Welcoming a new life is challenging at the best of times.
Doing so amid the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern times. For the Vizza family it’s been a year of pandemic parenting, as they grapple with change to work, faith and family life. And it’s not about to end soon. They’re celebrating their newborn son Simeon’s first Christmas in a social bubble.
“It’s going to be a lot quieter,” said Rebecca, whose family is accustomed to big Ukrainian Christmases.
“But it will be simple and beautiful and still loud and happy with the rest of the girls.”
Simeon Edward Aloysius Vizza was born at 5:40 p.m. on Dec. 9. He’s the first brother to Joanna, Katharine and Sophie, and the first boy for John and Rebecca Vizza as they navigate social distancing, strict public health measures and pandemic parenting.
What’s kept them grounded?
“The easy answer is our faith, our faith for sure,” said John, a canon lawyer for both the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton. “If I was waking up in a cold sweat at night, it wasn’t about COVID, it was about the plethora of canonical issues I usually deal with on a daily basis!”
Rebecca has explained that grounding to their eldest daughter Joanna when she asked why she can’t see her cousins – who live half a block away – and why they can’t celebrate birthdays, or Christmas, together.
“We call it the ‘superbug’ around here,” Rebecca said. “We try to tell them as little as they need to know, to make it normal but not being able to see their cousins, that really is hitting home for them.”
“I’ve just said ‘God has a great plan in all of this and it’s better than we know. And He’s going to take care of us’,” Rebecca said. “Joanna and I have had that conversation because she’s a little bit older. That’s been enough to satisfy her. Those little minds, she understands that perfectly.”
“Just knowing that God is everywhere, even in the midst of things that aren’t normal, God is still there,” John added. “That consistency for kids and that presence is very comforting, at least for kids our age.”
That trust has been their strength throughout this past year. The Vizzas say they didn’t panic about COVID when they found out that Rebecca was pregnant with Simeon. They took all necessary health precautions. They limited their social interactions and they followed provincial health guidelines.
The Vizzas didn’t think about COVID-19 being an issue, let alone how serious it would be, how long it would last or what effect it would have on their pregnancy.
John said his greatest fear was getting sick, not for himself, but for his family. The worst-case scenario was the burden on Rebecca, pregnant and taking care of their three daughters, if he had to self-isolate.
“I just kept praying that the Lord would keep me healthy just to be able to be here with Rebecca when she went into labour,” John said.
“I really wanted John at the birth,” Rebecca added. “Every now and then the fear would creep in, but we really just took it day by day and tried not to worry about it at all.”
Simeon was born at the Sturgeon Hospital in St. Albert with John there to support Rebecca. At home, Rebecca’s mother, “Baba Iris” (grandmother) is in the Vizzas’ COVID bubble to help care for the family.
Christmas would normally be celebrated in a raucous, full house with Simeon being the 20th grandchild on Rebecca’s side of the family. Baba will be with the Vizzas at Christmas. As Ukrainian Catholics, they will attend the Divine Liturgy at St. Josaphat’s Cathedral and they will hope for a time soon when Simeon can meet the other 16 cousins in the family in person.
Their faith continues to sustain them, even as they way in which they practise it is challenged. At the beginning of the pandemic, all churches were closed. At that time, the Vizzas had set up a small table in the basement with their icons and candles, as they prayed together and watched the livestream of Divine Liturgy.
“We were missing the incense and the Eucharist and the singing and the community,” John said. “We are a people in our worship, especially in the Eastern rite, with all of the senses being engaged.”
“Being Catholics, being physically present in the church to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, is so key. We could feel, physically, emotionally and spiritually, the lack of that type of Eucharistic sustenance even though we were watching liturgy on TV and praying.”
John’s family in the U.S. has been able to watch the Divine Liturgy online together with the Vizzas. However, the tough part is that his parents in his hometown of Philadelphia are unable to see Simeon, their first and only grandson, in person and they’re unsure when that will change.
“It really broke my parents’ hearts not to be able to come out and be present with us. To know they won’t be able to come out any time soon is very difficult.”
“The biggest struggle for me would be not having the support, or even say, the mall open, or the indoor playground or libraries for a time,” Rebecca added. “It was harder to just be with the other children and present to them when you really are in the house all the time.”
“I couldn’t go anywhere and I had to realize that was OK.”
Alberta plans to administer doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to 29,000 health-care workers by the end of December. In the new year, long-term care residents and staff will be the first to be vaccinated.
Every Canadian who wants to be vaccinated should be able to receive it by September 2021.
The Vizzas say they are looking forward to gathering with family and friends and hosting “a big party when we get the all-clear” in the fall of next year – and an even bigger celebration next Christmas.
“There’s nothing, in my opinion, that can replace being physically present to each other,” John said. “Our faith is very incarnational. Our God was a god who took flesh and being present physically to people is very important and being able to hug and embrace people.”
The first to get a hug will likely be the Vizzas’ young nieces and nephews. Even now, they have to hold back when they see each other at a distance, John said. “You can always see them going for you, when they see you, to try to hug you but then they kind of remember that it’s COVID.”
The Vizzas say their trust in God, and their rich faith life, has helped them weather COVID-19. And they wish the same for others.
“I would say in all of this pandemic, if you don’t have a life of faith – at least to some degree when you can go to God in a moment of fear or uncertainty – then it is going to be a real struggle especially if you are somebody (who) relies first on family or friends through difficult situations,” John said.
“This is the perfect opportunity to come back to that even in a small way and to begin to build up that life of faith again.”
Throughout her pregnancy and even now, Rebecca’s prayer life changed, but her trust in God hadn’t.
“It was hard many times not being physically present in that much drier period of prayer, but you know, you persevere. You just keep going,” she said. “And looking back now you realize, although it was dry, it was a rich period of prayer as well … Even looking to spring, summer fall, God only knows and I’m OK with living day to day and trusting.”