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Becoming a grandparent during the coronavirus pandemic

Many grandparents are being forced to interact with their grandchildren while separated by window panes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many grandparents are being forced to interact with their grandchildren while separated by window panes during the coronavirus pandemic.Brent Stirton/Getty

On a late afternoon in April, my wife, Suzy, and I walked up to a brick bungalow in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood. We were more than ready for a glimpse of our first grandchild — after traveling from western New York and then waiting several days until our son and his wife returned from the hospital with their newborn.

Here was the big moment, when being a grandparent would finally seem real.

We walked across the front porch to a large window, peered inside and there he was, sleeping in our son Jack’s arms as his wife, Kate, looked on. And there we stayed, separated from this peaceful family tableau by a pane of glass.

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This is grandparenting amid the COVID-19 crisis.

For my wife and me, becoming grandparents meant a hurried drive across middle America — 1,500 miles in two days. It meant being barred from a hospital visit, then maintaining two weeks of self-isolation in a rented house before we’d eventually be allowed to hold our grandchild or hug his parents.

Across the nation, COVID-19 has confronted grandparents with a new set of challenges. Normally, there would be a rush to smother a newborn with hugs and kisses, and to dive right in to help the sleep-deprived parents.

Suzy and I looked forward to the simple joys of welcoming a new generation into our family. She longed for the intimacy of a baby: the soft skin and sweet smell. I was eager for the small treasures of infancy, like humming a lullaby and earning that first crooked smile.

Now, that overwhelming love must stay bottled up, or be released in drips during FaceTime calls. And grandparents have to deal with an endless balancing of logistics and risks — especially when they live far away.

When is it safe to meet the baby? And if they travel to meet their grandchild, how can they avoid being infected by the virus along the way? If they can’t make the trip, how many excruciating weeks — or months — will it be before parents and baby can travel to visit them?

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As the editor of a public radio collaboration that focuses on health care, I had an early understanding for the new coronavirus’ threat and the hand-washing/social distancing advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our first report on the virus ran in February, and we ramped up coverage to run at least one story a day.

During the first weeks of the public health crisis, my wife and I stayed close to our home in Buffalo. We canceled a weekend trip to Toronto and took other events off the calendar. We only traveled once a week or so to the grocery store, and even then we were equipped with homemade masks, latex gloves, and sanitizer.

Meanwhile, we spent weeks assessing the ever-worsening situation across the United States as Kate’s due date neared.

Our original plan to fly to Denver right after the birth was scratched. We’re both in our mid-60s and in good health, but traveling through airports and on planes seemed too risky — especially for Suzy, whose asthma made her susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19.

Alternatives like the train or bus carried the same risks. We considered renting an RV — too expensive. Or driving without stopping — unsafe. Or camping out — no equipment.

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In the end, we decided on a long road trip, with our standard poodle, Zookie, as a companion.

But even that trip was fraught with complications, as the simplest matters sparked safety concerns. How do you safely handle the pump at a gas station? Could we eat takeout meals? If you buy something, how do you sanitize your change?

And what about highway rest areas? (Some friends advised us to avoid these stops altogether and relieve ourselves in the woods.)

To limit these risks, we packed up all of our masks, gloves, and sanitizer. The refrigerator was basically emptied into a few coolers, so we could eat all of our meals in the car. We condensed the trip into a grueling two days, to limit hotel stays. And we mapped out a route through Iowa, Nebraska, and other states that had not yet been hit hard by COVID-19.

Through more than 22 hours of drive time we pressed on, avoiding unnecessary stops. Another time, we might have stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or the Recreational Vehicle/Motor Home Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana. We skipped Chicago’s deep dish pizza and Omaha’s steaks.

Our only overnight stop was at a hotel outside Iowa City, conveniently located midway. We did make a couple of minor detours for irresistible attractions: the World’s Largest Truck Stop in Iowa and migrating sandhill cranes in Nebraska.

But we mainly kept a straight course along Interstate 80 to Denver, where a pot of gold awaited.

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We arrived just in time — Kate’s scheduled C-section was suddenly moved up by a few days. So, less than 24 hours after arriving in the Mile High City, we got the news by phone, near the playground in Washington Park, where we were walking off nervous energy. The operation went well, mom and baby were fine, and our grandson was named for my late father.

We paused and wept with joy. Even in the time of COVID, some things about grandparenting don’t change.

Dave Rosenthal is the managing editor of Side Effects Public Media. The collaboration is based at WFYI in Indianapolis and includes seven other public radio stations in the Midwest.