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The Song of Sirens

Giving birth at the height of the pandemic

Tamara Mann Tweel
December 11, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I looked up at the fluorescent lights, the flimsy blue sheet separating me from my stomach, and tried to pray. I could hear sounds coming into the room: a nurse or a loud speaker repeating “move all COVID patients to floor 7.” Was I on floor 7? I scanned the walls. No, this must be floor 2. What about the pre-op room where I just waited for two hours? Are they talking about me? My mind raced, fastened to a now familiar anxiety: Did I wash my hands, were we far enough apart, did I have COVID? What about my baby? My baby. I came back to the room, I came back to my body. I pushed the unforgiving anxiety away. I prayed. I beseeched. Then the magnificent drama began. Not of fear and disease, but of the blessing of new life. Frenetic movements paused as the doctor lifted my baby up beyond the blue sheet. I heard my child cry, I lingered on his full head of silky dark hair, I noticed the speckled red dots on his nose, and I craved his scent. My newborn came to me, into my arms, onto my chest, and all was good.

On March 29, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, my son’s gentle cry cut into a room, into a hospital, into a city overcome by fear and grief. When I try to make sense of that moment, I fixate on the sounds. The tears of nurses as they struggled with securing protective equipment, the snaps of masks on and off, the Purell pumps, the feet shuffling to stay distant, and, always, always, the sirens, transporting the ill from home to hospital, and the bodies from hospital to earth.

I kept my newborn son, all seven pounds of him, in the crook of my arm, as nurses ushered my husband out of the hospital. I was moved around and around, back to the pre-op room, into an elevator, onto a hallway, and finally onto what they called the “COVID-free floor.” The nurses looked tired. The janitor looked scared. Finally, we came to our resting place, near a window, and it was evening.

I heard my roommate turn, the soft blue shade between us rustle, as she slowly moved left and right in her cot. My body seized with panic until I felt the baby, soft and sweet, gently breathing on my chest. What time was it? The banging outside the window grew louder. I could hear the confident voice of a foreman, or was I imagining the sound? It must have been 2 or 3 a.m. but I felt enveloped in a construction site. I breathed with my newborn child. I felt peaceful in my sea of white mesh gauze and eagerly eyed the tray at my left, which housed a prized carton of whole milk my roommate had secured for me. Three days in, she was an old-timer, an arrival from Jackson Heights, Queens, who had labored alone and delivered a baby girl. I heard the girl whimper and her mother pick her up. “Do you hear that noise outside?” she asked me. “I’m glad I’m not hallucinating. What do you think is happening?” My roommate rose, opened the window, and we watched as the park across the street from our hospital room transformed into a giant tent city, an outdoor hospital across a hospital awaiting what our nurses called “the surge.”

While enraptured by new life, we were both surrounded by the threat of death. Mothers have been here before, in war, in famine, and in childbirth, we knew. But our past experiences had ill prepared us for desert tents awaiting urban trauma. I inhaled and brought in the sweet-smelling scent of my newborn child. I called my husband and my two older children, and shifted uncomfortably as the full reality of my wounded body took hold. I remember well the pain. The pain was almost a relief, the externalization of a kind of spiritual discomfort I had been enduring for months. The alluring strangeness of this miraculous birth had begun earlier, in a different era, when our personal, and not global, struggles still carried weight.

On March 29, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, my son’s gentle cry cut into a room, into a hospital, into a city overcome by fear and grief.

Ten months ago, I turned 40. Nine months ago, I found out I was pregnant. After a decade of pregnancies, two miraculous children and two second-trimester miscarriages, I had thought the years where I would expand and contract were behind me. And yet, in my late 30s, I began to feel an indentation in my chest, a kind of spiritual desire that physically hollowed me. I would dream of this little soul whispering near me, asking to be born. I believed that the act of creating life was a religious affirmation, the strongest way to live the truth that God knows more than we do, that the future is more important than the present, that life itself is more precious and more holy than our vision can ever truly grasp. And so we tried for another child although I assumed it would never happen. Pregnancy had never come easy to me.

The reality of this late-in-life pregnancy astonished me. Rather than a feeling of purpose or joy, I was overwhelmed with panic. How would I do this? How would we afford our lives? What would I tell my new employer? The petty logistics of my crass materialism overtook me and I felt deeply unworthy. I felt unworthy of this miracle. Rather than being filled with holiness, I was filled with logistics, with small crises, with inherited worries that had somehow become my own. Late at night, as I heaved into my pillow, my husband looked at me, concerned: Isn’t this what you wanted, what you prayed for? This is good. Just wait darling. Just wait.

My dear friend came to my home to pray with me but I felt far from God. My failure to experience the blessing of this pregnancy haunted my religious life. I stopped going to shul. I said it was the pregnancy, but it was more than that. I stopped learning Torah. I said it was work, but it was more than that.

As I grew far from my faith, my husband grew closer to his. My husband converted to Judaism almost 15 years ago. He fell in love with our rituals at home, with learning Torah, and with the deep friendships we formed over long Shabbos meals. He had always been a full participant in our religious life, but while he was my partner, I was often our family’s conduit to Judaism. In this pregnancy, my husband became our family’s spiritual anchor. He learned Rambam once a week with a rabbi and dear friend, he studied the prophets, and left for shul early with our son, beaming when our 6-year-old put his kippah on and sat next to him to pray. I lived in a spiritual home, even though I was filled with spiritual doubt. I was grateful for that. I was also grateful for the habits of faith that kept me rooted: Shabbat, religious school for my children, my monthly Torah group, and my cousins. But beneath the habits was an ache. A sense of purpose lost, of mission diluted, and of faith unmoored. This was in November, December, January, and February. This was before March.

Busyness can be a spiritual salve. Life fills up. The blessed bounce of urban chaos occupied my days as I jumped between work and children. I woke up to the hustle of school lunches, drop-offs, recycling, commutes, emails and finished the day with bedtime routines, dirty dishes, and more emails. I lived beholden to my calendar, constantly trying to move this around to make that. My two-bedroom apartment was crowded, one husband and two children, but crowded in a way that felt alive. In those early spring days, we were preparing as a family to welcome our third child. On March 7, I was working on the seudah menu for the bris. And then the waves of realization came, in stages, crumbling the fortress of movement, halting my sense of time and belief in a stable future. The spiritual ache turned physical.

First my husband, a physician in New York City, came home from a day of emergency-room call concerned. His medical practice would temporarily close. He would be furloughed. And then my children came home. Their school would close. The fear began to set in. The fear of economic insecurity, the fear of death, the fear of having the last precious years of childhoods seized. Joan Didion has a line in her novel Blue Nights about this kind of loss, “The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall. What is lost is already behind the locked doors. The fear is for what is still to be lost.”

My early moments of stress were naive. The deaths hadn’t come yet. As March wore on and my skin stretched to accommodate new life, I began to hear of the losses, a friend’s mother, a past colleague, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 dead. The city filled up with the endless sounds of sirens. And the pain, jobs lost, savings destroyed, loved ones without protective equipment serving on the front lines. Beyond the ongoing anxiety I felt for my children, for my husband, for my parents, and for my city, was an almost constant spiritual cramp, the doubt about bringing new life into this very dangerous and insecure world.

When Odysseus faced the prospect of the Sirens, he asked to be tied to the mast of his ship. He knew the sounds would entice him toward abandoning his mission, toward chaos, and toward death. My sirens would not beguile me with beauty, but they would invade me with thoughts of anxiety, mortality, and agony. What would I use to insulate myself? On March 25 it looked like I would deliver this child alone. Spouses were forbidden from entering the hospital. I reached out to my teachers, asking them to send me texts, from the Torah, from literature, to bind me, to protect me, to elevate me, as I waited to deliver.

On March 28, Gov. Andrew Cuomo intervened and demanded that all hospitals in New York allow partners for the delivery but not the rest of the hospital stay. And so at 5 a.m. on March 29, my husband and I arrived at the hospital with a folder of texts from my teachers. We started the day with blood tests, nose swabs, IV lines, and Melville, with Ishmael’s reflection on the sight of mother whales nursing in Moby Dick: “But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales …” There was more to the quote but we couldn’t get past the phrase “watery vaults.” It is where we longed to be, somewhere enclosed and thick and peaceful. And so we conjured that underwater lake that Melville described and tried to steal ourselves into ourselves and away from the clanks and screams, vomiting and tears, that filled the small, ill-designed room of thin-cloth separators and square tiled ceilings, where pregnant and newly nursing mothers waited.

When my husband left and my baby slept upon me that first day, his silk-velvet skin emanating with warmth, I unfolded the other texts. I read the texts bestowed upon me by rabbis and Jewish scholars, religious mentors, and friends. My body seized with discomfort at the distance I had created, the distance between myself and my faith, between my texts and my life. This is the Torah that found me in the pandemic; the texts my mentors and friends chose, as ropes upon the mast, to elevate and protect me in a time of great personal need.

Our dear friend, one of the rabbis who had nourished our home by learning with my husband, offered Pesachim 116a in the Talmud and asked why we dip maror into haroset? Why isn’t it sufficient to just experience the bitterness? Reading the text again, through our friend’s interpretive moves, transported me to that feeling I once had of yearning for the soul now breathing in my hands. Our friend explained that there have always been and will always be moments of sweetness and hope that emerge from bitter times. This is a truth and not a dismissal of pain. Optimism in dire conditions, he explained, is brave. It inspires humanity to create and build and endure. He cited Rashi on the connection between haroset made of apples and the orchards where the Jewish slaves of Egypt gave birth. When you dip the bitter herb in the thick haroset, the bitterness is consumed by hope. That is the gift of new life. It is always the gift of new life, in any and all conditions, but especially in times of great pain and of growing cynicism.

I let the shame wash over me. The shame that lived within me for nine months, the shame of being unworthy of this child. The shame of being fearful of economic uncertainty and change. The great shame in allowing myself to move away rather than close to God. I looked at my newborn, so fragile and so sturdy, divine and human, his eyes watery vaults, his life a sign of redemption in chaos. His life an all-consuming hope.

When I entered the hospital, I planned to leave before we chose a name. I wanted to be with my husband and children and choose a name together that hewed closely to the experience of witnessing our son. After 12 hours in a hospital responding, as best it could, to the pandemic, I decided to leave early to heal at home with my family. At 15 hours I was told that it would be almost impossible to name the child after I left and that it would be best to fill out the paperwork now. The ongoing dance between logistics and grandeur startled me. I would choose a name now, not because I was ready but because the bureaucratic paperwork required I do so. And outside the sirens, persistent and piercing, moving the sick and dead.

I looked at my newborn, so fragile and so sturdy, divine and human, his eyes watery vaults, his life a sign of redemption in chaos. His life an all-consuming hope.

I picked up another text, this one from my beloved childhood teacher, who helped me build a faithful life as a teenager. She brought me to the previous week’s Torah portion and the building of the Mishkan. She wrote about Bezalel, the man tasked with leading the project of building a dwelling place for God on Earth and the particular form of wisdom God gives to the builders of the Mishkan, chochmat lev, wisdom of the heart. While one might expect wisdom to be associated with the head or the brain, in this moment of sacred building, it is associated with the heart. As I pondered this trait of chochmat lev, I thought back to my own classroom, where I spent many summers teaching Socratic wisdom, a form of wisdom centered on the limits of human knowledge. Intelligence of the mind can be steeped in a dangerous form of surety. But wisdom of the heart is centered on true humility. It is this form of humility that gives one strength to bring holiness into this world. I thought back to my husband, who told me humbly to “wait,” who offered me patience and faith amid uncertainty. I looked down at my son, I repeated the story of building the Mishkan, a wandering home in the desert, I repeated the story of his father, and I called him Bezalel.

How does Avram become Avraham, began another note from a friend. It begins when Avram encounters a birah doleket, a glowing palace. He faces a place that does not make sense, a place that is simultaneously creation and destruction, order and chaos, beauty and pain. Drawing on Genesis Rabbah 39:1, my friend explained, we expand, we grow, we increase in holiness, when we endure the true visceral paradox of mortal existence. I took his words in. I looked outside my window and watched as holy men and holy women labored, moving cots and medical equipment, boxes of N95 masks, and water bottles. I looked inside my room, at the careful way the nurses had prepared gauze strips and diapers, I listened as I heard them shuffle between rooms, healing despite their fear. I looked at my son, peaceful in my arms. I looked at my body, scarred and sore. And I listened to the sirens. The sick were coming. I let all of it in, the birah doleket, the palace and the flame.

Before I left the hospital, I gave my son his English name, Raphael.

In the twilight hours, between reading, nursing, listening, and witnessing, I fell in love with my son. I fell in love with the speckles on his nose, the curls forming by his ears, the way the bones of his chest breathed into my hands. I fell in love with his eyes. I became enclosed in his goodness and holiness. In Bereshit (Genesis 18) when Abraham exhibits his signature virtue of hachnasat orchim, hospitality, he is visited by three angels. In the Rabbinic tradition, it is claimed that one of these three angels is Raphael, who comes as a messenger of God, to heal Abraham. Raphael is a conjunction of two words, Rapha and El, meaning that God heals. As I prepared to leave Mount Sinai carrying a vision of the Mishkan, I came to believe that my dear child was an expression of this name. An expression not of surety and not of simplicity, but of the possibility that we can all be vehicles of divine restoration.

When Raphael was born, my life before him ceased to exist. With a new life came a new world. I am humbled by it all. My pain, my challenges, our agony, our losses have not been resolved. But again Torah flows into my life. God looks up at me from the watery vaults, and another sound pierces through the glissando-sirens, thick and sonorous and round, tekiah gedolah, and together, Raphael and I are awake.

Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel writes about religion and education. She is a Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.