The Lemon Tree
by Nitza Agam
I stopped eating. I had forgotten the effects of extreme anxiety. The last time I stopped eating was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in Israel. I was living with my boyfriend when a siren sounded and he got into his army uniform, put an apple and a toothbrush in his army duffel bag, and left to join his unit. A week later he was killed. During that week I stopped eating too. Then I lost almost twenty pounds; this time, it was more like eight. The corona virus pandemic reminded me of living through a war. The lockdown in San Francisco was like that siren. Life changed dramatically that moment. It would not be the same. Now the enemy was invisible and I was not sitting in an underground bunker worried about bombs or the fate of my boyfriend or others, but I was at home in what would become my fortress with family and a disabled husband in a wheelchair.
That first week I was so scared that one of us would get the virus. What would I do? My husband depended on me for everything. He might not make it through the virus, and if I got it, he didn’t have the help he needed, and we could not call on friends or family to help. It seemed like an impossible scenario. I found familiar tools that I had forgotten about as well. Just like I had forgotten what life-threatening anxiety and uncertainty felt like, I had forgotten what could help ease it. I found Yoga classes online and my body relaxed, my mind was able to let go of the knots, the thoughts, the fear. Once upon a time in my youth, I had practiced Yoga but had let it go. Now it returned and the voice of the young Yoga teacher became my lifeline.
As time moved on, the fear of getting the virus diminished. I established the routine of our life, our morning chores and tasks, a walk in the neighborhood, conversations with friends, with my therapist. I realized that childhood trauma played a role in the fear. When I was three years old, I got whooping cough and was enveloped in an oxygen tent. That might explain my lifelong claustrophobia. I could not imagine being intubated or secluded. The three-year-old who wanted her mother and out of that enclosure emerged as did the twenty-two-year-old survivor of war and loss. I was both.
I took comfort in the lush, green lemon tree outside our window near our veranda. It became an altar as I faced it every morning doing Yoga or my own kind of prayer. I loved watching it change in the light. I picked lemons in the evening inhaling the scent, grateful for each day, each morning that we were healthy. I enjoyed watching the neighbor’s ginger cat stretching out in our backyard, the variety of birds flitting from branch to branch.
Sometimes I saw “Ginger” climb over walls and fences under clouds and green hills behind him. I learned to cherish those small moments more than ever. I was the three-year-old wanting her mother and the twenty-two-year-old fearful for the safety of her fiancé during a war. Yet I was now the sixty-nine-year-old safe in the refuge of my home, hoping for the best. Along with the rest of the world I sought sanctuary, I made the ordinary spaces more sacred, as I hid from the virus, and slowly overcame my fear.
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Nitza Agam writes mostly memoir and poetry based on her life experiences. She lives in San Francisco and her work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Momentum Magazine, Poetica, and Independent Teacher. She has published two memoirs titled Scent of Jasmine (2011) and Love Letters to my Mother (2016). A forthcoming essay will appear in Adanna Literary Journal in September. She believes in the importance of documenting her life, the past and present, and her hopes and fears for the future.