trying to get a hold of me. She’s not angry, but it feels urgent. For a few seconds the gravity doesn’t register. I’d been dreading this call for so long that I thought I’d be able to sense when it was coming.

Dad went to sleep yesterday. He’s not going to wake up.

Words are stupid staccato sounds. Nothing can translate that dark shock.

My sister explains that they didn’t tell me the day before because they knew I wouldn’t be able to come. But we need to go. I decide unilaterally that we’re taking the chance. Matt says he’s calling Ewan’s immunologist to let her know. In the baby’s room, I start throwing diapers and sleepers into a plastic hamper. Is it possible to feel manic and numb at the same time? The phone rings again and Matt picks up this time. Did he come in with the baby? Did I sense it this time, before he told me? So gently he says, Chelsea, he just passed.

Heartbreak is physical. Bodies thrash, try to alter time.

The house is full. Friends and family sit at the kitchen table keeping vigil. My mother walks me into the living room where they’d set up a hospital bed months earlier, where my dad’s body now lies. There are his hands, his hairline, his wedding ring. It feels absurd that he was once a baby too, even though the passing of time and the dying of cells is one of the truest things of this world. We hold his hand before they take him away, tell him we love him. Later, nursing Ewan upstairs at my mom’s, I wonder what the point of all this love is. We’re born to die, and all the magic in between is just biology tricking us into repeating the same futile cycle.

Matt and I walk with Ewan to the brook, through the back field Dad cleared so long ago. I can’t talk to Dad or touch him, so there’s a compulsion to be where I can feel him. An ache, a pull, a tether to where, if there is an afterlife, I know he would be. Life becomes thin and delicate to me, like tissue paper—the way it actually is and we go around pretending it’s not.

*

We postpone Dad’s funeral by a week so Matt, Ewan and I can drive back to Halifax to continue isolating while waiting for the results of the second mitogen test attempt. But the immunologist calls us with bad news again: a plane was delayed, and Ewan’s fresh blood spoiled on the tarmac of some middle-American airport. She’s so upset that she convinces the children’s hospital lab in Halifax to do the test there, using her own blood as a control. She promises to do her best to get us the results before the funeral. More tiny needles and screams. I brush up against the frayed edges of what I can handle.

Friday arrives and still no results. We go back to New Brunswick anyway, try to be cautious. Matt stays at my mom’s house with Ewan and misses the funeral. New Covid regulations mean we can only have 25 people in the church, but a crowd shows up at the cemetery afterward, standing at the periphery to show their love while we lower Dad’s urn into the ground. The rest of the weekend, Matt swings between catatonic and explosive—manic with fear. He gives in to his worst obsessive tendencies and takes up all the sadness in the room. I can’t reach him. I can’t grieve. I resent him. We say hateful things to each other.

It’s the very end of the day when the doctor calls. It’s good news. The mitogen test indicated that even though Ewan’s T-cell count is low, his immune system works just fine. He has moderate T-cell lymphopenia, and the doctor is optimistic it will normalize over time. You can treat him like any other child, she says. An enormous weight falls off of my body. I can’t stop smiling, and for the first time in weeks I feel a catch in my throat from joy instead of sadness. We rush downstairs to tell my mother and all three of us wrap our arms around each other.

At Christmas everyone in my family finally gets to hold Ewan. He fills a hole in the room, distracts us from heartache. But at dinner, I still turn, instinctively, to the empty seat at the head of the table. Love feels like a trick.

*

The borders close again in January and five months go by. I find some relief in the daily routine of keeping Ewan alive. Mixed up in my exhaustion and sadness is exhilaration. Because this is when it really happens, when I become a mother. Time becomes fuzzy and unfixed, but Ewan grows at such a predictable rate. He smiles and he rolls, and then he starts trying to crawl. Every day is punctuated by these tiny joys. Though with each milestone I’m reminded that my father will never see any of this. He’ll be a ghost to Ewan, just as my grandparents are to me.

We’re walking through a park in our neighbourhood when Ewan is woken up in his stroller by a crow cawing in the trees. He opens his eyes and looks around, then falls back asleep. One year earlier, he was a secret tiny tangle of cells. Now this world is his home. He belongs here just as the crow does, even though he doesn’t know what a crow is.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” Mary Oliver wrote, but it could have been my father. I’m only starting to understand, now that Ewan’s here, what he was trying to tell me. This is our inheritance.

*

Green on green on green and my feet in the wet grass behind my mother’s house. Ewan in his car pyjamas and the taste of dew in the air. He grabs my legs to stand up, holding on with one hand. When we first arrived in June to spend the summer, I sat Ewan down in front of the hay towering above him and took a picture. He couldn’t even crawl. Now it’s nearly fall and the hay is cut.

In September my whole family walks up the back field again to a little alcove in the trees by the brook. We gather in a circle around a small hole in the ground. My brother and brother-in-law pass out plastic cups of Canadian Club and Coke—Dad’s drink—before Mom says a few words. Afterward, she empties a small container of ashes into the hole and we each take a turn covering them with dirt. Before the hole is filled in, Mom sets a horse chestnut seedling on top of the earth and the ashes. The tree’s origin is the big horse chestnut in my parents’ yard. Ewan travels from one set of arms to another and another, then ends up crawling around the grass while we all compact the loose dirt around the tree with our feet. 

I think back to the doubts I had about love and the cycle of life right after Dad died, almost a year ago, and none of those questions really matter to me now. I don’t care if it’s a biological trick or not. This life holds so much joy. We love for the sake of it, for the same reason we make art or eat. It isn’t a choice. There is love or there is darkness.

*

In my Grade 9 English class we were given an assignment to write a poem based on a photo. I chose one of myself as a child: I was maybe four or five years old, standing in a field, wearing a red T-shirt with Holstein cows on it, mass of curly hair wild in the breeze. I can’t find the poem now, but I know one line read, “my dad, the sun.” I’d been remembering both my father being there and the brightness of the sun that day, but when Dad read it, he thought I’d been calling him the sun.

Time circles and folds around me. Dad was just here, is here, could be here again. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you, I repeat to my father like a mantra. I love you. I love you. I love you, I whisper to Ewan before he falls asleep.

I want to feel life’s mark on me as much as I want to breathe. I want to linger on the details: The sting of salt in a hangnail. The papery feel of my dad’s skin. Ewan’s tiny breath in my ear. I collect these things and call them a life because I have nothing else. I claw my fingers into the earth and try to crawl in.

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