August 20, 2020
Eleven days before Nashville issued a stay-at-home order, our home security alarm sounded in the middle of the night. Too tired to think the siren was anything but a system glitch, I shook my husband awake and begged him to turn it off. The next thing I heard was Patrick running up the stairs, then racing back down with our toddler son in his arms.
“It’s a tornado,” he yelled. “Get the baby.”
I didn’t rush. Half asleep, I cradled Ben in one arm while I pulled a bottle of formula from the fridge. If I’m going to be awake, I thought, I might as well get a feeding in. This is how I listen to warning signs, apparently. I figure I’m safe—that things can’t be nearly as bad as the experts predict. I take my time taking cover.
During the bottle’s twenty-second spin in the microwave, I looked outside: the sky went from gray to moonlit green, and the lone sycamore tree in our back yard thrashed in the wind. This was not a drill. I grabbed the warm bottle and, clutching the baby in my arm, headed to the basement.
The next day, when Patrick and I emerged from our East Nashville home, Five Points was unrecognizable: totaled cars, twisted metal, and downed power lines lay everywhere. Buildings had been leveled into piles of cinderblock. An entire wall blew off my favorite house on Holly Street, leaving interior bedrooms exposed. As I surveyed the damage in North and East Nashville, reporting for The Washington Post, homeowners told me the same story over and over again. The sirens and automated text alerts had provided just enough time to take cover.
“This is community spirit,” one man told me, amid the wreckage of his home. Volunteers formed an assembly line in his yard, moving debris. “God protected this neighborhood more than you would believe.” I wanted to believe that was true.
My story never ran. By the time I posted it, news coverage had turned almost exclusively to the novel coronavirus. So while Nashville began the tornado clean up, I went back to mothering. Alone with the baby for those midnight feedings, I’d stare at his eyes, trace a finger along his cheek, and wonder, Are you really mine?
Patrick and I had only just returned from Kansas City, where Ben was born and placed into our arms for adoption. The adoption of our older son, Sam, had taken more than a year. This time, we’d had just three weeks to prepare. Though my body was not postpartum, bags sagged under my eyes, and a row of acne had appeared on my chin from all those uncertain days spent in an unfamiliar hospital in an unfamiliar city, waiting and wondering if this child, who was not ours, might suddenly be ours, or if his biological mother would exercise her proper and unquestioned right to keep the baby. Uncertainty permeated every moment until a nurse carried him into the waiting room and placed him in my arms.
Thankfully, I'd had the foresight to schedule an appointment with a counselor. Back in Nashville, I arrived for our first session and spent most of the hour sobbing. Ben’s arrival was unexpected and joyful. He smelled of milk and soap and with each inhale, guilt crashed over me. The tears were cathartic, the emotional equivalent of debris removal. But I couldn’t help but think of his biological family, back home, arms aching with the ever-present weight of his absence.
My heart was still trying to catch up to the reality of our circumstances when the city issued the stay-at-home mandate. In mid-March my older son’s preschool closed its doors. Friends who’d promised home-cooked meals sent apologies and Uber Eats gift cards. At night, I stopped tracing my newborn’s face and compulsively scrolled the New York Times. Each day, the bar graph soared, a pictograph of other people’s pain.
Who was I to be sad, when my house was intact? Who was I to be sad, when another woman had entrusted me with the gift of her only child?
I didn’t believe President Trump when he said the virus would be gone by Easter, but I put all my energy into sustaining a similar charade. I scoured grocery stores looking for flour. I made sourdough bread like so many others. I attempted to sustain my freelance editing job, though my brain often felt like mush. My counselor reminded me that people with two-month-old babies usually take maternity leave. When she suggested I might be experiencing postpartum depression, I nearly laughed.
“I don’t get to have postpartum,” I told her. “I didn’t give birth.”
To my counselor’s credit, she didn’t push the issue. I went back home and searched for moments of light. A friend dropped off a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls that oozed with frosting. Nashville Chef Julia Sullivan began to offer catered family meals. Patrick signed us up for four weeks of deliveries and took grocery shopping off my to-do list. I woke early and read the Psalms, sipped coffee, tried to breathe. I baked cookies and bread and delivered them to neighbors. Little acts of kindness helped ease the strain.
But the anger, the sadness, the confusion persisted. At times, I snapped at my toddler, shouted at my husband, broke down in inexplicable tears while trying to console the baby. I felt buried within myself, angry at my anger, sad that I was squandering these early weeks with our new son on emotions I didn’t want to feel and didn’t have time to process.
My counselor offered virtual sessions for a few weeks until we could meet again safely in person. On that day, I walked into her office, sat on the couch, and pulled the box of tissues close. I was done with the charade.
Through tears, I looked at my counselor’s face and saw only compassion. She told me that I was not alone and gently explained that postpartum depression was not just reserved for women who’d given birth but could impact anyone who faced a radical change in sleep, daily habits, and the demanding anxieties of caring for a newborn. Add the pressure of a pandemic, the loss of community and church support, a tornado that ripped through the neighborhood, the trauma of adoption, and the sheer uncertainty of the road ahead—no wonder my interior life was in disarray.
Give yourself the same grace you’re giving everyone else, she said. We’re all experiencing grief.
These days, I take long walks through the neighborhood. I circumvent the steeple of The Church at Lockeland Springs, still stuck on the middle of the sidewalk on 16th Street. A house sits proudly on Russell Street with its roof caved in. It is not ashamed of its mess. The Ryman Auditorium—the red brick church building known for its brilliant acoustics, its intimate warmth, its legendary performances—has no in-person concerts scheduled until 2021. New virus outbreaks appear around the globe, even as politicians assure their people that the virus is in decline. Experts predict more than forty-five percent of small businesses may close nationally. The destruction is vast, the grief palpable.
There will be no putting things back together the way they were before. Like a house ripped apart, like a rift in a family tree, like a country ravaged by pandemic—we must commit to becoming something new. Something made of equal parts heartache and healing. Waves of sadness will intermingle with the warmth of the sun. And we face the brokenness unafraid, unwilling to pretend, wielding hope enough to do the hard, back-breaking work of rebuilding, side by side with our neighbors, our families, ourselves.
For now, I observe the mess and keep walking.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Claire’s contribution will be directed to Nashville Young Lives.