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Oxytocin for Two

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

The COVID Granny Diaries

Nova had cuddled into the crook of my left arm, as she normally did before closing her eyes for the night. We were snuggled up in my bed, covered by our “special quilt.” Ever since my granddaughter had come home with me to hide from the coronavirus, I had tried to calm her fears by letting her sleep while I held her in my arms, even though, after hardly moving all night, it meant I woke up very sore and stiff.

That night was no different from any other coronavirus bedtime, but suddenly, inexplicably, my four-year-old girl began to cry, quickly escalating to great sobs of sorrow. “Nova,” I asked, “What’s wrong?” Stuttering through the sobs, she answered, “If you won’t let me sleep with you anymore, what will I do?” Her tone was utterly bereft, too desolate for one so young.

The "pink room." Nova loves the bedspread and the pictures hanging over the headboard. They were my grandmother's and, as a little girl, I loved them, too. That's the Grandma chair on the right.

Earlier in the afternoon, I had casually remarked that Nova might want to go back to sleeping in “the pink room,” my second bedroom, called so because of its silky, rose-colored bedspread. Just before the pandemic, Nova had graduated to sleeping by herself under the luxurious covers of the full-sized Jenny Lind bed in this, her favorite room.

But the abrupt separation from her parents, the disease that was scaring all the grownups, the sudden but indefinite visit to her grandmother’s house, were all things one might expect to create anxiety in a little girl and, from the first night, she insisted on sleeping with me.

My number one mission while the two of us waited out the plague was to mitigate the fears that might overwhelm her and cause her lasting emotional damage, so I did not push her to sleep alone, but I was mindful that it is not considered developmentally good for her to sleep with her parents or grandparents. That’s why, after about three months, I had lightly suggested a return to her pre-pandemic achievement of sleeping alone in the pink room.

The heart-rending wailing was the result of that lightly-offered, parenting-correct suggestion. “Nova,” I murmured, “I thought maybe you would like to go back to the pink room. But you don’t ever have to go if you don’t want to. You can sleep here with me as long as you wish and I promise I will never make you leave if you don’t want to.” After more reassurances and some kisses, she finally drifted off. I thought to myself: “I am never bringing that up again, I don’t care what. She can sleep in here til she’s twenty if it comes to that.”

Everyone can see that Nova and I are very close. Perhaps oddly, our relationship has a foundation that is all about touch, rather than food or stories or toys. When I was her caregiver during the days and some nights for the first six months of her life, she and I practically lived in my gracefully-shaped burgundy velvet recliner, now known as “the Grandma chair,” where I fed and held and rocked her.

At the time, I was reeling from the break-up of my marriage and the death of my brother, as well as feeling rather lost after leaving Oxford. I was still working, but from home, so I could care for an infant rather easily; however, I was so deeply sad that sometimes the only thing I could do was just to sit in the Grandma chair and hold Nova. Often, I would let her fall asleep in my arms and then sit, quietly staring into space, while she napped, sometimes for an hour or two. Doing that gave me a sense of calm and warmth that I did not otherwise have—I basked in it. Though it is hopelessly threadbare now, that chair still sits in the pink room and I will probably keep it there forever because of the memories attached to it.

Most days and nights, though, I gently put her in her crib after she was asleep. At my house, her bed was placed right next to mine, which is in “the green room” (actually called so for the color of the walls). Her bed was all lined up with my pillow, such that when we went to bed at night, we were more or less nose-to-nose, separated only by the bars of the crib and a few inches of sheet.

It was months after Nova slept through the night at my place that she finally did it at home. I think it was because having another human so close by calmed her during the night. Even so, Scott and Caitlin teased me about how puzzled they were that Nova was lulled by the sound of my snoring rather than kept awake.

I have an app now that tells me I snore very little, which is what Jim always said, but my kids act like it's a train coming through. When she was old enough, Nova did confide in them that she knew “Loma” snored, as well as that Loma couldn’t hear well or remember some things. (She calls me “Loma,” which has been my family nickname since high school. Like other such names, the story behind it is “you had to be there.”)

As she grew bigger, it became our standard ritual that she would fall asleep next to me on my bed, both of us under the special quilt, and then I would put her in the toddler bed. When she took an afternoon nap, I often just stayed and slept with her (I need naps when she is visiting me because toddlers exhaust the elderly).

I admit that I loved these times, holding a small child in my arms, and softly going to sleep myself. Even during the pandemic, I would look at the skylight in my bedroom after Nova got quiet and my heart would explode with gratitude for just that moment. There is a passage by Ralph Waldo Emerson that I memorized in childhood: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.” I would run these words through my thoughts and feel like I had won the life lottery.

Here we are at the grocery store. Nova was good about wearing a mask, unlike a lot of kids her age. We had talked a lot about being safe from COVID. I am glad I talked to her so much about it because it meant she was careful. Many people tried to hide COVID, not wanting to scare their kids. But with Nova taken so abruptly from her parents, the priority was to let her know that she was living with me for a good reason.

Nova and I both stayed remarkably calm for about the first four months of our isolation. Even though she was only four, she seemed to understand that her visit to me was for our protection from disease and not because she was unwanted at home. I also emphasized to her that both her parents were working to end the outbreak, so they were heroes and we were proud of them; our job was to stay together and be safe. We would nod firmly to each other and resolve to be brave and do our part.

Nevertheless, it was inevitable that homesickness would become too much for her to bear: in May, the dam broke and the tears came—often. Her parents, who had been Face-Timing with her regularly, stepped up the contact to once or even twice a day. Scott began calling around noon and reading her a story. But she sobbed to me one night that it wasn’t enough to see them and talk to them: “I want to hug them.” Sweet thing, she was always careful to say that she was happy being with me, but she just wanted to go home. And I would tell her that I understood completely and was not hurt.

Back in New Haven, her parents had evolved a “return to earth” procedure to protect Scott from contagion when Caitlin came home from the ER. He would meet her at the back door with clean clothes. She would go straight to the washing machine, take off the clothes she was wearing and put them in it. Then she would put on the clean clothes and go to the bathroom to shower, after which she would put on yet another set of clean clothes. This going-through-the-airlock-to-the-mothership approach appeared to be working. By June, Scott had not been sick and neither had Caitlin.

In this light, the situation in New Haven seemed safer. Nova’s continued distress began to outweigh the coronavirus risks that would be incurred—for her and for me—if she went home for the weekends. So, for the rest of the summer, Scott and I met at a Dunkin' Donuts in Mystic, Connecticut to swap Nova on Friday and Sunday nights.. She was happy again after that, but she still insisted on sleeping with me during the week.

After much agonizing, we decided Nova could go back to school in September. Her little pre-K had reopened in June and though we had not felt comfortable sending Nova back, the precautions they were taking had kept the school from having a single case. They had earned our confidence. I would keep Nova through Labor Day and then, after six months of basically having no other human but each other to be with and talk to, we would part ways.

The last night Nova was with me, we sat cheek-to-cheek in a chair on the patio, with our eyes closed, doing what we call “feeling the air.” There was no breeze; the air was still, clear, and warm. We just let it drape over our skin. Nova turned her head and whispered into my ear, “Loma, you’ll be all alone when I am gone. I’m afraid you will be lonely.”

Such a sweet thought. But I have lived alone this child’s whole life. And I take pride in the fact that I am not the kind of isolated old woman families worry about. So I chuckled and said, “Baby girl, that’s so sweet and I will miss you. But I will be ok. You know that.”

Everything was easier when the weather warmed up. By June, we could have "tea" in the garden after our nap. Which we mostly took together.

That night, Nova slept alone in the pink room for the first time since the pandemic began.

Soon, I was touched, though concerned, to hear that Nova was experiencing separation anxiety, crying at home, and talking about me constantly at school. She was worried I would forget her. “Loma forgets things,” she would cry to her parents, who, quite aware of my ADHD shortcomings, couldn’t dispute that diagnosis, tried to tell her she rated higher than Loma’s car keys and would not be forgotten.

When she first left, I was ready to have my life back. After a couple of weeks, I was surprised and humbled to find that I was lonely in her absence. At Nova’s insistence, Scott and I began making our Mystic Dunkin' exchange every other weekend. On alternate Sunday nights, before we went to Mystic to meet her dad, she would hand me one of her “lovies” to keep me company until she came again. Once, she gave me a toy bracelet to remember her by.

By Thanksgiving, the virus was out of control, so much so in Rhode Island that the residents were barred from going into either Connecticut or Massachusetts. Two field hospitals were set up near Providence and they were full almost immediately. I got scared and decided, with great difficulty, that I would have to stop getting Nova for a while. Our little family didn’t even gather for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Once Nova was indefinitely gone, I had my empty house and the winter to face, with sky-rocketing death rates and tales of Trump tearing down democracy to bear. Like the rest of America, I doom-scrolled my way through most days, stayed up late watching the news, and got increasingly depressed. It was then that I had an insight that should have come much sooner.

Gaby, my therapist, and I love to trade odd little morsels of research findings. One day, when I was having my tele-session, she told me that a new study showed it took a 13-second hug to give you a charge of oxytocin, the “love hormone” that comes from, among other things, contact with other humans. Oxytocin makes you feel happy. I pondered that for a few days before I realized the reason that the first nine months of the pandemic—despite too much cooking to do, infinite laundry in piles, and absurd stacks of dirty dishesmnot to mention the backlog of my usual work—had passed in a kind of glow.

True, we had laughed and played our way through a beautiful summer. True, I had never had the time to think very much about anything but taking care of Nova, so I had not suffered the crushing boredom and loneliness that other adults had. But if it only takes a 13-second hug to give you a shot of oxytocin, then the cuddles Nova and I shared had protected us both.

I have long been proud of my independence and actually have relished living alone these past six years, so it was not the easiest lesson to accept that I needed the touch of another being. My first thought was to get a dog. I looked it up: dogs help but petting them does not give you oxytocin. For that, you must touch another human. (I'm still going to get a dog. I want a Golden Retriever puppy.)

By January, I was in full-on depression. I am sure my kids conferred to decide that, in the absence of Nova, Liza's dog Pete should do the rescue duty. Pete, despite his inability to provide oxytocin, was great company and made me feel a lot better.

Nova won’t always be able to come rescue me from loneliness, nor will Eliza’s dog, Pete, who has been standing in for my granddaughter whenever my kids thought I needed COVID company. I have resolved that, once the pandemic is over, I will take steps to surround myself with other people. I have a wealth of friends, but they are spread around the world. They love me and I them. But they are not here to give me a hug. For that, you need other humans in your presence.

But we have all learned that lesson in the past year, right? And that, more than anything else, is why we need the plague to be over.

It has been almost exactly one year since Nova and I went into lockdown together. Today, I am meeting Scott in Mystic to get Nova. She will stay the weekend for the first time since I had to separate from her in late October. I saw her from a social distance at Valentine’s Day. And she did come for Christmas. But this is our first return to being just us again. I can’t wait.

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