I awoke in panic from a dream.
I had gone to sleep a few short hours earlier, after a beautiful, if limited in attendance, Passover Seder. Lying silently in my bed, I recalled how my nightmare stole my breath, literally crossing the imaginary line between reality and what the billions of synapses in my brain decided to feed my frail consciousness. I’d ordered an oximeter the night before, after reading how measuring a drop in oxygenation in our blood may give us an early detection, and possibly help fight a Covid-19 infection. I think this must have triggered my dread.
I wondered if the nightmare unsettled the fragile balance in my mind Pro-Tempore, or was it just a longer-lasting disruption?
Naturally, the increased attention to the grim news around us, the concern over our health and over the precious lives of those we love, had found a way to occupy a front row in my mind. Yet, despite this causality; the dream, and the reflections in its aftermath, were important in unmasking our way of appeasing our consciousness from fear and granting a sense of purpose to our lives.
In my dream, where my reasoning worked overtime, I realized that my upcoming isolation under quarantine, compounded by my compromised breathing, would not allow me to communicate with anybody. I started to list what important messages I may want to impart to my wife, to my children and my grandchildren and, to my surprise I realized, in a rare flash of clarity, that whatever I may want to tell them – they already know. They know I love them and that their lives give meaning to my own existence. I figured they didn’t need my instructions to figure out my uncomplicated financial details, or how to manage whatever technical aspects were required to run our home. I knew that I may not survive for long and in my brief lucidity and loneliness, I unmasked my benign existence down to the way I imposed meaning on every moment of my life. All my running to prepare and improve our home, or buying more ingredients to prepare a better dish for our Seder, had exposed me to the virus, and hence my compromised state was bringing me to the end of my road. It all happened with the brutal lack of meaning that had obliterated so many lives in the past few weeks without giving most victims proper burial, let alone the opportunity to put their affairs in order.
I realized that, like many others, I keep myself preoccupied with daily existence in order to mask this very reality. I reflected on how we try and conceal the sheer loneliness of our lives by building a hectic life around us. We find causes to rally around, engage in affiliations to keep us surrounded with others, and cling to our families and friends, if only to avoid being alone.
I lay in bed, awake, shaken by the fading nightmare and thought of my large, happy family who wouldn’t be next to me if I were quarantined. I reflected on my proud Jewish affiliation, centered around belonging to a nation who gave the world a monotheistic G-d and other gifts, and I wondered what I would do if I realized these preoccupations wouldn’t insulate me from fears and loneliness. If I knew that these feelings would present themselves to haunt me at my weakest moments, would I still do all that I’ve done over my busy life?
Was there a G-d? Was he or she listening to me?
My granddaughter’s cry pulled me out of these doomsday jitters; I waited for her whimper to subside as she fell back asleep, returning the house to its deceptive calm. I turned to my wife, sleeping soundly next to me, and listened to her calm breath. I wondered if I should wake her up and share my nightmare and fears with her. I thought of the full and busy life we’ve built together over the past forty years. Just then, my grandson awoke, sitting up on the mattress next to our bed where he’d been sleeping every night since our large family has isolated together over the past four weeks.
“Saba, I need to go to the bathroom,” he whispered. “OK – Max, come back as soon as you’re done,” I replied.
When he returned, he tried going back to sleep, but after tossing and turning, he sat up again; “I can’t sleep,” he muttered.
“Why don’t we list all the people who love you?” I suggested, as I’ve done before with my children and grandchildren over the years. Thus we started listing people, one after another, and when we finished finally with all the family members, he recalled his classmates in nursery school and his friends in his apartment building. Then he turned to me and said: “Saba, I’m tired, can we continue tomorrow?”
With him back asleep, I returned to my unsettled thoughts to find them retreating to their purgatory. I wondered if all the apprehension in my dream’s aftermath were real or were they just the usual echo of these dark moments? I remembered my father and his generation, who were forced to live through the horrific years of the Holocaust and emerged, still positive and full of hope, to build a family and instill in us everlasting love and pride for who we are. The difference was evident, their torment was real as they tried to escape from what seemed never ending persecution – while ours seems transitory in comparison, as we await an invisible killer to be conquered.
Empowered by the sounds of life around me and the memories of the people – past and present – in my life, I knew that all these dark thoughts were behind me. They may return from time to time, but my life was strong enough to not let the darkness envelop me.
A picture flashed in my mind of Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar story I used to read to my kids when they were scared and unable to sleep. I found the old book and I read of: “… graceful winged elephants who chased Misfortune and Sadness away from Celesteville and brought back Happiness.” It’s time I listen to my own stories, I decided, as I turned back to sleep, unafraid and certain in a tomorrow, where Max, and the rest of us, will bake Passover muffins for breakfast.
It may be too early to celebrate, and I am aware of the pain afflicting people infected with the virus, as well as their loved ones, who must witness their friends and relatives suffering from afar.
The questions arise: “What’s next? What’s the endgame? How will this calamity change us?”
I recall a note I received just before the Passover night from a local Chabad rabbi. In it he wrote:
The most spiritually powerful moment during the Seder is when we open the door for Elijah. The doors of heaven are open at that time, and we can ask for anything we want. Anything! We have this one opportunity to make any request we want. What will it be this year? An end to the virus? Yes – we certainly want that, but is that enough?
Have we gone through all this pain and loss, just for life to return to normal? We aren’t going through all this craziness and pain just to go back to where we were before.
There is only one thing we should ask for: You can call this Moshiach (Messiah) or any other word – but beyond politics, testing and vaccines, we need redemption that will end all suffering and make it all worthwhile. We should settle for nothing less.
Until then, I will rely on my family to care for and to take care of me if needed, and I’ll stay in touch with friends even more than before. In this time of social isolation – every friendship is important.
And I will try to remember that hope is eternal, and the sun always rises, chasing our dark thoughts back under their cover.