The birth of a baby is normally cause for a large family celebration. In early February, Shounak Dharap expected his extended family to travel from India to Palo Alto to meet his new daughter, Aarchi. But then the COVID-19 crisis hit and turned the family's plans upside down.
Even his wife's parents who live in town can't hold their new granddaughter, he said.
Weddings and births, the holidays and family gatherings, the ability to touch and hold a dear family member — even routine visits — have all been disrupted by the pandemic.
As the deadly virus's spread continues to quash expectations of when life might return to normal, some residents said they worry when — or if — they will ever see their loved ones in person again. Three Palo Alto families discussed how they are adapting to the new reality.
Dharap and his wife, Laura Jefferson, hope Aarchi will grow up surrounded by the loving caresses of doting grandparents, playing face-to-face with playmates and joyfully celebrating all of life's milestones with their family. But so far, Dharap and Jefferson have had to contain their lives in a small family bubble.
Being new parents, they had already expected some isolation and were taking precautions against exposing their daughter to others in the first months of her life.
But they had plans. Both work full time, and when Aarchi was born on Feb. 3, Dharap was on parental leave.
"I was supposed to go back to work on March 16; the shelter-in-place went into effect the next day," said Dharap, an attorney and the vice president of the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.
Dharap's parents and his sister, who live nearby, care for Aarchi part time, but Jefferson's parents, who live in the same Fairmeadow neighborhood as his parents, cannot have physical contact with their granddaughter due to their age and higher risk for severity of COVID-19, he said.
"We're not even seeing them. We didn't include them in our bubble. We had expectations and were looking forward to having grandparent help," he said. "So we do drive-bys" instead.
The separation is disconcerting, he added.
"I'm concerned that physically she gets time with my parents but not with Laura's," he said.
Meanwhile, Aarchi's family sphere is growing in the only way it can — through a computer screen, he said.
"My extended family is in India, and 10 to 15 people planned to come to meet the baby. Now we have weekly or monthly calls through Zoom," he said.
It's not the way the couple envisioned raising their child, he said. They always thought they would limit her screen time as she grows. But Dharap finds it fascinating to watch Aarchi when she meets family on screen.
"She reacts to people on Zoom in the same manner as if they were in person. With some people, she makes a 'gimme, gimme, gimme' motion with her hands.
"She's developing a shocking familiarity with the camera app on the phone. She knows something special is happening. When the camera goes on, she sits up. Everybody says she's a lot like me — a ham," he said.
When the holidays arrive, the family will also miss some of their traditions. Nov. 14 begins the five-day Hindu celebration of Diwali, the "festival of lights," symbolizing the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. But the virus will put a damper on their plans this year, he said.
"Diwali is a big celebration at my parents' but it's not happening this year. It's a little sad. A baby's first Diwali is a big deal. We'll do a little something at home," he said.
While they try to give their daughter more social exposure, Dharap and Jefferson's own social isolation as new parents is compounded by COVID-19.
"You hear about reprieves new parents get such as to go out on a date night," he said, but he and Jefferson can't bring in a sitter or a family member to watch the baby, and there aren't many places they can go anyway.
Like many people, most of their social interactions come from work, although most of that is virtual, along with a few game nights on Zoom, he said.
In January, the couple plans to re-evaluate and possibly expand their social bubble. One thing to consider: child care. Because of his work with school reopenings through the school district, Dharap said he has a greater comfort level about child caregivers than does Jefferson, an operations manager at a startup.
For now, his parents care for Aarchi four hours a day on Mondays through Thursdays when he goes to court for cases or takes depositions.
"It took months to shake out what a sustainable schedule that works looks like," he said, adding that he accommodates an 11- to 12-hour workday starting at 4 a.m., and in the afternoon, he can work at his computer with one hand while holding his daughter with the other or pick up additional work time after she is asleep.
If COVID-19 has any silver lining, Dharap said he is able to have a better work/life balance — and to spend more time with his daughter.
"Being able to be at home with my baby for the last eight months is an absolute joy," he said.
Palo Alto resident Chuck Sieloff hadn't seen his daughter and her family who live in Paso Robles for months, he said.
Before the virus, he would visit her every month or two, but after the coronavirus struck, all of his visits were through FaceTime. This past weekend, however, they finally reunited in person.
The intervening months were rough on his daughter's family. One of his college-age grandsons brought the coronavirus home to Paso Robles. Sieloff's daughter and a granddaughter became infected and were sick for a couple of months, he said.
"What's kind of weird is I'm supposed to be the one who is vulnerable. In fact, it's my kids," Sieloff, 78, said. "I feel almost a survivor's guilt. I'm the one who's supposed to be vulnerable and coddled."
He has also not seen his other daughter's family often, who live locally, due to concerns over spreading the virus. When they do meet every few weeks, it's in controlled settings, such as on the patio, he said.
As Thanksgiving approaches, he isn't sure whether he'll be celebrating with his family in person.
"We've not really talked about it yet," he said. "We're feeling a little more comfortable, but we're still tentative. We still have to be cautious."
Sieloff has also found connecting with other family members around the country challenging. He has three brothers-in-law and using Zoom has proven difficult, he said.
Plans were scrapped for a large, first-ever family reunion this autumn during a niece's wedding on the East Coast. Instead, people plan to drink a toast to the bride and groom over Zoom and to hold the reunion next year, he said.
Sieloff said he's getting along fine on his own. He's known most of his neighbors for a long time and he's not particularly concerned for his own health. He goes to the farmers market and to the grocery store once a week; his walking group wears masks and can socially distance and there are many Zoom-based activities he enjoys through Avenidas Village.
Sieloff does worry about other people, though. People he knows joined continuing-care communities so they would have the companionship of others and activities. Since COVID-19, they've had a rude awakening, he said.
"It's very difficult. They're confined to their rooms and there are no socializing spaces available. It's not what they signed up for," he said.
Susannah and Jyllian Halliburton had to come up with a solution to their mother's isolation at The Sequoias, where she received 24-hour care. Their plan: move her out and all live together under one roof.
Jyllian Halliburton lives nearby, and Susannah Halliburton had a life in Washington state. Their brother makes the East Coast his home. Being close by meant that Jyllian took on the caregiving responsibilities in the past until the work became too much and then she hired caregivers.
When the COVID-19 epidemic took root, she could only see her mother, Mary Ann Halliburton, from afar at The Sequoias.
"It was really stressful. I used to be able to give her a hug and give her a kiss. Now a caregiver brings her down to a checkpoint," she said in late August.
She tried to give her mother special things for her birthday and holidays: Easter eggs in a basket; cake and candles for her birthday. Everything went through the checkpoint.
"It was disheartening," said Jyllian, Avenidas senior center's director of community engagement and the Door-to-Door transportation/delivery program.
During prior quarantines at The Sequoias, she knew that frailer seniors often declined due to isolation, including her mother.
"I saw that even with short quarantining what they would do to her," she said, noting her mother is an extrovert. "Personally and professionally, I had a bad feeling."
Starting about June or July, she saw a marked decline in her mother. Her geriatricians at Palo Alto Medical Foundation "are all saying the same thing about their clients. They're seeing a massive decline and people passing away. ... They think nobody cares," she said.
The three siblings decided to remove their mother from The Sequoias. Susannah gave up her job as a child care director in Seattle to rent a house in Palo Alto with her three sons and care for their mother. They would bring in caregivers for additional help.
"I felt the need to do it now. She could pass away and we would never see her again. In Sequoia you can't visit. You drive up and wave from the car," Susannah said.
"It was so hard to talk to her on the phone. She doesn't understand. COVID-19 made things harder to connect. We drove up and we'd be 20 feet away and wave at her. Her caregiver would bring her out in her wheelchair," she said.
Coming to Palo Alto felt right, she said.
"It was nice to see the kids seeing her too. We drove up there and the 3-year-old was waving at her: 'Gammy — we're here to get you out.'"
The Halliburtons planned to move their mother on Aug. 26, but the timeline was moved up due to another disaster: the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire.
"The smoke was very severe up there (and) they encouraged voluntary evacuation if family was nearby," Jyllian said in a follow-up email.
When their grandmother arrived on Aug. 23, the boys were thrilled to see her up close and gave her hugs and flowers they had picked, Susannah said.
"Ever since that day, she has been steadily improving both physically and cognitively. It just confirms our suspicion that so much of healing is emotional and psychological. Having her grandsons around has made a huge difference in her overall demeanor. We feel so fortunate to be able to do this for her when so many seniors are isolated and most likely declining rapidly, as in her case," she said.
"The best part of it to me is that she has started to talk again. When she first came, she was so soft spoken I couldn't make anything out and it took so long to produce just one word. Now, she's speaking at a more normal volume in full sentences and even making jokes."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.