“God bless,” said little Zahra with gratitude, when a young man in his twenties gave up his seat on the New York City subway to her grandma. He had probably seen her fatigue while standing and holding Zahra tightly with one hand, a book in the other hand and her arm wrapped around the metallic pole in the crowded subway car.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon, and they were headed as usual to their beloved park, Central Park.
Even though they lived far away from the park, they were determined not to miss a single Sunday, taking the subway to get there and returning the same way after a day of fun.
Zahra enjoys relaxing and reading a good book in the park. Besides that, she loves making wishes at the Bethesda Fountain in hopes that the Angel of the Waters, a majestic sculpture that watches over the fountain, and which she considers to be a spiritual symbol, will grant them.
Every Sunday, when they went to the park, she would talk to her angel and say her prayers to God asking Him for His blessings, her spiritual thoughts leading her to the belief that God sends angels to us to protect us and to help us on our long journey through life.
Her grandma admires the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir as though it were the most beautiful waterfront ever, oblivious of the joggers pacing themselves along the surrounding path. She found it relaxing to meditate on God’s creation, forgetting the weariness brought on by her busy life. She worked as a cashier at a small gas station, but the biggest concern and greatest challenge for grandma was poor little Zahra, whom she had been taking care of her since she was only three years old. Zahra came to live with her grandma for good when she was 7 years old, shortly after Zahra’s mom had passed away and Zahra’s dad married another woman.
Zahra had wanted to live with her grandma long before the loss of her mom; she felt safe and secure in her grandma’s arms and always felt content when she told her a story every night.
The subway station was a ten-minute walk from the building where their small apartment was located, but some days it seemed longer. Finally, they stepped inside the old elevator and as usual, the little girl began to play with the elevator buttons.
“Stop honey, don’t do that,” Zahra’s grandma admonished her.
Pausing with her little fingers hovering above the buttons, Zahra obeyed her grandma and said, “I’m sorry grandma.”
Just then, the elevator stopped on the third floor and they got off it and turned towards their apartment.
Grandma opened the door for Zahra and then stepped in herself. After they took off their shoes and jackets, Zahra rushed over to the little plant she kept on the windowsill, watering and spending time taking care of it. Meanwhile, her grandma headed to the kitchen to prepare their dinner.
Zahra turned on the TV, and after a while, she went to her grandma in the kitchen, asking her, “What is COVID-19, Grandma?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I heard about it in the news.”
“It is a disease that looks a lot like flu. It is not that serious, and even it does, it does not affect black people, so do not worry, honey.”
“Is there a difference between which sicknesses black people and white people get?”
“I don’t know, they said that.”
“Who said that?”
“One of the customers who came to the gas station. We talked about it, and he told me that it doesn’t affect black people, and my friend Tasha said that too.”
“Okay. What’s for dinner, Grandma?” asked Zahra.
“Guess, honey,” trying to make it a surprise for her.
“Please tell me.”
“The dish you like best of all.”
“Pasta?!” Zahra let out a shriek of delight.
“Yes, honey,” said her grandma.
Then Zahra said with a happy hug, “You are the best grandma ever, I love you.”
The grandma hugged her back with kindness and said to her, “Honey, go and prepare your clothes for school tomorrow, and I will call you when dinner is ready.”
Five days later, Zahra ended her last day of school, as the state officials announced that schools would be closed because of the virus spreading so rapidly. She waited for her grandma to pick her up from school. It was unusual for her grandma to be so late, and the school staff tried to call her many times, but she didn’t answer. Finally, they called her father to come and get her.
Zahra knew there was something serious going on with her grandma. She prayed to God, asking him to protect her grandma since she had never failed to pick her up from school.
“I hope we find her well and nothing bad has happened to her,” said Zahra to her dad, who was driving nowhere in particular as he was confused and worried.
“Did she complain about anything bothering her,” asked Zahra’s dad.
“No, I don’t really remember anything,” said Zahra.
“Wait, Dad, I remember her saying she had a sore throat two days ago, but that was nothing serious.”
“Did she have a fever or cough?” asked her father.
“Yesterday she had a little cough,” said Zahra.
Then her father said with concern, “I hope she’s okay.”
“What are you thinking, Dad?”
“Let’s ask about her in the hospitals because she left work without telling anyone anything.” Then he continued, “Maybe she did not feel well and went to the hospital.”
After they had called three hospitals, they finally found her, but they were told that they couldn’t see her—no one was allowed to visit those admitted to the hospital. The nursing staff informed them that grandma came into the emergency room because she didn’t feel well and was having difficulty breathing—she had tested positive for COVID-19. Because Zahra was living with her grandma, she was also taken into the hospital for testing, but the results came back negative.
Zahra cried and cried. She was inconsolable and refused to go home with her father, telling him that she would stay outside the hospital until her grandma recovered and got well. Her father agreed to stay by her side until they heard more. They waited for several hours outside the hospital until a nurse told them grandma was feeling better, but they were transferring her to another hospital because the hospital was for people who were sicker than her grandmother.
Zahra and her father drove behind the ambulance that was taking grandma to the second hospital. When they arrived, Zahra asked her father, “Why did we come here?”
The ambulance had turned onto one of the roads that goes through Central Park and was now turning onto a path (where cars are not allowed). They could not follow in the car, so Zahra and her father parked and rushed on foot to follow the ambulance.
“Why are we in the park?, why are all those white tents there?” asked Zahra with wonder.
“It is a field hospital? All the hospitals are overcrowded,” said her father.
“Dad, this is grandma’s and my favorite place. Now it is so different, though. I want to take my grandma and run away from here.”
Then Zahra started to cry as she remembered the beautiful days that she enjoyed with her grandma in the park. Suddenly, she shouted at the top of her voice, “Grandma, please, we are in our paradise. Come and join me. Today is not Sunday, but that’s no problem, the weather is perfect. Grandma, please don’t leave me alone—there is still so much we can enjoy.”
Zahra told her father that they could not leave her grandma alone. She wanted to wait until she recovered. Filled with fear and sorrow, Zahra went to her favorite place, the Angel of Waters. Kneeling in front of the fountain, she said in a weepy voice, “I’m losing my grandma.” “Please, God, keep her for me, don’t take her, I need her more than you do. I know you take the good people to be with you, but please leave her for me.”
Suddenly, little Zahra heard the angel say to her, “ Oh little Zahra. You are a smart girl. Don’t cry, God is kind.”
She stood amazed, keeping silent and staring with an open mouth, asking herself, is this a dream or it is real?
Then the angel said to her, “Don’t worry, smart girl, God feels you, and will never let your heartbreak, be sure of that.”
“Why my grandma, why didn’t God protect her?”
“People face difficulties in life, not because it is a punishment from God, but because God wants them to be stronger.”
“Stronger for what.”
“Suffering does not mean you are a bad person, it just means there is a message for you, it is kind of alert, you need to change something, you are on the wrong path. God doesn’t want you to miss the right path as beautiful things are waiting for you on that path.”
“How do I know I am on the right path or that God is sending me a message?”
“Ask God, let him direct you, and then follow your heart.”
“Is the message the same for all people?”
“No, everyone has a different message; you have to figure it out by yourself, the message is an alert about a change, an action that needs to happen, maybe this action is for your grandma or for you, maybe it is about the way that you have been raised.”
“But people said that the virus doesn’t affect black people.”
“Smart girl . . . you are all God’s creation, it doesn’t matter the color or race, you have to follow the health rules, health care workers are doing a great job, working on God’s behalf during this earthly situation. God will inspire them to do good things that can protect and help people.” He continued, “Smart little girl, go home with your dad, God will protect your grandma, and the healthcare heroes taking care of her, and I’m here too.”
At that moment, Zahra heard her father calling her, “We have to go, honey.”
Zahra wasn’t allowed to visit her grandma until she was recovered and discharged from the hospital two weeks later. When the day finally came, her grandma hugged Zahra and said to her, “I will never let you alone.” They held hands and went to the Angel of the Waters and said together, “Time is up for our previous life, it is time for a change.”