For so many years it seemed like nothing was different at our seders. My sisters looked the same, my mother made a beautiful meal that she was too exhausted to enjoy, my dad couldn’t pronounce the words, and my uncle came to our house after work to make the matzah balls. After a very long time, there were some shifts, but then these, too, settled into sameness. Husbands came, children cried, and my sister’s oldest always found the afikomen.
Last year, besides blood, frogs and hail, we experienced a new plague: my mother’s mammogram showed a ball with very long fingernails digging into her breast. Just as the Hebrews had been slaves under Egyptian rule, now my mother — and by extension all of us — were under the rule of cancer. And so we scheduled the seder for my house, which felt unbelievably odd and unreal; I was obviously in denial. I could not remember not having Passover at my mother’s table with her good china and the German silver. Practically, how would I seat everyone at my place? More importantly, without my mother at the table, how would the seder feel “official”?
Sitting with my mother in the cold chemo station, all the usual Passover metaphors suddenly shifted, too. “Chametz” — unkosher leaven— that was the tumor that grew and was removed from my mother’s breast. Slavery — that was my mother’s exhaustion, her inability to leave her bed, our collective terror, and the immunosuppression that kept her in isolation. Leaving Egypt — that was all the medical interventions, including chemo and radiation. But having a Passover that was different because my mother wouldn’t be present, because my mother might die…that wasn’t a difference acceptable to any of us.
It was crowded at my house as our guests arrived for the seder, so we squeezed everyone in by sitting on the floor. And instead of a seder plate in the center, we put my mother via webcam.
“Throughout the ages, our people have joined together to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt,” my mother said. “We have come together in good times and bad, in the desert and in real homes. We have experienced plagues of all kinds — those recorded in the book of Exodus, and those recorded in the book of our lives: hatred and racism, fear and discrimination. And this year we add cancer. But not even cancer can stop us from recounting the exodus from Egypt, so that our children and their children’s children will remember: we were once slaves, but now we are free.”
“Light the candles, Robin,” my mother instructed me from the webcam, and, crying, I did.
The webcam, like the Israelites in the wilderness, stumbled through. The video went dark, the sound faded in and out, and we had to scream out the page numbers so that my mother could re-find us. She took breaks to lie down, then returned, as we moved through our people’s story.
We sang Dayenu with a new appreciation of thanksgiving, tasted bitter herbs together, and drank four cups of wine to wash away sorrow and together toast all that was good. We remembered that we were slaves and that the road to freedom is long and uncertain.
At this coming year’s seder we will thankfully gather at my mother’s house again, and, again, she will lead it. But the year we Skyped my mother into the seder is now embedded in my family’s telling of the exodus from Egypt. A webcam took all of us — Thomas, Maximilian, Louisa, Raphaelle, Bonnie, Claudia, Cameron, Susan, Ricardo, Kamilia, Brandon, Chris, Angie, Danielle, Byron, Anne, Mylan, Phil, Violette, Lawrence, Richard, me and Rita, my mother — through a very hard year in the desert.
Robin A. Harper is a daughter, mother, and assistant professor of political science at the City University of New York. She lives in Queens, NY.