In the days since my recovery from Covid-19, I’ve found myself experiencing intense moments of feeling grateful.
Even before I became ill I found myself filled with gratitude at unexpected times, including during the stress, anxiety and isolation of the crisis. Gratitude for family and friends. Gratitude for the beauty of magnolia blossoms and cherry trees. Gratitude that no one I knew was seriously ill. Gratitude for the financial resources that enabled us to buy groceries and supplies. Gratitude for the slower pace of life, the sense of having enough time to think, meditate, read — and feel grateful.
And after a week of self-isolation in my bedroom, I am more grateful than ever. Grateful that I’m married to a man who took such good care of me. Grateful I was able to stay at home. Grateful I did not have severe symptoms. Grateful my doctor made himself available to answer my innumerable questions. Grateful for the concern of family and friends. Grateful I had shelter, food and water, the basic essentials that are denied so many people at this critical time, and even before the pandemic.
Now, as with most major life events and rites of passage, I find myself turning to Jewish prayer and thought to try to make sense of my experience.
In researching the subject of gratitude, the first article I found was an essay in The Forward by A.J. Jacobs, who writes that the word “Jew” comes from the tribe of Judah, Yehudah, which means “thanksgiving.” To be Jewish is to be thankful, says Rabbi Josh Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Further searching led me to Modeh Ani, “I Give Thanks,” the morning prayer we offer upon waking, a chant of gratitude for being alive:
“Modeh ani lefanecha, melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bi nishmati b’chemla, raba emunatecha,” “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”
But I didn’t always feel this way. I was frightened and angry when I was diagnosed and advised to isolate myself in my bedroom for a week. The doctor’s words came as a shock — as I had already exposed my husband, why was this necessary? The doctor explained that self-isolation was a further precaution to protect my husband, that he could still contract the virus. And while of course I wanted him to remain healthy, I was filled with fear and resentment. I had already spent six weeks in quarantine, and now my world was shrinking even more. I grabbed a handful of clothes and essentials — toothbrush, toothpaste, books, computer, cellphone, chargers — went to my room and shut the door. My husband was to bring me my meals on disposable plates and trash was to be placed outside the door in a plastic bag that my husband would dispose of while wearing protective gloves. I was to take my temperature twice a day. Friends suggested my husband buy an oximeter so I could track my oxygen levels, and the small device provided me with much-needed relief from constant worry about whether I would develop the most severe symptom of the virus, difficulty breathing.
After I shut myself in I wept. I shouted I wasn’t going to be a prisoner; I wasn’t Public Health Enemy No. 1. I texted my kids and asked if they’d ever want to see me again. I was in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack, and I did not behave well.
Gradually I calmed down and became accustomed to my new routine. I was too tired to do anything, so staying in a quiet room and resting in bed were exactly what I needed. The trees and birds outside the window kept me company. Friends and family texted to let me know they were thinking of me. When I had more energy I’d listen to a podcast or view one of the online art exhibitions generously made available by the Museum of Modern Art and other institutions.
Recovery is slow because the fatigue associated with the virus lingers for a long time. April is gone, and with it the blooming cherry trees. But now there are pink crabapples in full flower and the grass is lush and green. Today the sky is a bright, cloudless blue.
Life is full of uncertainty; it was always this way. Our bodies have always been vulnerable, we’re just more aware of the fact now.
But once again I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to wake up, to leave my room, to join our imperfect world in all its hardships, beauty, and uncertainty.
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Modeh Ani, I give thanks. To be a Jew is to be grateful.
Nancy Gerber is the author of “The Dancing Clock: Reflections on Family, Love, and Loss (Shanti Arts, 2019). This essay first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.