Published on April 30th, 2021 | by Jade Sanchez-Ventura and Ro Agents-Juska0
Bed: HOME IS WHERE WE
In our room, there is a king mattress and a single mattress, both on the floor, and a travel crib. My baby has just turned one. My big kid is five and three-quarters. I am married. We spent the end of 2020 and the start of 2021 in quarantine because my partner got COVID. Who knows where or how; we do (or don’t do) all the things, but numbers had been on the rise in New York City since Thanksgiving. Somehow neither I nor the kids got it. Ever since we discovered that our first kid slept more hours in a row when he was close to us, he’s either slept in our bed or in his bed adjacent. He’d been wondering about a room of his own until his sister was born and since then he’s wanted only to remain close and closer. Now we have this consortium of mattresses in the one room. There’s another bedroom that would have been for the kids if we put them there. Instead, it holds our desks and one more mattress, a queen, tucked into the corner. We call it the “grown up room.” (I’d thought that it might become the sexy room too, but even though it has a bed with no kids, it’s still the other rooms with other furniture that have more of a spark.) It is to this room where my partner or I retreat when we really need a night’s sleep, leaving the night parenting to the other.
I used to keep my beds pristine and all to myself. At sleepaway camp I didn’t mind if my bunkmates lounged on my bed, but I didn’t want them in it, nor did I want my pillow pulled out from my sleeping bag. In my apartments with my mother, with no siblings, I reigned over my room. I loved especially the laundry days that concluded with fresh sheets. On these, I showered in the evening before putting on a fresh, clean baggy t-shirt and underwear. Then I’d climb into bed and light my lamp and read late into the night. In college, when I’d hook up, I preferred returning to their beds rather than bringing our shared sweat into mine.
And yet…when Mike and I moved in together I did not miss it. His slumbering body edged out my bouts of insomnia and in the mornings I loved the warm scent of him as we lounged with our legs crisscrossed.
We lived a long time that way before we had our first child. He was born at home and slept his first night between us. From that night on, bed changed. The rest of the rooms were lovely and pleasant to be in, but bed became the center of our home, the place we kept our baby safe. It felt animal and instinctual; as if we were furry creatures fending off cold and night and all manner of predator. And when we lay there and bordered our baby with the curve of our bodies I felt more content and safer than I’d ever thought it possible to feel.
I’ve surrendered the crisp sheets and clean pillows. In the summers, I sleep on the Rockaway sand that shakes from our hair. I roll away from the circle of milk that spills from my side-lying nursing. I find a toy under my pillow and nudge it aside and continue in my pursuit of sleep. My big kid makes forts out of our pillows and somersaults through the blankets. None of it belongs to me anymore. Where once we slept high in the air on a sculpture of a bedframe, we now lay it all on the floor because no one can fall off a floor. And no matter how many beds there are, of course it is where the parents sleep, the “big bed” as we call it, that draws their wiggling bodies, if not in the night, then immediately upon waking.
But when we got the positive PCR back, we moved Mike into the grown up room to begin his in-house isolation. My big kid insisted on keeping me company when I put his sister to sleep. Some nights, he lay on the outer edge of the bed, looking out the dark window at the lit houses across the backyard gardens while I nursed and sang his sister to sleep. Other nights he rolled in close, his head next to hers, holding her hand while she nursed. It kept her awake longer, but I did not stop him. Sometimes he fell asleep with her. Other nights, he watched while I lowered her into her crib and then he and I tiptoed out together for an evening snack, or to read, before returning to the big bed, where he rolled in close, his forehead to mind, holding my hand while I sang and then just lay beside him.
The first few days of our COVID quarantine felt like a social experiment; a colossal inconvenience for me while the patient holed up in his room with mild cold symptoms, Netflix and nary a parenting responsibility. I fantasized that when his isolation was done, I too would test positive and switch places with him and spend the ensuing two weeks sleeping and writing with only intermittent, masked nursing to disturb me.
But then Mike’s symptoms whooshed back and they were vicious. He concentrated on telling his body that it was ok, that the air was enough, but he could never take a full breath. We got a pulse oximeter. One afternoon, the doctor gave us two numbers for M’s blood oxygen levels. One number meant call him, the other meant go to the E.R. Within an hour, we were at the other.
We began to take the actions needed to get to the ER. We cried while we moved from one task to the next: texting my step-dad to meet us on the street and walk Mike to the hospital (mercifully a few blocks away), packing a bag, gathering warm clothes, a phone charger. I put a quart of soup in a bag.
“I’m going with you,” I said.
“You know that you have to stay here with the kids,” he said.
And I did know that. But in that moment I swear it felt like I was leaving him on the fucking Titanic. I remembered last spring when people were dying alone in hospitals. How far out of reach would he be? I wanted to keep him close where I could see him and touch him and ward off all harm.
I told our big kid that “Daddy has to go to the doctor.” I tell my kid the truth but that was as true as I could make it that afternoon. He looked away from the television at me. “Ok,” he said, and didn’t ask any questions.
After Mike was gone, I walked upstairs and put the baby in the living room to crawl and then went to the bathroom and knelt down and put my forehead on the tile and cried. I glimpsed that abyss that I spent most of waking days pretending is not there; that other place that loving people can take us.
Then I wiped my eyes and sat on the couch while cartoons played and texted our friends so that I would not be the only one who knew what was happening.
Some amount of time that could have been an hour or could have been many more, he texted to say that his blood oxygen had stabilized. They were running tests to see if he needed to be admitted.
Are they nice? I texted.
Very. He texted back.
We synchronized a viewing of The Muppets with two sets of friend-families, all linked by FaceTime. By 8:30 that night, about six hours after he left, Mike returned home, stable, better. He returned to his isolated bed in the grown up room and was soon asleep. I took the two kids to the big bed. My son held his sister’s hand while she nursed. Soon they were both asleep. I lowered the baby into her crib. My son rolled over onto his knees with his butt in the air, the blanket tented in the lights from our neighbors. I left them to the hum of the noise machine. I put on my mask and tiptoed to the grown up room. I listened at the door and then began to open it, my intention to silently crack it and listen for breathing. But instead it let out a loud, old house creak. Mike sat up, startled.
“That was supposed to be me unobtrusively checking on you,” I laughed.
He was not really awake. “Don’t worry,” he said and lay back down, asleep again.
I moved around the silent house, straightening and tidying. I may have taken a bath, many nights I did. I was too screened out to watch anything. I was reading a book about Mexico City that had no resemblance to my daily life. That night, and all the others, my muscles stayed on alert long after they were all asleep. I did not even try until after the midnight nursing the baby usually woke up for. That night she nursed fast and then fell immediately back. Once again, I returned her to her crib. Once again, I cracked the grown up room door, silently this time, to listen for breathing.
I know there is a future in which I will live in quiet rooms again. My son’s body has shed the last of his toddler roundness. (He’s like a baby giraffe now, all elbows and enthusiasm, unsure what to do with this length and limbs.) And even the baby, well of course she can barely be called that, she is ready to scoot away into her toddling, two-limbed explorations. I understand also that there are possible futures without even my husband to join me between crisp, cool sheets; though those are the futures I ignore.
His recovery has been slow but steady. We kept him in the grown up room for weeks so he could make sure to have long, unbroken nights of sleep. On the nights when he’s back in the big bed, he carries our son to the single bed, before climbing in himself. We sleep beside each other, though I still go to bed later. In the middle of the night, I’ll nurse on my side, too sleepy to return the baby to her crib. In the morning, my older one will wake up and look at the ceiling for a while. When he hears his sister and knows her to be awake, he’ll clamber back in too. He’ll try to cuddle with her, but then she’ll pull his hair and bang on his head in her excitement. She’ll crawl out of bed in search of my night’s water glass or the hair ties I leave next to the mattress. He’ll jump up, running to the bathroom to pee. Mike and I will linger and then he’ll get up to put on water for coffee. Let me just snooze a little longer, I’ll say. And lie there, not asleep, not awake, in the still-warm tangle.
Words by Jade Sanchez-Ventura / Images by Ro Agents-Juska
In the series “Home is Where We…”, two women artists, raising children in Brooklyn and Detroit, consider the domestic spaces in which we’ve sheltered.