What the immigrant mother told me about Israel that made me cry

You didn’t know me then, but ten days after we landed in Israel just before one of the coldest winters on record, my son got really sick.

It didn’t look like a “staam virus,” either — his skin was grey, and he lay over my shoulder, clammy and damp.

We went to the clinic, and they sent us to the ER, and an infusion later, the doctor thought it would be prudent to keep him overnight in the hospital.

There were two other women in the room with me — a woman with her head covered with a flowered scarf who recited Psalms over her sleeping child, and a woman from Belarus who listened to Russian gangsta rap through tinny headphones while holding her febrile child.

Hours in a hospital are meaningless, and we measured time by the doctors’ rounds and what food appeared on the plastic trays. Strawberry yogurt and a stale roll? Must be morning. Tepid vegetable barley soup and a half a schnitzel sandwich? Lunch. Flaccid chicken breast and rice with corn? Dinner.

We understood without words but with tired smiles that whoever’s child was sleeping was in charge of getting coffee for the rest of us, and so we rocked our babies in that little room while we waited for the next doctors’ visit or the next meal.

“Kol Yisrael arevim ze-la-zeh,” — “all of israel is responsible for one another,” the young mother from Belarus told me in Hebrew as fractured as mine.

The religious mother nodded and handed us each a cup of water.

We celebrated milestones: No vomiting for 10 minutes. No vomiting for an hour. First sips of water. First bites of food: Tiny victories that left us flushed with hope. Tethered to our babies who were tangled with IV wires, we took care of each other. I think I learned more Hebrew in those few days than I had learned in an entire lifetime of Hebrew School.

Kee = Vomit. (Which we had plenty of.)
khom = fever. (Ditto that)
me’u’vash = dehydrated. (Which he was.)

And slowly, slowly my baby boy improved. He stopped vomiting. He started nursing. He smiled a few times. He tried to pull out his IV.

All good signs.

But then, his blood test came back.

“His white blood cells and hemoglobin are low. It might be from the virus, but it might be more serious,” the doctor said as she patted my hand.
At least that’s what I think she said because at the time I only spoke Bat-Mitzvah level Hebrew and I was fluent in my mistakes.

Anyway, you know that feeling on a roller coaster where your stomach drops and it’s there but for the grace of God that you aren’t sick all over the place? Imagine that feeling while holding a very ill child in a foreign country where you have to scan the doctors face for twitches and tics like morse code to make out the meaning in the words you don’t understand.

(“Um, how do you say ‘Cancer’ in Hebrew?”)

Sartan = cancer.

The other mothers tried to help me understand, but you can’t really make sense of “sartan” even when it’s in your own language.

It’s a funny word, actually. Not “funny ha ha” but funny strange. Sartan literally means ‘crab’ and I pictured the little grey sand crabs I’d dig for by the Pacific Ocean when I was a browned and bowlegged child. But instead of crawling along the lines of my hands, these deranged little crabs were skittering along my baby’s veins.

Nothing like the C word — or the S word in Hebrew — to put shit in perspective, even when it turned out that he was absolutely fine, and that his White Blood Cell count was perfectly in line with a kid who had a nasty virus…. nothing more. Because even when he was fine, I wasn’t. I couldn’t shake the image of him on that IV, I couldn’t stop looking at his veins twanging beneath his skin, I couldn’t stop cringing every time the phone rang out-of-my-mind terrified that it was the doctor calling to say that “well, actually, there were some abnormal findings after all.”

I couldn’t stop seeing tiny grey sand crabs scrambling up his veins, nibbling on his bone marrow like something of that one time I smoked some bad weed i bought at the Ashby BART station freshman year.
We were released before the other mothers and their babies, and the day after, I went back again to the hospital with soda and chips and cookies for them – they were still there, stuck in that little room with their children.

It was a humbling perspective to have – we were outside the hospital walls while they were still there, waiting for fevers to break and vomiting to stop.

“Kol Yisrael Arevim ze-le-zeh” — All Israel is responsible for one another

They would have done it for me.

And the rains kept coming with dribbles of sunlight in between, and as the winter marched on, eventually we got back to business as usual and bitching about the cold.

The thing about that winter, though, was the loneliness that settled, like the cold, into your bones. It was probably different for the people who drove through the main gates each day to an office with a water cooler and a coffee pot, or for people who had lived in this tiny town for years and years, or for those who knew the language beyond “where’s the bathroom,” and “your son may have cancer.”

So. Why am I telling you this? Five years have passed. after all.

My son is fine.

And I am fine, too – still lonely sometimes, but mostly fine.

So, again: Why am I telling you this?

Because I’m remembering what it was like to be in that little awful room with two women so different from me – and I’m remembering what the Belarusian mother said in Hebrew as broken as mine:

“Kol Yisrael Arevim ze-le-zeh” — All Israel is responsible for one another. Sometimes we forget —in between our differences that divide us. In between the way we see things, and the way we bicker. But really, we’re all just people, wanting our kids to be ok — and when we can see clear to that, we will show up for one another with no questions asked.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Times of Israel's New Media editor, lives in Israel with her two kids in a village next to rolling fields. Sarah likes taking pictures, climbing roofs, and talking to strangers. She is the author of the book Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered. Sarah is a work in progress.
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