Passover with my COVID-positive grandmother
This year the themes of the Passover seder resonated differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For my family, it has been all the more significant because my grandmother (whom we call bubbie) is one of the many people who has the virus.
In a way, we’re reliving the experience of our ancestors who were quarantined in the original Passover story to avoid the deadly plagues in Egypt thousands of years ago. I had always viewed the Passover plagues to be cartoonish (hailing frogs?) but now we’re living through one of our own.
On Passover we ask “why is this night different from all other nights?”
This year, just about everything was different.
Instead of opening the door for Elijah, I opened the door for my quarantined bubbie who had been recovering from COVID-19 and gave her an abbreviated seder a safe distance from her bed. I wasn’t sure if I would celebrate this year, but then I realized how important it was to keep some semblance of the holiday alive.
To not continue the tradition would be a disservice to those who honored the seder while in the Warsaw Ghetto. When you reflect on the totality of Jewish history, we’re just a speck on the timeline woven with chapters of overcoming great suffering.
The word “seder” literally means “order.” This year, valuing the centuries old traditions provided a much needed anchor amid this dire time. To accommodate for my bubbie’s condition, I modified our version to be just a few minutes centered on perspective.
Being the youngest I did the Mah Nishtanah (a.k.a., the four questions). I then substituted the 10 plagues for 10 gratitudes. She really liked it.
Here are some of the parallels of past and present I took meaning in.
This year, the Exodus is not from our homes, but from the outside world.
Jews in Egypt were forced to take only what they could carry. Now our grocery stores are scarce of essentials. Every possession is all the more valuable.
On Passover we’re told to recline in our chairs. My grandmother’s been reclining in bed for nearly two weeks. Clearly she’s doing something right.
This year, there was no searching for the afikomen. Instead, my bubbie requested that we find her engagement ring. (Mission accomplished.)
On Passover we’re told to “welcome the stranger,” and with my grandmother being quarantined in her bedroom, she had gradually become a stranger in her own home. It was not safe to be near her without protective gear. Every interaction became more clinical than personal.
This year, instead of salt water, I had my own tears to shed— nearly everyday for the past several weeks. There has not been a single day in quarantine that has not lingered with a sense of gloom. No amount of watching “Tiger King” could fully cover the pain. For my grandmother, she’s been gargling salt water most days as a home remedy for treating respiratory infections.
Passover requires a lot of preparation. The same is true for taking care of a loved one with Covid and containing the spread. For weeks prior to her diagnosis we sanitized everything. Shoes, mail, surfaces — everything.
Anything more than our system of following guidelines and disinfecting would’ve been maniacal, and still, my grandmother has the virus. There is clearly a degree of human error involved in catching this virus that transcends our understanding. It has been much to her disbelief, as she didn’t think it could possibly happen to her. We’ve been doing everything we’re supposed to do, yet the virus still found its way into her lungs.
Despite her infection, she’s been in relatively stable condition, especially compared to people half her age who are being intubated and dying. When I brought my grandmother to the local emergency room on March 28th I had accepted it as a forgone conclusion that I was dropping her off to die. She’s 91 with a form of emphysema and a missing spleen. It would be surprising if she didn’t die. My grandmother, who is a retired nurse, had now become the patient.
Since visitors aren’t allowed in I had assumed it would be the last time I would see her. It was one of the most gut-wrenching feelings I had ever experienced.
Though, after five nights in the hospital she miraculously saw improvements in her symptoms and was released. It was the most profound turn around from grief to joy I had ever felt. On April 14, days before the end of Passover, she had been deemed recovered by her doctor.
Passover teaches lessons of the past to be passed on for future generations to learn from. This year, we had to educate ourselves about the spread of coronavirus, as well as its symptoms and how to best protect against it. The themes of the Passover seder resonate differently this year. It’s a story of human resilience, and this year, that’s the exact catharsis I needed to be reminded of. The seder this year was less formal than usual, but more powerful than it’s ever been.
The pandemic is exposing our vulnerabilities, but it’s also challenging us to be stronger and better versions of ourselves too. we’re all witnessing how we’re such a small part of the bigger picture.
What we anticipated to be the most dismal Passover in many ways has become the most meaningful. This year, my bubbie has proven to be the ultimate Passover miracle of them all.
Peter Fox is a contributing writer to The Forward and Jewish Journal. His work has also appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Advocate, and Tablet Magazine.