“Can dahlias get the corona?”
When I’m in Israel I usually buy flowers for family on Friday afternoons. Buying flowers for the Sabbath is a widespread custom and vendors sprout up on almost every street corner, surrounded by large buckets holding flower bouquets.
On the last Friday of my sojourn in Israel I found a bouquet of red dahlias. Swapna, my mother’s Indian caregiver, inserted them into a vase containing last week’s white flowers and set the on the coffee table. About 50 times that week my mother would say: “Look at those flowers!”
“They’re dahlias, mom,” I tell her. “Do you know how often I’ve tried to raise dahlias back home? I succeeded for one or two summers and failed ever since because we don’t have enough sunlight around the house, too many trees.”
She listens and nods but has a hard time fathoming any of this since she doesn’t understand where I live and what has this to do with her flowers. Five minutes later she says: “Look at those flowers!” And finally, to my surprise: “Can dahlias get the corona?”
“I don’t know, mom. Different animals have gotten it, but I don’t know about flowers.”
“You have to be so careful nowadays,” she says, and I don’t know if she’s talking to me or to the flowers.
Earlier that same day we got an urgent call from Saint Swapna. “Mother won’t come inside. She stand outside and won’t come in, she says this is not her home.”
My sister gets on the phone. “Mom, it’s very cold and rainy, go inside with Swapna.”
“No, no, it’s not my home. I don’t go with Swapna, she is evil, I trusted her but now I know never to do that again.”
“Mom, listen to me.”
But she goes on: “My own children sold me down the river, like Joseph’s brethren sold him to slave merchants who took him to Egypt. My own children! I would have never believed it!”
By then my brother and I have jumped into his car and are on our way to her home. Outside, a cold, wintry rain is pelting the sidewalks, but when we get to her home 20 minutes later she still stands on the sidewalk, refusing to come in.
“The most horrible thing you can do is kidnap a child, or a parent, and separate children from parents, children from their siblings,” she berates us.
My brother urges her indoors while I briefly think of the Trump government separating families at the border. She comes in, wet and cold, and we urge her into her favorite blue chair. She looks confusedly from one wall to another.
“Mom, do you recognize the sofa? You recognize the kitchen? You see the pictures? The photos?”
“Ye-es,” she says shakily, “I recognize them. But,” and she looks around her from one wall to another, “this is not my apartment. This is not my apartment.”
We sat with her for over an hour, and still she couldn’t recognize her home. Finally, Swapna gave her a pill and she went to bed.
The following morning, she woke up with no memory of the preceding day. Instead, she kept on telling me how much she loved her home, with the trees outside and the sunlight shining through the windows, brightening the white, clean floor tiles. Finally, looking at the dahlias, her forehead creased with worry, she asked: “Can dahlias get corona?”
I was in the midst of applying for an exemption permitting me to fly out and return home in the middle of new regulations restricting almost all travel in and out of Israel due to omicron. The radio and newspapers were full of graphs and statistics, interviews with epidemiologists and dire predictions. I had to get an antigen test and fill out both Israeli and US forms, wondered if I’d ever get home.
My mom worried whether dahlias could get the virus. The reach of her concern dwarfed mine by far.
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