Babies deliver light in dark times

JACKSON — In the days leading up to March 19, as Kailey Gieck’s due date approached, coronavirus stormed the planet.

Around the world victims began to die by the thousands. Health officials ordered billions of people into near isolation. The routines and events that serve as the keystones of modern life all but ceased. On a global scale, society descended into a state of fear and confusion that few alive today have experienced.

Then, on March 19, Lucinda Ann Gieck was born.

The first child of Gieck and her husband, Joey Gieck, arrived at an historic and trying moment. Already, in the first stages of the country’s response to the pandemic, the shift in social norms was apparent even at the St. John’s Health waiting room — it was empty.

Besides the father, no visitors were allowed at the hospital, an odd scene for anyone accustomed to the fanfare that usually greets a newborn. But friends and family found a way to sidestep the virus.

The new parents brought home their 7-pound, 11-ounce babe to find loved ones lining the fence outside their home, keeping their social distance, with balloons and posters. “We love you Lucy Lu,” read one. Another, “She is beautiful!”

“It was really sweet,” Gieck said. “We made the best of the situation.”

There was no shortage of people who wanted to make little Lucy’s acquaintance. Gieck, as a Jackson native, has plenty of family in the area. In fact, before the outbreak began, the two were living with his parents. But since her in-laws were still going to work, Gieck said, they moved into an apartment in town to isolate while the baby’s immune system matures.

The unfortunate side effect is that Lucinda’s grandparents have been able to meet her only through a glass door and on social media. The same goes for the rest of the friends and family, including Gieck’s sister, who lives in town, and her mother, who flew in soon after the birth.

“They at least get to see her, but it’s sad,” Gieck said. “They’re all very heartbroken to not be able to hold her.”

Lewis Ottaway has spent his entire life in quarantine. When the baby completed his first four weeks on April 11, his mother, Nikki Gill, announced on Facebook and Instagram that it had been “the longest, shortest, most exhausting, most relaxing, strangest month of my life.”

As with Lucinda, Lewis is known to the outside world mostly through the internet. He and mom have been on almost complete lockdown since returning from the hospital — though Gill is just 31, she has severe chronic asthma, raising the risk of illness. She hasn’t even been to the grocery store.

Instead she has passed the time solely with her husband, Robert Ottaway, and the kids, or walking around her neighborhood and her family’s ranch in South Park. In many ways, she said, it’s a nice change of pace.

When she delivered her first child, Jeannine Ottaway, Gill had just two weeks of maternity leave. Even then she was answering calls and emails every time the baby took a nap. A business-shuttering virus created just the conditions to allow her more time to unplug with her new infant.

“It’s kind of been a blessing,” she said. “I actually get to spend this quality time with my son and just kind of relax, that I didn’t get the first time around.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s been a stress-free period in her life. Gill and her husband both own food establishments in town — she Jackson Drug, he Cowboy Coffee — meaning their livelihoods are on the line.

“Trying to juggle a newborn and all of the unknowns that go with that,” she said, “plus all of the unknowns and uncertainties in the business community, was definitely a lot to deal with right off the bat.”

Wes Gardner and Meghan Warren, who welcomed their son, Wren, on March 17, share those concerns.

At one point Warren had been up all night in labor, and Gardner had stayed up with her. Understandably, she said, “my mind was pretty much focused on the delivery.” But after she received an epidural anesthetic and was able to rest awhile, Gardner’s thoughts wandered to the external world.

He owns Teton Toys, a retail shop downtown. At that point, health and government officials were just deciding whether to close businesses throughout Jackson and Teton County, and Gardner didn’t know whether it would apply to him. Regardless, revenue was sure to slow.

“I’m totally distracted by real-world business problems in the middle of her delivery,” he said.

He fretted over how he would manage his own debt and support the more than dozen employees that rely on him, not to mention his own budding family.

“There was a different level of urgency,” he said, “because I’m like, this isn’t 15 people anymore, it’s 16. And one of them is much more important than the rest.”

Equally pressing is their paranoia about Wren’s health. A new parent is likely to agonize over every wail from an infant. But with the potential for infection lurking all around, the cries are even more disturbing.

“This time, when you have that thought, ‘Maybe he’s sick,’ it’s unfortunate that the thought is, ‘Maybe he’s not just sick,’” Gardner said. “Your mind goes to, ‘Maybe he’s really sick.’ So that’s a little scary.”

The virus seems to have little effect on children and infants. They tend to suffer from mild cold symptoms, when they exhibit symptoms at all. But as epidemiologists continue to study the trends in COVID-19 cases to understand how it works, Warren said they’re not taking any chances.

“There’s still so much that’s unknown about it that we still worry,” she said.

When they’re not worrying, though, Wren is a joy for his parents, as well as for the many who have come to know him through Facebook. Gardner and Warren have posted a couple dozen photos and videos of their son.

In some he dozes, nuzzled against his mother or father’s chest. In others he looks about inquisitively. In one their retriever, Sawyer, inspects the newcomer for the first time, bringing his snout within centimeters of Wren’s nose for a sniff.

In normal times parents find it hard to refrain from showing off their children. But now, Warren said, she also recognizes that sharing these scenes helps to distract from the doom and gloom of the COVID-dominated news cycle.

“It’s nice for people to have a break from the pandemic and quarantine for awhile and see a cute baby,” Warren said.

Youngsters are also a welcome distraction in the home, where Gill said she and her husband have had no trouble finding reasons to smile.

At first Lewis’ older sister was wary of the interloper. For a year and a half she’d been “the star of the show,” Gill said, and for the first few days she mostly ignored her brother. But about a week in, she started to warm to him. She’d put his pacifier in his mouth or give him his bottle.

“Those moments have been really special,” Gill said. “You kind of forget everything else.”

You never forget everything else for long, of course. Every newspaper, every glimpse outside at the empty streets, recalls this new and extraordinary reality.

“I just never thought I would have a child during what feels like the apocalypse,” Gill said. “My husband and I keep saying that eventually this will make a really good birth story. I can’t wait to tell my son what it was like when he was born.”

But the newborns of the COVID-19 era offer more than a good story and a temporary distraction from the most chaotic episode in recent history. In all their soon-to-be-realized potential, they offer a reminder and a promise that someday things will be OK again.

The next generation is always a source of hope, and that’s truer than ever when society seems to be crumbling — not just from the virus, but in the face of broader global issues like climate change. If on the one hand it’s terrifying to raise a child in such times, on the other it’s inspiring.

“We feel like we’re bringing our baby into a world in crisis anyway,” Gardner said. “Now you’ve got an actual pandemic knocking down the door.”

But the children, he added, “they give me hope. That’s something we should celebrate.”

The parents of Jackson Hole are doing just that. In some ways the valley’s newest denizens have brought people together more than they would have before just a few months ago.

For example, Gieck’s sister — who also has a 5-month-old daughter — started a weekly postpartum Zoom meeting for new and expecting mothers in Jackson Hole. And most mornings the sisters have a cup of coffee together, mediated by the glass door.

Without doubt, Gieck said, Lucinda entered the world at a dark time. All the more appropriate, then, that her name is derived from the Spanish word for “light.”

They chose it before anyone knew the baby would come on the scene at a moment eclipsed by pandemic. For months the expectant parents struggled to agree — Lucinda was Gieck’s favorite from the beginning, but Lucinda’s mother took some convincing. Eventually it grew on her, and in hindsight she said it couldn’t have been more fitting.

In a Facebook post on March 21, which began, “Holy moly we made a human,” she introduced her 2-day-old infant. She took account of the sad circumstances surrounding the happy occasion. But mostly, in the midst of a viral maelstrom, her words resounded with the bliss and gratitude and optimism you’d expect of a birth announcement at any time.

“2020 has brought a lot of darkness and uncertainty to our lives,” Gieck wrote. “But little Lucy (Lou Lou) certainly brings us a whole lot of brightness and joy.”

Wren might not have the same etymology. But for Gardner and everyone else who’s witnessed the beginning of his son’s life via social media, he said, the effect is the same.

“It’s a little ray of light,” he said, “in this otherwise dimming world.”