July 11th, 2020
Words by Sande Chen · Art by Aubrey Nolan
You will not remember this year, your mother knows, but one day you will read this letter and see it as a record of your resilience
Your mother started this letter after an especially vivid quarantine dream where you went missing. She awoke with a palpable feeling of loss and when she saw you there sleeping, she wanted to tell you how loved and how wanted you were, despite the challenges. The dream was your mother’s mom-guilt seeping into her subconscious, a way of admitting to herself that she feared not being able to take care of you as you deserved. Sometimes she felt so overwhelmed that she cried along with you during your many tantrums.
Life has been upended for both of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. You are no longer a baby who takes long naps, allowing your mother to work and write, but an energetic toddler who misses daily Gymboree classes and music sessions. You can’t run through the hallways or visit the doorman, and there is no sitter to cater to your every whim. Now you only have Mommy, who is too exhausted, who works as a cook, a cleaner, a child minder, and a non-essential worker.
Your mother had many fears, the worst of which was that she would keel over and die, and you would starve to death. You couldn’t call 911. You didn’t know how to talk. You couldn’t yet manipulate a doorknob and find your way out. You couldn’t even get off the bed where you co-slept with Mommy, your pink dog Spunky, and various other stuffed animals.
Your mother worried about the basics. Because you were super picky and ate less than 10 different kinds of foods, your mother would fret, announcing in terror on Facebook that there were only four fish sticks left in the freezer. Later, you stopped eating fish sticks entirely. You drank one brand of almond milk, one that was consistently sold out and nowhere to be found. Your mother would try to stock up on almond milk and your pea milk, but grocery shopping was exceedingly difficult due to long lines, empty shelves, crowded stores, and panic buying. Online stores were no help. They were hopelessly backlogged. Toilet paper, cleaning supplies, frozen vegetables, rice, and shelf-stable milk all became coveted items.
Finally, when the freezer held no more chicken nuggets, your mother waited in desperation for more than an hour outside a warehouse store, trying to work and feed you at the same time. You sat in a stroller, wrapped in a rain tarp, temporarily appeased by apple sauce and a bottle. Once inside, your mother didn’t attempt to wield a shopping cart along with the stroller. She wanted to because there was precious little room under your stroller for purchases but this feat required more dexterity and strength than your mother possessed. Still, your mother persisted, loading two bags onto the handles.
Eventually, the stroller fell backwards from too much weight and you screamed. People laughed but they did not help. Guiltily, your mother put back the huge box of much-needed training pants and opted for something else. In these days of dwindling supply, there was only one baby-related item allowed per shopper. Your mother wished she had listened to your grandmother who had advised hoarding hand sanitizer and baby wipes months earlier.
Your mother coaxed you to potty train, wean, and sleep in your own bed. They were difficult steps for you to accomplish all at the same time, but were needed due to the national diaper shortage and Mommy’s work schedule. Repeatedly, well-meaning friends told your mother that you were too young to potty train, but you got it instantly, especially after you learned you could get books read out loud to you if you just sat on a potty. You wanted Story Time, Crayon Time, and Bubble Time, but in the absence of those you decided you’d have non-stop Potty/Entertainment time, forcing Mommy to sing nursery rhymes and some Christmas carols too. The songs continued at the sink, where you were delighted to hear Happy Birthday sung to you every time you washed your hands. Later, PinkFong released the modified “Baby Shark” song, making Wash your hands doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo! the toddler’s hand washing anthem.
Because you loved music so much, you learned to say the word ‘googol’ regularly before ‘mommy.’ Every morning, you would look up expectantly at the speaker, waiting for your daily blast of nursery rhymes, “Baby Shark”, and Disney tunes. You danced to the music and learned to twirl. You learned to put on hats and socks. You fought over the cell phone, laptop, and iPad bitterly and, along with your koala, even video-bombed a panel on emergent narrative. Your mother is just grateful she was able to push the mute button before the play firetruck wailed its siren and started singing. Now, whenever you see talking heads on a video screen, you wave and get annoyed if no one waves back.
Eventually, with no better alternatives, your mother, with the help of guided access, ceded control of the iPad Pro to you. In doing so, she learned that all the YouTube songs she thought you loved because you would shriek so loudly when you heard them, you actually loathe. Using the controls, you skipped over those tunes as quickly as you could and found your own favorites. She learned that although you sing along with made-up words, you can communicate with more than 45 baby signs. She saw you prop up the iPad and teach yourself the "Baby Shark" dance. Then, being the mischievous imp that you are, you attempted to sign Mommy up for YouTube Premium, even getting past password creation and linking up Mommy's PayPal account.
Despite her misgivings and the tiresome midnight excursions to bathe and clean while you slept, your mother learned to celebrate each day with you. Would she have learned so much about you if she hadn’t been with you, day in and day out, during this entire time? The world outside changed irrevocably and so did you, at a seemingly rapid pace. In a matter of weeks, your incoherent babble became understandable words. You adapted and grew. These weeks seemed interminable at the time, but they passed like a blink of an eye in retrospect. You will not remember this year, your mother knows, but years from now you will read this letter and see it as a record of your resilience and society's resilience, too, during these difficult times.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer best known for her work on the game, "The Witcher". She lives with her daughter in New York.
Aubrey Nolan is a cartoonist and illustrator based in Brooklyn. Her work has been featured by The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Medium, The Huffington Post, The Stranger, and more. She posts more comics on her Instagram @itsaubreynotaudrey. From 2017-2019 she hosted a reading series for cartoonists called Panels to the People with The New Yorker’s Jeremy Nguyen.