Life & Culture

How I turned to blue-sky thinking

As I lie under the radiation machine and look up at its blue and white tiles, I have a lot of time to think, says Karen Skinazi


White cloud detail in blue sky vector illustration background with copy space

Every day, the same. I wake up, drink coffee, shower, and get dressed. I cycle through the park, over the leaves: papery, mushy, frosty. I lock up my bike, drop off my appointment card, find a changing room, slide the plastic nameplate across from “free” to “engaged,” put on my hospital gown, slide the nameplate back to “free,” and sit down to wait for my turn. At last, I lie under a bright blue sky.

I spend a lot of time under this sky, silent, staring up.

Afterward, I think how there are many things this sky is not.

It’s not the sunny sky of Miami Beach, under which I will soon reunite with my mom and eldest son (an overseas university student) and parents-in-law, go to kosher restaurants, and dip in the ocean – a trip my husband and I booked after a recent evening of walking the streets of a nearby neighbourhood and seeing sign upon sign in the windows of restaurants and shops that made us feel unwelcome. We came home and said: “Time to visit the shtetl.” That sunny sky will buoy me.

It’s not the grey sky of London, under which I rallied, with over 100,000 others, Jewish and non-Jewish, against antisemitism. Under which we shouted, “Bring them home!” and sang of the whole world being a narrow bridge. That grey sky was full of promise and hope.

It’s not the white ceiling of my reception room under which I hosted a group of friends last week, organised on a WhatsApp group with the name “Am yisrael chai.” It was the rebbetzin’s birthday, and we had cake and rugelach and told stories and rejoiced in being together. That painted white sky heard our laughter and love.

This blue sky I lie under, every day, is illuminated by an artificial light. It is composed of nine shiny tiles laid out in a perfect 3x3 square. Each tile has some combination of blue and white, like the Israeli flag. Sky and cloud. It resembles an image-based CAPTCHA, and sometimes I imagine myself having to click on the boxes with clouds. Click-click-click, click-click-click, click-click, click. All of them! All of them! (I’m not a bot). I don’t know why, but each time, I wish one tile – just once! – will be free of clouds. It never happens. The clouds remain, if only as pale whisps of white in one small corner of a single blue tile.

Life goes on – of course it does! I plan trips, I rally, I host friends. I don’t feel too tired or ill; my skin doesn’t burn. I can’t complain.

And yet, every day, the same: the sky, the blue sky, the blue sky with clouds, and my reflection in the sky. My arms, in the top middle tile, rest above my head. My torso fits into the centre tile; here is where the action takes place. At the bottom, I see my legs, dark and barely distinguishable. On either side of me are hospital workers and screens and machines, lights flashing.

It could be maddening, this sky, without joy or hope, without laughter. What can it offer, this unmoving, unchanging sky?

I don’t think deep thoughts as I lie beneath it. In the film Golda the narrative fluctuates between the two constants in Golda Meir’s life in the autumn of 1973: the Yom Kippur War and her radiation therapy treatments. Over and over, we see her walk into a hospital, down an underground passage that takes her through the morgue, filling with the bodies of soldiers, and into the radiotherapy room. She climbs onto the bed, and she waits. The machine comes to life. You suspect she did her planning there, under the giant 1970s radiation machine that swung over her body and attempted to cure her (it failed).

Fifty years later, a similarly awful, unanticipated war rages in Israel. I lie under the radiation machine, and no wisdom comes into my mind. Two states, one state, a confederation? The static sky above the machine has no answers. It’s good I don’t have a country to run.

I know the drill, as Golda surely did: the radiographers open my gown, adjust my body, and check my alignment. One takes the Star of David pendant I wear on a necklace and slides it to the back of my neck. Then they both leave the room. The buzzer sounds, the green neon sign reading “Radiation off” appears, then an amber “Radiation ready,” and finally “Radiation on,” a red, ominous light to signal danger. The danger is invisible. The danger is real.

I stare at the sky.

And over time, I realise that staring at this sky has become a ritual to me, like saying prayers.

Modeh ani.

Whatever the day ahead brings, whatever the day before brought: Modeh ani.

There is something comforting in this repetition, this ritualistic framework. Every day the same. Modeh ani. I give thanks. There is significance in the words with which we start each day. Perhaps my fake blue sky is a reminder of this message. After all, it is one of the skies that heals me, body and soul: of my illness, and in this fraught time of being Jewish. For that I am grateful. Modeh ani.

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