jellyfish blue sandals
shlomit miky dan
Israeli army helicopters hovered and whirled above the hospital helipad that skirted the shores of the Mediterranean. With their rotor blades still whirling, the choppers’ doors opened like the dark maws of whales, spilling out the wounded: Israeli and Lebanese soldiers and civilians, among them women and children. The hospital bustled by night as by day. I was a nurse on the tarmac during the armed conflicts between Israel and militant Palestinians in southern Lebanon in the seventies. Palestinian civilians suffered significant casualties from the constant fighting, as did Israelis living in the north of Israel.
The military crews liaised seamlessly with the hospital teams awaiting them. Their faces marked by fatigue, they assigned the injured to the trauma centers where medical specialists triaged them to urgent operations, ICU, or other assigned departments.
Buzzing like angry hornets, the empty helicopters would take off, banking northwards to scoop up the next human casualties. The blades’ blasts made us bend our heads and shoulders as though we were taking part in an eerie Japanese ritual on a surreal film set. Yet, I asked myself, where and who was the director?
A young Palestinian woman with a knee injury was lying on one of the stretchers on the tarmac. Although she had been sedated to reduce her pain, she was observing her surroundings with alert eyes. When our eyes met, she blinked slowly.
Checking her IV and oxygen mask and the condition of her knee, I caught sight of a pair of blue jelly sandals, the sort we wore on the beach in the summer to protect our feet from sharp-edged pebbles and jellyfish stings. Dusty and weary-looking, they poked out from under her silver foil blanket. They appeared to be asking what on earth they were doing here in this well-organized, smoothly-functioning chaos.
I wanted to make sure that the blue sandals did not slip off the stretcher as it was wheeled to the OR, but I had no time.
A doctor approached with quick steps to check on her, all the while updating me on her condition. His combat uniform was damp, creased, and flecked with stains. Sweat ran down his face and over his chin and neck.
The young woman kept following us with her eyes, exhausted, watchful.
The doctor gazed at me, tired, wide-eyed. Clamping his jaws, he shook his head. Was he simply exhausted, or losing hope?
Could he still feel the nightmare scenes he was witnessing: evacuating and tending the wounded and the dead from battlefields where, in times of peace, children had played football and farmers cultivated olives and oranges?
Do we lose our ability to shed tears when we witness this constant stream of horrors? Do we become indifferent? Will I lose my capacity to cry? As the questions crowded my mind, I knew I had no way to tell him that I shared his silent message. He raised his hand in resigned farewell and we went to our separate tasks.
On another stretcher out on the tarmac lay an unconscious young Israeli soldier with a head injury, on his way to an emergency operation. A lock of fair hair had escaped from under the bandages and lay damp against his forehead. He looked painfully young.
Hardly able to breathe, in a daze, I shut my eyes and turned on my heels in slow motion. When I opened them, still unable to inhale or exhale, I found what I was desperately seeking: the Mediterranean—the closest, most faithful and best friend I’d ever had.
He responded to my awestruck gaze, his shimmering, early morning, pale blue ripples tender against the white sands of the deserted beach.
I stared at him.
Are you taking pictures? Can I trust you as my war correspondent?
It was at that moment that I set myself up as an independent, resolute witness. I would assess the broadest range of information possible and engage in a constant flow of internal questions. It became a steady process that would shape and guide my future experiences.
During my nightshift my brief was to report on conditions in the different departments. Some ran out of medical materials such as metal suction tubes. Such situations were a nightmare for the hospital staff. We had to improvise, find solutions to unexpected emergencies. We were always on the run, without the luxury of taking breaks. I kept up that rushing pace for years to come, unable to halt my stride, even with mundane, day-to-day activities.
Working through the night, I learned that the young soldier with the head injury had undergone several operations. He was still in a coma. Towards the end of my shift, I met his parents. Sitting on a bench in a long, fluorescent-lit corridor where day and night fused, they looked anxious and drained. Their faces reflected the sudden, shocking realization that their beloved son’s injury might involve a lengthy healing process—perhaps taking years—and that their lives would never be the same.
“But the doctors told us that this hospital has the best American surgeons, the most up-to-date hi-tech equipment in the world!” It was a plea, asking me to reassure them. I nodded, but felt my neck stiffening.
Would it not be better to avoid armed combats instead of repeating the mantra of having the world’s best/highest/most?
I sat with them for a while, wishing them the best for their son, and begged them to get some rest. The hospital offered folding beds to those who refused to leave their injured relatives. I took my leave and resumed the madcap pace of my routine.
I discovered that the Palestinian woman with the knee injury had had an operation. The doctors told me her condition was improving. I tiptoed towards her bed. She was awake. Her face seemed to be glowing when she noticed me.
Or was it simply what I wanted to see?
I gently stroked her hand. Her forearm was marked by blue, green, and violet flecks from the IV punctures. Her toes stuck out from under the light blanket; it was a hot summer night. She grasped my hand in her bony palm with a feeble yet confident hold, and smiled. I pulled out the bedside chair and sat down beside her. She was missing her three young children, she told me.
Silence settled in. Then she asked me where I lived. Here, in Haifa, I told her.
Her eyes gleamed. She was born in Haifa, she said. She still remembered the family villa they had to leave to resettle in the refugee camp in south Lebanon. Her voice softened as she spoke, her eyes shone. Vines entwined the marble fountain in the courtyard, the grapes produced homemade white wine. The family spent summers with their Lebanese relatives on the Haifa beach. They were Christians, she told me. “My name is Marie.” Her tale wafted around the room, as if trying to soften its angular corners.
“My father taught me to swim,” she said. “I competed with the boys and sometimes won.” A grin spread from her lips to her eyes. “I still feel the soft sand beneath my bare feet.” She wiggled her bare toes girlishly.
I asked if she and her family knew the Souidans, one of the few remaining Christian Arab families in Haifa. They ran a spice boutique in the old town that I had enjoyed visiting. I told her how I remembered the high, vaulted windows filtering the dazzle of daylight, the dark recesses of the store haunting my imagination. A fairy-tale prince would glide in through one of the windows on a beam of light. He’d be lounging on a magic carpet, his head swathed in a silken turban. With a swish of his shiny satin gown, he’d invite me to explore exotic aromas and flamboyant hues… I could almost smell the spices displayed on round silver platters engraved with Arabic calligraphy and floral designs.
Marie’s hand hold strengthened.
“You are talking like my oldest son. You have the same spirit,” she said. We both laughed, giggling like children. For a moment, the constant hustle and bustle, stress and noise of the hospital receded, and I went on, lost in my daydream.
The Souidans were patient, amused by my persistent demands to know the origins and uses of the spices. We never left the shop without sipping, first, a cup of bubbling black coffee, or a chestnut-colored sweetened mint tea offered by the courteous hosts. Next to the spice boutique was a restaurant owned by the family, its porch adorned by cascades of blue-violet bougainvillea. On weekends the winding street leading to the front door would be filled with Arab and Israeli Haifans, chatting with each other, waiting in line for the trademark humus and pita.
Did Marie remember the place? And did she know the other unpretentious but popular restaurant by the port, run by the Diab family? Like the Souidans, they were Arab Christians who had remained in Haifa, with relatives in Lebanon and Canada. This was our favorite stop after a weekend of sailing. The local fishermen, their faces sun-tanned and wind-roughened by the sea, came to Diab with the catch of the day that frequently ended up on our plates. Dining at Diab’s felt like a homecoming, part of our childhood.
The restaurant was suffused with the old harbor’s odors of aging wood, petrol and freshly grilled fish. We would stroll in, dressed in summer clothes and beach sandals, dripping seawater onto the stone floor. One of our favorite starters was minced meat baked with fresh tomatoes, flavored with rosemary and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. We would then opt for the speciality of the house, dorade, the silver skin fish grilled with thyme. No meal at Diab’s would end without a cool, snow-white Labané, a Lebanese dessert made of yogurt spiked with fresh green pistachios and crimson-red grenadine syrup, accompanied by small squares of luscious, almond, pistachio, and honey-filled cookies.
Dessert over, we’d be presented with a thick black coffee, prepared in front of us, in a metal finjan, a Middle Eastern coffee-pot, and sprinkled with green cardamom. We would then be joined by Diab, the patriarch of the family. Lively yet unhurried, he exuded amiability, and we would spend a happy time swapping anecdotes.
With the memories whirling around my head, I looked at Marie and was brought abruptly back to the present reality. As if deciphering my thoughts, with eyes veiled in sadness, she sighed: “There’s nothing left now.”
And I felt my neck stiffening again. We should all be free to stroll together down the winding, eucalyptus-scented streets. Her eyes bade me farewell.
I was about to leave the room when I caught sight of the light blue jelly sandals, clean and tidy, arranged by her bed. I felt they were challenging me to provide answers. Did her children miss the soft, familiar flip-flop of their mother’s blue sandals? Did they miss their mother’s hugs, her meals? Was their school still there, or had it been bombed too? Where were they?
During my nightshift, I passed by the children’s ICU. One of the young patients was a baby Palestinian girl, evacuated by Israeli army helicopters. She had suffered multiple injuries from the compression waves emanating from the bombs Israeli fighter planes had dropped on her refugee camp. Just two years old: the same age as the daughter I'd left at home with the babysitter.
The mother stood tall and stoic by her child’s bed, her eyes following every move I made. She did not utter a word. I only had time to ask the unit nurses to update me on the girl’s condition. With the mother’s stare boring into my back, I hurried on to the next ward. During the week, the condition of the baby girl deteriorated.
My nightshift week was coming to an end. It was dawn, and casualties still poured out of the helicopters. Doctors, nurses, and staff swarmed over the hospital, failing, like me, to conceal their surging anxiety.
Overcome with fatigue, I stumbled into the children’s ICU. The baby girl’s bed was empty. I stood trembling as the nurses told me her condition had worsened overnight. They had called for the doctors, but they were all too busy treating the latest emergency cases. When they finally arrived, it was too late.
I shot out of the hospital, a missile.
I found the mother. She was standing still, her back against the hospital wall, facing the sea. I ran towards her, then hesitated as she looked at me. The light of dawn outlined her silhouette, her shadow on the whitewashed wall an echo of the statue of a Greek goddess.
Our eyes locked. She stared at me, unblinking. No tears. Silent. I could not utter a word. Her eyes followed me, the movements I made. Then she left.
In a slow, self-composed motion I took off my white nurse’s uniform.
I stood there facing the hospital’s whitewashed wall, my smock languishing on my arm. Overcome with emotion, I turned the other way, searching for the sea.
There he was, a blue-green glow spraying arcs of sparkling silver droplets.
“No, I can’t promise it will get better.”
I knew the voice I seemed to hear was telling me the truth. We were friends, we trusted each other. His ripples caressed my feet, coming in, then ebbing. I left the uniform at the hospital and headed home.
Mount Carmel was awakening, his shadows receding. The sandy beach was deserted. No hovering helicopters. Silence. The streets were quiet, the Haifans asleep.
“You’re fifteen minutes late,” raged the babysitter, her nostrils flaring. Without waiting for an explanation, she stomped out, slamming the door.
My baby daughter and I stared at each other mutely, shocked by the blow. I was overcome with feelings of guilt and anger. Despite my belief in the values of nursing and healing the injured, we had just lost a baby girl in the hospital. Was I right to leave my own baby daughter with a furious babysitter? Didn’t she deserve to have a mother by her side?
The next day I told the hospital that I was not coming back. Some time later my husband accepted the offer of work overseas. We accompanied him. The moment I boarded the plane, I felt as though I’d grown wings, liberated from a suffocating place that had ceased to feel like home. Did my friend, the sea, have something to do with it?
Years have passed. Yet, before I fall asleep, I rescan. I see the bare bed of the baby girl in the children’s ICU, her mother. I see myself searching for her in southern Lebanon, in one of the crowded refugee camps, or in one of the semi-deserted, semi-ruined villages. I wonder what chance I would have of ever finding her. And what would I say to her?
Before I fall asleep, I remember the lock of hair of the young soldier, peeping out of the bandage swathed around his head. My fingers yearn to caress it. I see his parents sitting in the dazzling light of the long, neon-lit corridor. Waiting for the doctors to come through the sliding doors of the OR. And tell them—what?
Before I fall asleep, I review the sea. The one who inspired me to claim my freedom, my independence. Or so it seemed to me. I reflect on the price I paid by being far from him, of losing our daily contact. But our dialogue continues; he’s never far away.
Before I fall asleep, I contemplate the realities of the ongoing conflicts I witnessed; realities that others marginalized and later denied or sought to justify.
People who failed to question.
Before I fall asleep, I feel guilty. Even though I belonged to a minority.
Before I fall asleep, I see the look of resignation in Marie.
I see her bright jellyfish blue beach sandals.
Looking at me.
Unable to forget, blessed to remember.