‘Outside, there’s coronavirus’: A Covid-positive mom on being cared for by her five-year-old

"R saw us suffer through what we spent more than a year protecting ourselves against. After our month-long COVID ordeal, he looks more serious, more grown-up, but for some reason, physically smaller."

By Tanya Aggarwal 

After more than a year of taking every possible precaution, COVID-19 caught us in India’s second wave. R, my five-year old, saw both parents go to hospital. He was fortunate – we returned alive.

Before my oxygen level dropped, I was at home, unable to speak or sit up. My husband was in the hospital for lung damage. Fever, pain and fatigue separated my mind from my body; I saw R touch my forehead, make me drink water and remind me to eat. He parted with his favourite pillow for the first time ever – the one with pink and green owls – to make me more comfortable. Sometimes, the child in him returned and he lay down on me, looking for the comfort that comes with touch.

R became a child again when my husband returned. However, he soon saw me gasping for air and disappear into hospital for 11 days, the longest we have been apart.

When I returned, R was once again in caretaker mode. He memorised my schedule, made meals for me in his toy kitchen, and ensured I napped and took my medicines. He even checked if I was reaching the correct level on the spirometer. Every night, he walked me to my bedroom, tucked me in and confiscated my Kindle – “Don’t be naughty”, he said in his serious voice. He returned every morning to ask if I had slept well – “Just like you ask me”, he said.

Sometimes, with hope-filled eyes, he would ask me to play. I would have to refuse because COVID-19 had taken away my energy and left me with a hacking cough.

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R (staging his trademark walkout with hands on hips): I don’t like this Mumma! I am going. Bye.

This did not hurt me. It made me happy because despite all the adulting, the child inside him was alive.

Feeling better one evening, I asked him to play. I negotiated the game instead of yielding because that is what will happen when he returns to physical school. We settled on a castle he had made using cardboard boxes and dupattas nicked from my cupboard.

R: Look, Mumma. I built this castle myself. Isn’t it nice? No help from anyone.

My son. My single parent’s grandson.

R (spotting my black journal): What’s that? Give me it. Now you sleep and I’ll do what I want.

Yes, Your Lordship. I closed my eyes while he hammered away on his toy laptop and took work calls on an old TV remote. When the alarm rang, signalling bedtime, R headed to my mother’s bedroom since he could not sleep in mine. I followed to extract as many hugs and kisses as possible. I was not disappointed. Kisses on his yummy cheeks, strokes on his soft head and tons of cuddles and tummy squeezes. Even after a few minutes, he did not run off to find a toy unlike before COVID. On the contrary, he patiently reciprocated and asked for more. Then he remembered I had to be tucked in, so we headed for my bedroom where he thwarted my attempts to help – “Let me do all the work, Mumma. You lie down.”

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Hugs were exchanged and he scurried out. After a few minutes, I saw my mother gesturing – she had a work call. Yes, another hug opportunity! I darted into my mother’s bedroom.

R (staring at AC remote): Mumma – what is this button? Let’s play a game. Let’s guess if the buttons on my AC remote are in the same place as this remote. They are both LG. See? L. G.

Good game. We got the on/off button right but then got confused. He made me text my husband for a photo of his AC remote. The photo came “flying”. However, he soon yawned and got upset.

R (whining): I want to sleep. Today there is too much work!

Me: Why?

R: Nani (maternal grandmother) still has to read books. But Dadi (paternal grandmother) told me to sleep early because we have to wake up and go to the park because the park will close at 9 o’clock because there is a lockdown.

Ah – the stresses of a pandemic childhood. R saw us suffer through what we spent more than a year protecting ourselves against. After our month-long COVID ordeal, he looks more serious, more grown-up, but for some reason, physically smaller. He gives me frequent hugs and kisses and randomly indulges in any form of touch, like holding onto my arm. It’s almost like he’s checking if I am there. Early childhood trauma can have that effect. Ask me, I know.

I can only hope that he recovers from seeing his caregivers – the most stable influences in his young life – become care-recipients overnight. There is one difference from my own trauma which may be relevant. My trauma was permanent. However, my husband is mostly back on his feet and my recovery is expected to take another month. Maybe R will forget. My optimism is boosted by a story my mother in-law often tells. Her father worked at an ammunition factory, and they lived minutes away in the small township that had arisen around the factory. During the 1962 Indo-China war, the factory was a potential target. She recalls how she and her siblings were herded into a bunker. “We would pretend it was a game.” It’s amazing how these memories sort of stay but the detail fades.

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The pandemic was hard on R even before COVID-19 smacked us in the face. Schools have been closed for more than a year and the way things are going, my feeling is they will not open until next year. Online school bores R, he would rather paint. Homework annoys him, he would rather play sink/float. He does not know how to play hopscotch or stand in a queue. He struggles with concepts such as sharing and waiting for his turn. He does not like instructions because like most adults, he thinks he knows best.

Once a kid who loved the outdoors, he believes we should remain indoors with no exceptions. For example, I had trouble convincing him to come to the terrace. He was right in a way. On the one hand, I told him we could not go to the local playground because “Outside there is coronavirus”. On the other hand, I told him to come to the terrace where there was no roof to protect him – “Don’t be silly, Mumma”.

He has virtual playdates with two friends, and the rest of his time is spent with adults. Virtual interactions, while helpful, are not the same – kids cannot whisper into each other’s ears, they cannot visit each other’s castles, they cannot hug. They try their best though; kids are resilient. They draw without sharing crayons and hold up the result to discuss. They write and illustrate ‘books’ which they share with each other via their parents’ phones. One of R’s books is about a Christmas beach vacation with his friends after the coronavirus ends. I read it to him every day, hacking cough be damned.

We have tried our best to normalise it. Much like my mother did for me in my childhood. For example, we celebrated every pandemic birthday with much gusto and limited attendance. My husband’s birthday came first. Fool’s hope – I thought it would be the only ‘quarantine birthday’ so we nailed the theme. R made a Happy Birthday banner with tiny cartoon coronaviruses.

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On R’s fifth birthday, I went all out within pandemic limitations to create a happy memory for him. On my eighth birthday – the last my father saw – he had done the same for me. There were balloons on my door and a pop-up birthday card. I have not looked at that card in many years, but the memory never fails to make me smile. My husband blew up countless balloons and together we stayed up late the night before to decorate the living room to surprise R. I made a two-storey round chocolate cake with chocolate icing, surrounded by Kit-Kats, generously loaded with chocolate chips and Gems, and our long-time helper made his favourite chola-bhatura. We had an 80s-style party with grandparents – everyone wore birthday hats and created a ruckus with blow-outs. Pin the Donkey, Pass the Parcel, Musical Chairs and many more games. It was almost like a real kids’ party. I say almost because there was only one kid and the games had only one winner.

Back to the present. I summoned my mother to relieve R’s stress about the morning park visit. She walked towards the bedroom, putting the phone on speaker mode as she entered. As she closed the door, I heard the speaker say “vaccines” and “politically driven”. Yes, healthcare in India was always intertwined with politics but politics now has healthcare in a chokehold. Who is suffering for it? The people of India, and most of all, our children.

(Tanya Aggarwal is mum to a five-year old mini-adult, and a lawyer. She is recovering at home under her son’s strict supervision after spending 11 days in a hospital battling COVID-19)

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