Something Permanent

IMG_1239Written three years ago- dreams do come true.  People change.

Welcome, Liad Meir.

———-

To my unborn fourth child, the one I just might not create, the one I may choose to not give life.  

I dreamed of you, a tiny ball of cells, then growing into a petite baby, chicken-like, the youngest of three older siblings.  I groped at the vision, held it tightly in my fists so that when I birthed my third, and when I weaned her, I wasn’t pained with thoughts of This is my last.  I keep boxes of neatly folded clothing for you in the attic, covered by a filmy layer of dust.  Four is a nice number, round, even, an ideal family.  But I might stop at three.

I wonder what will become of you; if you will be reassigned, begrudgingly, to another family, or if you will exist for the duration of the world as a bodiless soul, wandering between heaven and earth, one leg straddling each, but never quite belonging.  Will you cry invisible tears of longing, shouting words that won’t be heard because you don’t have a voice?  Will you never matter?

I think you would be a little boy, a soulful playmate to your older brother, who constantly beseeches me with, “Why don’t I have a boy to play with?” as he only has two sisters.  You would race cars together on our hardwood floors, sliding on your knees as you struggle to see who can reach the dining room table first.  You would play hockey in the driveway, boys against girls, and you’d probably have to play goalee, the less desirable position often relegated to the younger, slower siblings.  I would call you “Liad,” Hebrew for Mine, Forever. 

***

“Should I give away the exersaucer?” I ask Yoni one day, because Mica, at a year old, has outgrown it, and it is serving as a dumbwaiter for clothing in our walk-in closet.  I am testing him, his resolve to end our child-bearing years.  If he sincerely does not want more children, he will want to be rid of the extra clutter.

“Sure,” he says, shrugging, “just give it to your sister, or something.”  I am crestfallen, still hoping to catch his bluff, and so I ignore the conversation, leaving the exersaucer as is, until it gets placed lovingly in the attic, next to the defunct baby swing, baby bjorn, and boppy pillow.

Not having a bigger family leaves me feeling unfulfilled.  As a child, all I wanted to do was grow up to be “a Mother.”  I felt that having children defined me as a person, gave me credibility, stood next to my name in place of a “phd” or “md”.  The more I had, the better I was, and somehow, I don’t quite feel that I have made Phi Betta Kappa yet.  But I suppose I should feel relieved that there are no more sleepless nights in store for me, that I will no longer awaken in a puddle of breast-milk or worry about errant projectile peeing, on my sheets, during hours of the night when even the streetlights are asleep.  I should be happy to graduate from baby-making to the “rest of my life,” and yet, I am not.

Yoni worries about my deteriorating health, the advancing of my autoimmune condition, the well-being of our children, and his ability to provide.  He does not want more children.  We used to see eye-to-eye on this, especially during my third pregnancy, when I felt my veins bulging out of my legs, throbbing, independent of my heart, and had to limp around in $130 compression stockings that would tear every two weeks.  I vowed never to go through it again, that Mica would be my last.  But then I had an easy (early!) labor, an even easier delivery.  And the baby was a living angel.  How could I not want another?   I’ve changed my mind, and I’d like to change his, too.  I would like us to have a fourth.

“Trick him,” a friend suggests, over sushi and crispy beef.   But I can’t fathom bringing a child into this world against his will.  I can’t create a life out of a dishonest gesture.  It has to come from him, physically, mentally, willfully.

“Maybe you should consider something more permanent,” my OB says to me, one afternoon, over the phone, her voice a smooth, velvety song.  I had called to complain about my copper coil IUD, again, unsure of my ability to survive much longer with the device implanted and invading my uterine space.  With the endless monthly hemorrhaging it caused.  It is an antennaed alien crowding my soft tissue, and It needs to go.  Sometimes, I can even feel subtle vibrations, and I am convinced that it picks up sound signals.  My own little transistor radio, tuning me in to the life beyond.

But the finality of her statement is haunting, as I have exhausted and eliminated all other methods of birth control.  “You might want to get a tubal ligation.  It’s a good option for women with medical issues, like you, who aren’t planning on having more children,” she offers, trying to be helpful.  Tears sting at my eyes, and I am grateful not to be in her office, sitting, exposed on the examining table, crying into the paper-gown which would disintegrate when wet.  I am only 28, and yet I am considering ending my child-bearing potential.  I have friends who haven’t even started.

“Think about it,” she says.  “Discuss it with your husband.”  But I don’t want to, because I worry that he might say yes.  I hang up the phone and stare blankly into the emptiness of my kitchen, at the still air hanging softly, motionlessly in pockets around my face.  On my to-do list, an X was unwillingly being put next to “have a family.”  It was finished, but I didn’t feel complete.

I immediately call Yoni at the office, even though I thought I’d wait until later in the evening.  I hold my breath, hoping he picks up his phone and that he is not with a patient.  I hope he is by his desk.  He answers.  “The doctor thinks I should get a tubal ligation!” I gush into the phone.  “This IUD is just not working for me, and I don’t have many other options…” I drone on, repeating my earlier conversation, between gasps and sniffles.

He listens carefully, and I strain to hear the subtle nodding of his head across the phone lines, over the miles that separate us.  I imagine his eyes must be lighting up at the simplicity of the birth control solution, the sudden end to all future, “So… should we try for another?” discussions that will never have to happen.

And yet, without hesitation, he says, “No.”

“Really?” I say.

“You’re so young,” he continues.

I nod.  Maybe there will be a fourth, then.

“You don’t know what will happen in the future.”

Definitely, a fourth.

“What if I die, and you remarry, and that man wants to have another kid with you?”

Maybe not.

He might want to give away the exersaucer, but at least I can keep my functioning ovaries.

A month later, I am at the OB’s office, switching my copper coil for the Mirena IUD, my last and final hope at birth control.  It is the gruff Italian partner, with more hair on his arms than on his head, and he asks me in his thick accent if I am planning on having more kids, because if not, I might want to go with the tubal ligation.  “But it’s so permanent,” I say, not ready for the big commitment, wondering why everyone seems so desperate to get me to cease having children.

“Well, you can still have kids after, just you would need to go through IVF.”  He says this casually, as if having eggs harvested and injecting hormones intramuscularly is no big deal.  Like getting a manicure.  This is news to me though, that it is not 100% permanent, and so I take out my phone and quickly text Yoni, while I shiver in my paper gown, and my feet dangle loosely in the stirrups.

You sure I shouldn’t do it?  I type.  I can always do IVF later.

It’s expensive!  He writes.

Insurance will cover the ligation, I pound into the tiny keyboard.

No, the IVF is expensive!

What do you care?  You’ll be dead.  It will be my second husband’s problem, I type.

But I sense that through the excuses, the answer to the procedure remains as a “no.”  And maybe not just for my imaginary second husband’s financial sake, or to spare me the emotional pain of going through IVF.  But perhaps because Liad is not so far off.  Maybe he is still within our reach.  Maybe at night, Yoni will hear his soft voice, the voice that nobody else may ever hear, calling out, “Daddy, Daddy,” and he will know that this is his home.  His only choice for a home.  And if he doesn’t reach out for him, Mine, Forever, will never be.

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Brit Speech

bris pic

I want to start by giving Hakarat Hatov to all those who were a big part of this joyous occasion-

To Rabbi Bengio, who has known Yoni since childhood, and travelled from Montreal to be a part of this simcha.  Thank you.

To Rabbi Lankry, our Rabbi, Mohel, and friend, who stuck with us through so many years and so many different addresses, and continues to be a guiding light for us in so many ways.  We very much appreciate it.

To Rabbis Zahtz and Pruzansky- for your tireless leadership of our community, thoughtful phone calls, and inspiring messages.

To our parents, Zevi and Rebecca Isseroff, and Solomon and Dina Abenaim, for countless things- including but not limited to giving birth to us, raising us, allowing us to marry each other, but also for your tireless efforts, your thoughtful chinuch, and your endless dedication as parents.  We hope to one day become role models as great as you are.

To my Bubbi Gitu, who could not make it today- we know you are thinking of us and can’t wait for you to meet your newest great-grandson.

To our siblings- thank you for your visits, texts, calls, favors, and offers to help out.  For dropping everything on a moment’s notice to attend one of our various parties… We are blessed to have so many wonderful people in our lives who fall into this category.

To the wonderful staff and owners of Mocha Bleu- thank you for creating such a beautiful party.

To our friends– who have become like family– we are so grateful for every gesture, big and small, and for all you have done- the playdates, carpools, shopping, meals, party planning.  The list goes on.  We hope to be able to reciprocate the favors one day.

To my wonderful doctors- your support has been reassuring and I couldn’t have done it without the most amazing team behind me.

To Emmanuelle, Jakey, and Mica- thank you for your patience during the pregnancy.  I’m sorry I couldn’t “bend down” or go up and down the stairs so much.  But you guys stuck it out and managed to survive.  You are going to be the best big brother and sisters for this baby.

And finally, to Yoni- my Ish Chayil… Thank you for believing in me.  For letting me do this.  For never saying “no”.  For creating a life filled with so much happiness, I don’t ever feel I am lacking anything.  I feel so blessed every day of my life- and am eternally grateful to have you as my partner in it.

***

A few years ago, when Mica was a toddler, I wrote an essay about having a fourth child.   I imagined that this child would be a little boy, a spirited playmate to his older brother.    They would race cars together on our hardwood floors, and spar happily, grateful for some attention.  I thought I would call this baby, “Liad,” Hebrew for Mine, Forever. 

But as with my other pregnancies and attempts at baby-naming, Yoni and I never have the same mentality.  For months, I would read name-books and scour websites, creating lists of viable options.  And then on a quiet evening, I could quickly share the list with Yoni, only to have him veto it all.  “Liad” was on this trashed list.

I knew that we’d think of something after the birth.  I knew that once we’d meet the child, the name would descend on us, as it had in the past.  Each of our children had different names we had chosen earlier on, but those names were always switched last minute.  I almost gave in to Yoni’s choice of a name, just to not have to think about it anymore, even though I didn’t love the meaning, and hated the way it rolled off of the tongue, especially depending on one’s accent.  But then for some reason, Yoni liked “Liad”.

This past year has brought on a lot of changes for us in our lives.  Together, Yoni and I have reevaluated things we thought were important, have tested our priorities.  While we straddle both the materialistic and spiritual worlds, we know all possessions are temporary.  We seek ways to elevate the physical, to bring on kedusha to the mundane, to change the ordinary to extraordinary.

But we have also been able to view relationships differently, to accept and adapt, and to embrace those around us, our families and friends.  We know that they are the core of our lives, the ones who laid the foundation on which we have built, and continue to build.  And the shalom and simcha that a family can create in a home is the true key to our happiness.  Liad represents this- our desire to eternally love in the purest of ways, to build interpersonal connections, to grow and nurture our children.  To create roots that will last long after other things may disappear.

There is an idea that when we sleep, our souls travel back to God, ascending and then descending through different realms of the spiritual before returning to the body.  On the last night in the hospital, I had trouble sleeping, and I woke up as my soul journeyed back.  I became conscious before it had fully returned, and for a moment, there was a pause as these words were whispered in Hebrew to me:

“Nishba ba’adar ohr”

My mind grabbed onto this phrase.

I opened my eyes and the meaning stayed in my ears.  There was a promise that the month of Adar would bring light.  The baby was born in the month of Adar, the month in which the story of Purim took place.  Hashem’s name does not appear at all in the megillah, and we must actively seek out His presence through the hidden miracles, through the strips of light that can be shrouded by darkness.  But when that light is found, the revelations are tremendous.

I immediately sent Yoni a message that I thought we needed to include “light” in the baby’s name, and as we texted back and forth in the early morning hours, we came up with the name “Meir”, one who brings light.  We want our son to have the strength to become something, to shine, to be a light to others like he will be to us.  To grow and develop beyond what we can teach and give, to show us the way.  We hope that whoever calls out his name, “Liad Meir”, will be able to enjoy the light of our son, to cherish it and have it forever.

And then Yoni realized that his great-great-grandfather’s name was Meir.  Meir lived a long life, passing away at the age of 94.  He was a successful businessman in Paris, but his greatest attribute despite his accomplishments was his humility.  He would sit quietly on the side during gatherings, and was never boastful.  He radiated with a sense of tranquility, and was at peace in life.  It is our greatest honor to name our son for this ancestor, the first child to bear his name.  May our own Liad Meir emulate the positive attributes of Meir HaCohen, and may he fill every month, not just Adar, with the light of God.  May he radiate and bring blessings to all those who come to know him.

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History, From a Couch

 

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Abba wasn’t home much when I was a young child.  Going to sleep by 8pm and having a father who worked as a Podiatrist during office hours, then at nursing homes, then went to school board meetings, and finally to learn with a study partner, did not enable us to cross paths very frequently.  Aside from the weekends, the only times our schedules overlapped were in the middle of the night.  It was then, that we developed our relationship; that he was a “dad” and I was a “daughter”.

 

If I felt sick or nauseous, I only needed to stand in the doorway of my parents’ room and start to gag, and through the enveloping darkness, I’d make out the figure of my father, bolting upright, and springing forth from the warmth of his blankets to steer me towards the bathroom.  There was no announcement, no dialogue, no crying necessary.  Just the tortured noise, and his innate, hurried reaction.

 

“Come,” he would say, and he’d scoop me up in his arms, carry me down the stairs, and help me get settled on the couch in our den.  Lying head-to-toe, we would share the small space, wrapped in a woven afghan that a grateful patient had once given him, a small bucket by my head in case of future vomiting.  He would put on the television- likely for my own enjoyment, because he would be back asleep within five seconds.  I don’t think we had a remote control back then, and so the television would be fixed on a documentary of an ex-convict, a Latino-special, or just plain static, unless one of us were to get up to change it.  Through it all he would sleep, dreaming in varied languages, a hodge-podge of the day’s stories, mixed in with a sick daughter.  This is a father, I thought, and buried myself, my face against his toes, in the warmth of the couch.

 

In my early teenaged years, my parents replaced that couch with two light pink leather love-seats.  It was not the most comfortable place for a nap, but many nights, Abba would fall asleep on the couches, his head on one armrest, legs crossed and elevated on the other one.  His toes would poke through the holes in his thin, worn socks, and he let his feet dangle onto the second love-seat.  The den was situated right by the front door, and I think he purposely chose this location to monitor our late evening comings-and-goings, without seeming too intrusive.  And he had definitely honed his skill of bolting upright mid-snore, at the slightest hint of extraneous noise.

 

The door was locked, and I fiddled in my purse under the dim yellow light of the front porch, trying to find my key.  A friend had dropped me off after a late Saturday night out on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, and I knew that Abba would be sleeping on the couches.  Hoping not to wake him, I slowly turned the knob and opened the door a mere foot’s width, the minimal amount in which I could slide in without too much hinge-creaking taking place.  Satisfied with my near-burglar-like talents, I proceeded to close and lock the door in my wake, but before I could take another step towards the stairs, a voice from the den called, out, “Hi Sarah!  How was your night?”

 

I turned around, and instead of going upstairs, headed into the den to see my father.  He was perfectly upright, acting casual, as if he had just been sitting alone in a dark room, meditating, when I always knew he had been sleeping.  “Fine!” I said, offering a tired smile.  “We went to pizza…”

 

He wiped the sleep from his eyes, and reached to dig up his kippah from a hidden crevice in the couch, returning it to its perch amidst his dark black curls.  And then he’d flip open his gemarah, and try to resume reading from the spot where his eyes had involuntarily closed.  “Just going to finish my learning…” he’d say, and like that, I was dismissed.

 

These moments were often a silent recognition of our relationship, of our distinct roles as parent and child.  Of protector and protected.  He would drift back into a deep sleep, satisfied that his mission had been fulfilled, and I’d tuck myself into bed, knowing I was safe.  “Emor Me’at, Veaseh Harbeh,” Say little and do a lot.  

 

And then there was the end of my college years, when much of my evenings were spent traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, spending time with my then-fiance, Yoni, and oftentimes arriving home even later at night.  Out of habit, I’d pause at the door, trying not to disturb my father’s sleep, straining to listen for the familiar sounds of the Spanish channel, or Abba’s raucous snoring.  But I remember the first time I was greeted with silence.

 

I had been tiptoeing to the stairs from the front door, and had made it all the way, without being summoned.  Wondering where he was, I turned and headed into the den on my own, looking for my father, but instead of finding his body splayed on the couch, or in its usual upright position, only his gemarah lay on the pink cushions, closed for the night.  The television was silent.  I curled up on the cold leather, resting my head on the couch’s arm, and felt my father’s absent embrace.

 

This was the passing of the torch, the growing-up, the getting married.  The end of an era.  I was in limbo; not quite daughter, not-yet wife.  Being transferred into the protective arm of another man, so my father could liberate himself of me.  Our couch meetings were no more, and in the morning, as I began to pack my things for my upcoming wedding and move to Philadelphia, Abba passed me by, and mumbled, “I missed you last night.”

 

And so, Abba, it is your 60th birthday.  I no longer live at home, and I’m no longer the little, medium, and big girl who stood, sat, and slept with you on those couches.  You are no longer the first one I call when my car malfunctions, but you’ll always be my father.  The one who taught me to speak through my actions, to do rather than say.  To find and instill deep meaning in the smallest of gestures, the tiniest of considerations.  And in the dark, in the quietest of the night, your snoring from the couch still sings its songs of the great father you have always been.  

 
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Crossing Over

September 2005

Zaidy and Emmanuelle, September 2005

 

“Let’s go across the street to visit Zaidy,” my mother usually said, at shul’s end every shabbat, when the sanctuary had completely emptied and all that remained in its echoing interior were my mother, sisters, and I, and a man who would press his face against the women’s section door, angrily awaiting our departure so he could lock up.  We were typically the last ones to leave, arriving only a few minutes before the services would end, and then lingering around to continue in private prayer, or to stand around awkwardly socializing with those we’d grown up with, but had grown apart from.  My sisters and I would nod at our mother’s request, slowly rising from the itchy upholstered benches, and teeter in our sharp heels down the steep staircase and out the door through a throng of the fancily dressed.  It was like entering a pit of humans, all encased in the parameters of the sprawling concrete entryway, spilling out onto the sidewalk, but ending cautiously by the curb, which edged the busy street, Hempstead Avenue.

There was always some type of delay in our travels.  Though our route was short; simply cross Hempstead Avenue, and we’d be at Zaidy’s house, we first had to traverse the maze of clustered bodies and spiraling conversations, the former school teachers who would come to admire how much we’d grown, the friend of our father’s who’d ask us if we had a nice girl for his son, the girl whose outfit we’d have to stop to critique, and mentally record for future shopping sessions.

By the time we’d reach the curb, about to ready to cross, we’d invariably realize we had lost a family member in the sea of faces.  Turning around, we’d see our mother wave at us from amidst a group of four chatting women, both an “I’m here!” and a “Go ahead without me- I’ll be there in minute!” type of gesture.  My three sisters and I would then step off the painted concrete curb and into the street, waiting for the perfect moment to cross.

We would usually run, because often the moments without cars were inopportune, and it was challenging to see if anyone was coming from beyond the curve of the road.  Linking arms, we’d hurry across the road, our fancy shoes clicking and reverberating through the momentary traffic din.

Hempstead Avenue knew my Zaidy Yoel well.  For the twenty five years that he was my grandfather, he lived across the street from our shul in West Hempstead, in a sun-lit brick home.  He would constantly traverse the street several times a day, going to and from shul.  On most days, his figure could be seen crossing Hempstead Ave, resisting to be pushed in a wheel chair, and always insisting on walking solo, cane in hand, his aide trailing helplessly behind him, lest he fall.  His posture was stooped, and his large black orthopedic shoes clomped across the concrete in a slow gait, as cars stopped, patiently waiting for him to finish his journey.  His frail legs moved methodically up the stairs and into the shul, pausing to greet lingering passersby and fellow shul-goers, always ready with a joke, witty comment, or to share words of Torah.

Zaidy Yoel was a spiritually connected man, fervent in his dedication to Judaism, but in his later years, when Parkinsons shook his life, shook his arms and legs, and even the small muscles in his face, he never wavered from viewing the shul and religious rituals as the center of his being.  He fought to continue in his Judaic practices, praying three times a day, fasting on commemorative holidays, rescuing Torah scrolls and discarded books, trying to revive them and give them new life.  And always crossing the street, in the rain, snow, sleet, or sweltering heat, to mark his presence in the synagogue, to perform his duties as an Orthodox Jew.

And so, on Shabbat, his children and grandchildren who lived in the area would make it a point to visit, to engage our elderly, ailing grandfather.  His house would be filled with our boisterous laughter, as we all caught up on the week’s events.

“How is your guitar playing, Surahle?”  Zaidy asked, a few cracker crumbs spilling from his lips and landing on his tie, with the gold “Joel” clip affixing it to his shirt.   His aide reached forward and brushed off his chest, tucking a napkin into the neck of his collar so as not to further soil his shirt.

“It’s good, Zaidy.  I can play a few songs.  Not so well, but it’s a start!”  An avid musician, he had been thrilled when I’d come to him, asking for a guitar to start learning in my college years.  In his basement, amidst a crowd of cellos, violins, violas, and other stringed instruments, stood a lone classical guitar.  He had given it to me, excited to be sharing a love of music with a granddaughter, and although he could not directly teach me, he loved to stay abreast of my progress.

“I’d love to hear your songs,” he said, involuntarily jerking and grimacing on the cushioned seat.          zaidy yoel 2

“I’ll try to come by during the week to play for you.”  I smiled, sweeping my gaze across the room, bedecked with paintings- many of them his own artwork or his favored collectibles, in various Judaic, Israeli, or musical themes.

There were times when Zaidy was less involved in the conversation, and was more the passive observer, quietly watching his progeny enjoying themselves from a distance, telling jokes or sharing stories.  The gatherings always ended with a kiss on the cheek, a bristling of his thick mustache against our skin, the sharp white hairs tickling at our youth, and an enthusiastic, “Good Shabbos!” before heading home.

These weekly visits continued on for several years, even after I got married and moved to Philadelphia, then to Miami, and back to New Jersey, after I’d had a daughter of my own, and a son on the way.  But always when returning home for a holiday or weekend, I’d make the mild trek across Hempstead Avenue after shul to visit Zaidy, the gusting winds of the passing cars ruffling my hair and lifting my skirts as I’d hurry to his house.

It was befitting that his funeral took place at the shul, the heart of his life for so many years, and I remember walking into the lobby, the coffin draped in a blue velvet, a gold star of David woven onto its lush surface.  The sanctuary was overflowing with people; those who had known and loved him as we had.  The outcasts whom he had made feel that they belonged.  The janitor who had become a good friend.  Study partners ranging in varying decades of ages.  The Rabbi, who was both a sharer and receiver of humor and Torah alike.  All shed equal tears on his departure.

I knew the shul would never feel the same without his presence; there would never again be that figure in the pew down below, the words of his Large Type siddur visible to me from a story above in the women’s section.  The rippling of the pages as he struggled to turn each one, his gnarled fingers and aching joints uncooperative.  His melodic voice, joining and then rising above the others in song.  His Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lectures, and his blowing of the elongated shofar, the one that required a helper to hold, the blasts so long, we would count the seconds on our fingers and toes, and then back to our fingers.  The way his tefillin would enwrap his arm, the black straps contrasting to his pale skin, speckled with white hair, tight and secure, almost choking.  And his tallit, the jingling silver that made music as he bowed and swayed in prayer, the wool yellowed from years of wear.

As the pallbearers hoisted the coffin from its perch in the lobby, my Zaidy’s body at rest inside, his soul peering at us from above, finally free from the prison of his ailing limbs, the crowd of funeral-goers gushed from the glass lobby doors and out onto the front pavement of the shul.  And as they passed me by, the men struggling with the weight of the box, I knew the thing I’d miss the most.

It was the last time Zaidy would leave the shul and head towards Hempstead Avenue.  The last time I’d stand outside the doors, jostled by a crowd, wanting to emerge and race across to his house.   I looked up, looked across the line of cars, the hearse that sat parked on the busy street, looked past the old oak tree on his lawn and saw his home.  This was our final time, our final journey together, crossing over, our footsteps tapping and thudding, all at once.  And from within me, I cried the sounds of his shofar, loud and clear and long, and I think he heard.

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From There to Here, and Back

In memory of my grandfather, Yaakov Ben Yehuda Leib, whose 8th yahrzeit is tonight.

photo courtesy of Zevi Isseroff

Zaidy Yaakov sat at the head of the long dining room table, his body propped up in a wheeled-desk chair, his limbs encased by the arm rests. His gloved hands rested inside an old copy of a Haggadah, pressed open to a worn page, and his eyes peered through his thick tri-focals at the small Hebrew text. “Vehi Sheamdah…” his voice rang out, though the muscles in his face scarcely moved. We all joined in; his wife, four children and their spouses, all 16 grandchildren, plus my husband, the sole newcomer to the family.

Zaidy had a way of singing that almost sounded like he was chanting the words, speaking them with a slight hint of a tune. We all subtly mimicked his intonation, swaying along with the familiar words. It was the first time he had had a seder with all of his children and grandchildren, cousins coming together from across the United States to congregate in my parents’ home in West Hempstead, New York. The event was orchestrated by some of his children, my father included, who thought since Zaidy was so sick, so terminally ill, and had been for quite some time, it would be meaningful for him to be able to spend the Pesach holiday surrounded by each one of his direct offspring.

“When Zevi was young,” Zaidy began, speaking about my father, “he had to sing this solo in his school play.” We all knew the famous story about the passage from Hallel found in the Haggadah, but we listened with the same intent and interest as we did every year, pretending that maybe we’d learn some new detail, or that there might be a new surprise ending. But the ending was always the same. My father, even in his forties, would have to stand up and reenact his solo from his elementary school years. His mother, my Bubbi, would close her eyes and would be transported back to the auditorium of his youth, her eyes tearing up in pride. And Zaidy would watch her, happy to give her this same gift, year after year.

The seder continued on, with Zaidy remaining glued to his chair, both due to his incapacitated legs and from his love for the elaboration of the Pesach story. As we neared the time for “Shefoch Chamatcha”, when the spirit of Eliahu Hanavi was believed to visit, my mother leaned forward to fill the enormous cup with grape juice that he was rumored to sip. Zaidy turned around in his chair, his stiff neck craning, the wheeled bottom shifting. “Who’s there?” he mumbled, but nobody responded, thinking he was talking about Eliahu.

A few minutes later, and again, Zaidy wondered out loud who was there. “Zevi, there is someone standing behind me. Who is it?” he asked my father.

“Abba, no one is there,” my father said reassuringly, wondering why his father was so convinced someone was in close proximity. Perhaps he was seeing a reflection of one of his grandchildren in the glass doors behind him. But Zaidy was sure it wasn’t that.

For the rest of us, it was an ordinary moment. One where we lazily folded our hands over our bloated stomachs, flicked matzah crumbs on the floor, or laughed carelessly at a cousin who’s head was bent, sleeping at the table. My father later told me that for Zaidy, it was a moment of recognition, a congratulatory effort, acknowledging his whole life’s triumph, his visible accomplishments seated at the table before him. It was Zaidy’s father, whom we called “Elter Zaidy”, Yehuda Leib Isseroff, deceased some 15 years earlier, who stood by his side, and leaned in towards his son. “You did good, Yankel. You should be proud of yourself. You did good,” he whispered into Zaidy’s ear unfalteringly, in Yiddish, and then disappeared. Zaidy Yaakov beamed with pride, his face glowing brighter than the whiteness of his kittel.

I wonder if I had strained my eyes, would I have seen the image of my Great Grandfather? Had I held my breath, would I have felt the shift in the air, the stillness brought on by a ghost’s hovering presence?

Zaidy, center, escorted by his father and soon-to-be uncle, Rabbi Joseph Waldman.
Photo courtesy of Zevi Isseroff

Would I have witnessed the impenetrable bonds of a parent and child, separated for so many years? But I didn’t. I was blind to the moment, as was everyone else at the table. We were oblivious to our seder guest, cloaked in the dark, riding on Eliahu’s chariot, returning to the Heavens after delivering an invitation to our Zaidy, opening the doors to the afterlife. It would soon be Zaidy’s time to go, too, and this was the seder message.

There is an ancient Jewish belief that when one is about to die, previously deceased relatives come beckoning. Zaidy passed on a few weeks later, and he died knowing that he had made his father proud, with the knowledge that he was going to be joining his family, albeit leaving many others behind. He had a cushion of comfort waiting for him in the Heavens, making his departure more seamless, and as we stood around clutching each other, mourning our great loss, we knew he was once again walking, grasping onto the hand of his father.

Eight years later, in the midst of a long sleep, I have a dream; overly wrought with chaos, stress, and missing a school bus. And out of nowhere, a ray of light appears and from within it emerges the face of my grandfather. At first, it is swollen with steroids, the last living image of him that I have retained, but then it flickers, and his face readjusts to his normal-shaped, smiling one. His large square glasses are perched perfectly on his nose, and he stands erect and proud. He is holding the hand of my five-year-old son, Jakey, Yaakov, named for him, and he looks down at the great-grandson he never got to meet, his face aglow and eyes shimmering with excitement. It is a look of pure, unadulterated love. It is, I think, their first moment together.

It is like the years of lying stiff and still underground on a mountain in Bet Shemesh, quiet and calm, with the occasional tearful visitor, were years he spent anticipating that instant. And Zaidy’s time came for a visit; he revealed himself, if but for a moment, and leaves me with a feeling of staggering pride.

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Scaredy Cat

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Image via Wikipedia

You know,” our Rabbi said to us, one afternoon, as we walked to our home in Bay Harbor Islands, Florida, “There is an old Kabbalistic idea that cats are the transmigrations of souls. A gilgul of a person who has passed, and may have more to accomplish in life. That’s why Florida has so many cats. From all the old people who have died…” The road was littered with them. Under cars, behind bushes, crawling and pouncing on passing dragonflies. One perched, sunbathing on the rooftop of a car, as if it were his. Maybe the reincarnate of an old Miami beach-goer. All these spirits lurking the streets, ghosts cloaked in fur, disguised as cats. I hated all of them.

When we had moved into our townhouse earlier in the month, the previous owner informed me that there was a lovely cat whom she used to feed every day. The cat is used to getting food from me, she explained, so you really need to continue. I’ll leave the bowl on your front porch. After unpacking, I spent the first supermarket trip perusing the pet-food aisle, unsure as to what food the stray-cat would enjoy. I settled on some dry pebbly brand, a fish-smelling cross between rabbit droppings and Cocoa-Puffs. The smell lingered in my nose distastefully for hours.

I played the part of the benevolent animal-feeder for a whole two days, before I realized that I really didn’t want a cat on my porch, especially not a stray one who was probably a breeding ground for diseases. But it would trail me daily from the car to the front door, meowing softly, urgently, its dark eyes doleful and sad. So I kicked the bowl to the other side of the shared front porch, adjacent to a neighbor’s door, who was also moving in. The cat comes with your house, I informed her, her hands full of overflowing boxes. It even has this special food. I proudly handed over the bag I had purchased and wiped my hands, both with some Purell, and of the task of caretaker-for-the-cat.

Emmanuelle, who was then just a year old, loved watching the cat. From the safety of our closed front door, we would sit together and peer through the side glass panel, as the cat would come for its feedings, sometimes bringing a friend or two. I didn’t like their unpredictability, the way they would hide and then suddenly appear out of nowhere, quietly, spy-like at your side. Or the way they assumed our front stoop was theirs to share. To nap on. To perch. To people-watch. I couldn’t be near them.

One Sunday afternoon, we had returned from a family outing, and my husband opened the front door of the house and entered ahead of me. I followed up the driveway a minute later, having unbuckled Emmanuelle from her carseat, and as I ascended the porch stairs, I noticed the cat, with one paw poised on the edge of the open door, the other already through the threshold, about to enter. It stared at me, paused in its indistinct waltzing, and threw me a look as if it say, It’s my home too, you know. I was here first.

Yoni!” I screamed, “Close the door!!” From inside, he came running and kicked the door shut, barely missing the cat, who stealthily scampered off the side of the porch into the depths of the overgrown hedges. I shuddered at the possibility of it actually entering my home, of shedding its tic-infested fur on the pristine entryway. Of lying supine on the cool white tile, legs stretched in the air, absorbing the chill of the floor as the Florida heat evaporated from its skin.

But this was a determined cat. A few days later, Yoni was outside cleaning his car before going to work, and the front door was closed. On my way downstairs, after getting Emmanuelle dressed, I heard the familiar click of the metal as it unlatched, and the low creaking of the hinges. Let’s say hi to Daddy before he leaves for work! I told Emmanuelle, as we raced down the remainder of the staircase. It took me a few seconds to realize that I hadn’t heard his usual loud footsteps, but their absence only registered when instead, there was a loud, perilous meow! There, sitting squarely in my front hallway, was the cat. It blinked at me.

So this was it. He had somehow pushed opened the front door and entered. He had gotten his wish. And this was our face-off. Sarah and Baby vs. Cat. Who are you? I wanted to scream. And what do you want from me? Instead, I backed up the stairs from which I had descended, and pulled the baby gate shut behind me. The cat, too, slinked backwards into the window next to the door, the one through which he frequently watched us watching him. When I retreated to the living-room, a half-story up, the cat, emboldened, began to explore the lower part of the foyer.

Yoni!!” I yelled, cranking the window open. He was across the street, his lower body visible as his upper torso stretched to remove hidden garbage from his car’s interior. A loud Arab-Israeli song emanated from his stereo, muting my voice, my pleas for help. “Yoni!!” I tried again, and because luck was against me, he still didn’t notice me frantically waving at him from the window. I pressed my head against the screen, defeated, and stared at the cat menacingly. He stared back.

There was, finally, a moment when the music ebbed, the clanging of the cymbals and tambourines faded to a hum, and the street was cloaked in silence. “Yoni! Help! The cat is in the house!” He looked up, suddenly alarmed, seeing Emmanuelle and I hovering by the living room window, isolated and anxious, and ran for the house.

The door was thrown open, and the cat’s fur stood on edge, a sudden, unexpected mohawk of self-defense. “Come on!” Yoni directed the cat in two simple words, daring it to get up and meet him at the door’s threshold, to cross, and then return to the outside world of desperate, foraging animals. The cat seemed to sigh, to shrug its shoulders and hang its head, the mohawk falling flat with every resigned step it took. With one last hesitation, the cat paused mid-step, its feet centered on the brick porch, and turned his head to me for a final glare. We’ll meet again, it seemed to say.  And the door was closed. 

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The Robe

The bathrobe was the ugly color of unripened watermelon, the color that probably was first to hit the sales racks, after all the pinks, whites, and baby blues were sold out.  It was a Chanukah gift from my father to mother, given in the days before they had any children, when they used to have only each other to think about.  My father claimed it was expensive.

When my mother wore it, it made her skin look pale and washed out, her cheeks, ruddy and flushed.  She usually put it on on Friday night, rushing from her shower to light the Shabbat candles, always seventeen minutes late, and she would be running down the stairs, tying the long belt and kicking the front open with each step of her slippered feet.  The robe was mid-calf length, but when she walked, we could see to the tops of her thighs.  It was accidentally revealing, but she only wore it around us.

Often, after lighting the candles, she would sit on the couch with us, curled up, reading book after book, sometimes dozing mid-sentence as the week’s exhaustion caught up with her.  We would clamber for a seat closest to her, nestling into her warmth, her freshly shampooed hair wet against our clean skin, two of us at her sides, two behind each shoulder, one in her lap, and one perched on the back of the couch.  I would rest my head on her arm, safe at her side, feeling the soft terry against my face.  I could draw pictures on it with my finger, a contrast of light on dark, a smiley face, my initials S.I., or occasionally even a game of tic-tac-toe.

Sometimes she would run back upstairs to change before my father came home from shul, but other times, she wore the robe to the table, over a nightgown or pajama shirt.  After dinner, my mother would put her six children to bed, still in the bathrobe, and she would take turns lying with each of us, saying Shema and singing songs, until she’d end up in the bottom mattress of the bunkbed I shared with my sister.  On Friday nights, my sister and I would sleep together in my bed, my mother sandwiched between us, each of us wrapped in the warmth of the robe.  When I closed my eyes, I could smell the robe, my mother, and in the morning, when I’d awaken entangled with just my sister, I could feel the terry traces on my blankets.

The robe and I were not always on such good terms. It was late in my college years that I grew bored with seeing it all the time.  It was like a vestigial structure; an appendix that  was there and needed to be removed, a pinky toe that just tinkered around inside pointy-shoes.  I wanted to donate it, but thought there would probably be no takers.  I contemplated buying a replacement for my mother, but knew it would go unworn, like the new “Yom Kippur Hat” I had purchased a few years before.  It was an attempt to replace the white beret, bedazzled with oversized disco-ball jewels, that she wore annually on Yom Kippur, to keep in the tradition of the day of wearing head-to-toe white.   When I brought home the new beret that wasn’t quite white, but was a subtle rose with gold thread woven in the stitches, resembling a dirty-white, she tried it on.  “Nice,” she said, “but I think it might hurt my head.”  And she continued to wear the white beret every Yom Kippur then-after.

In the mornings, the robe would sit lifeless on the floor, crumpled next to my mother’s bed, where it was haphazardly discarded the night before.  Next to it was always a pair of worn flip-flops, their foam pressed thin around the toes, sometimes even with holes.  “I think you need some new flip-flops!” we used to tell her, but she would just smile, and say, “But I like these.”  I tried them on one day, slipping my toes into the rubber, wedging the hard plastic between my big toe and the second one, curious what was so great about them, that she couldn’t possibly give them away.  I had to curl my toes to keep them on, and the soles were so thin, I could feel the strands of carpet under my feet as I walked.   They had an appeal that I couldn’t understand.  There was something that connected them to their owner, that went beyond my comprehension.  I glanced at the robe, curious, too, about what made my mother love it, but didn’t try it on, knowing that it too had a captivating quality which drew her in, one which I longed to know.

She wore the robe throughout my years in college, and even after I got married and moved out, she wears it still.  When I come back home to visit, it is there, unchanged and un-aged, a picture, frozen in time, retaining its ugly color, wrapping my mother in its depths.  As she comes running down the stairs, she is a butterfly in flight, her thin, boney hands poking from beneath the large outstretched sleeves, flapping and weightless.  Her skin has become thin and translucent; she wears a halo of gray crowning her years, and her eyes seem tired, older.  But the robe, it is always the same.  It has retained its youth and remembers mine.

“When you die, can I get your silver candlesticks?” my sister asks my mother, nodding in the direction of the candelabra with eight ornate limbs.  It is a late Friday night, and their flames have dwindled down to a puddle of wax, as my siblings and I sit and talk to my mother, while she finishes up the dishes.  Some of us are married, some of us in college, and some of us have jobs.  Some of us have children of our own, and after a recent death in the family, we are on the topic of heirlooms.

“I get those diamond earrings your mom left you,” a sister says.

“Shoot, I wanted those,” says another.  “I’ll take the house!”

“I call the rings!”  Our boisterous voices are laughing and enthusiastic, as we go on, trying to list items of value, and claiming them.  My mother is enjoying the banter, smiling and auctioning off her personal items to the first daughter to raise her hand.  There is not much left for me to demand.

“I’ll take your robe.” I say, after a moment of silence, when the bidding has died down.  My mother laughs.

“This?” she asks, pulling at her sleeve with a gloved hand, wet and sudsy.  “It’s yours.”

I am worried that she might take it off now, handing it over to me, but I am not ready to receive it.

“Yes,” I say.  “Please put it in your will for me.”

One day, I’ll try on the robe.  I’ll dip my arms into its sleeves, cloak myself in the soft, worn cloth, and as I tie the belt tight around my waist, I’ll be able to feel my mother hugging me.  Each breath will be invigorated by the vibrancy of its scent.  Each fiber of the terry will dance and sway in the Friday night songs, and I’ll remember the words.  I will remember every Shabbat spent in her house, loving and hating and then loving the robe.  I will feel light and airy, hovering on the staircase, rushing, a few minutes late, to light the candles.

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Mommy, Don’t Go

It was the night before my third birthday, and as my mother sat at the edge of my bed, gently stroking my hair and saying the evening prayer, Shema, with me, I wrapped my arms around her and pleaded with her not to leave my room for the night.  “I have

Mother and Daughter

Image by Brandon Doran via Flickr

to go bathe the baby,” she said, and leaned over to kiss me.  “But we’ll get to spend a lot of time together tomorrow at school.  I’m coming for your party!”

“No,” I said, impulsively uninviting her.  “You can’t come.”  She offered to wear a pretty shabbat dress, or to put on makeup, thinking that perhaps I was embarrassed by her post-partum appearance, but it wasn’t that.  “No,” I said again, firmly.  And she lay in bed next to me while she sang my song of choice, then got up and left the room, leaving the door wide open.  It was too dark to see her face.

It was a daily occurrence for me, feeling the pain in separation as my mother would escort me to my nursery classroom.  I would hold onto my her leg, wrapping my arms around it as if I were trying to climb a tree.  She would inch closer to the entryway, and instantaneously, the tears would begin.  The teacher would then pry my hands off, finger by finger, until I was left grasping at air and staring at the door as my mother escaped behind it.  “Mommy, don’t go,” I would whisper, my voice echoing in her absence.

For a few minutes every morning, the feeling of isolation would hover over me like a ghost, engulfing my small limbs, my tiny fingers.  I felt choked, and my breaths would come in shallow bursts, rapid and sprite.  I missed my mother.  And then it would pass, tiptoeing away to the far recesses of the room, and I could smile again.  I could forget about my longing, until I was safe in her arms in the afternoon.

My mother respected my wishes and didn’t come to my birthday party that year, nor did I let her come to our performances or graduation.  The teachers sent home hazy Polaroid photos of me wearing my birthday crown, blowing out my candles, and reading my birthday book.  My mother smiled at the images, a smile that hid the sadness of her exclusion.

***

I am a mother now, and I visit my children occasionally in school.  They let me, though I sometimes feel unworthy of this privilege, like I don’t deserve it, because I never allowed my own mother to spend time in my classroom.  They also do not cry when I drop them off, nor do they even glance back at me, and I wonder what good deeds I must have done in a previous life to deserve this convenience.  I worry maybe they don’t love me enough.

And then one day I was invited to visit my daughter’s Pre-K class for the morning.  I prepped my four-year-old the night before.  “Emmanuelle, I’m coming to your school tomorrow.  Are you going to talk to me while I’m there?” because usually she doesn’t, choosing to play with her friends instead of with me.  She looks at me and shrugs.  “If you want, I can pretend I am someone else’s mother, like Rachel’s.”  This suggestion makes her laugh.

The next morning, I slide in next to her at the dress-up corner.  She looks shyly at me, then back at her friends, then back at me.   It is like she is 15, embarrassed by her awkward mother who lingers around her posse of friends, gawking.  When we head over to the snack tables for an intermission from a hearty session of role playing, Emmanuelle squeezes in next to Rachel, where there is only one available chair, leaving me stranded.  I feel like I am the loser, the un-cool friend who was shafted at the cafeteria, forced to sit with the nerds because the last seat was taken at the popular table.  And also because the popular kids don’t like me.  I sit alone, folding myself into the nursery-sized chair, my knees banging at the top of the miniature table.  Immediately, Annie comes by, and as I glimpse her mismatched outfit, awkward bow perched on a tuft of brushed out curls, and striped tights, she rests her head on my shoulder and links her arm through mine.  “I want to sit next to you!” she bellows.  Hooray for Annie, but I felt stiffed.  Ignored.  Maybe I shouldn’t have come.

After an hour or so of being shunned by my child, I plop down next to her for some circle time.  During the songs, I whisper in her ear some of our private jokes, trying to make her laugh, and in an almost inaudible voice, she looks at me and mumbles, “Mom, you can go home now.”  And just like that, I am dismissed.  For a moment, I sit blinking.

“What?” I ask, unable to accept my sudden expulsion.  She repeats herself.  And so I have no choice but to disengage myself from the circle of children, sitting and singing happily.  So this is it.  Revenge on my past. I gather my things, and exit out to the hallway.  I pause to look at our family photo pasted on her cubby, and while I am zippering up my coat, I hear a child in the classroom, in hysterics, coughing and crying.  Emmanuelle.

The door opens, and suddenly we are in the hallway together, the small walls trapping and echoing her cries.  “Mommy!!” she gasps, reverberating off the ceiling and shuddering through the displayed artwork on the bulletin boards.  Her hand is stuffed in her mouth, and drool is spilling down her wrist, wetting her sleeve, as she struggles to regain composure, to tame the sobs that wrack her body.  I am surprised at her moment of desperation, at the emotion that courses through her so liberally, uninhibited, after the bravado I had witnessed.  “Looks like she had a change of heart,” the teacher informs me, and I acquiesce, unzippering my coat and dropping my things where they had previously been.

We reenter the class, hand-in-hand, and it is like a foreign child by my side, a newly adopted puppy, clingy and needy, longing for attention and affection.  I try to engage her in activities, to sit her down with some friends, but every few seconds she looks up at me with her tear-filled blue eyes, etched in crimson and gray.  No words are passed between us because I know what she is thinking.  Mommy, don’t go.

Eventually, I do go, as I knew I would, as my own mother did, because that’s what mothers do.  We leave.  And I realize as I am walking home that this was why I didn’t let my mother come to my birthday party.  Because there was the morning drop-off; painful and lonesome.  And then a second leaving after the party.  Unbearable.  Like Emmanuelle, it was a request made out of an overwhelming love.  It was a love so intense that my three-year-old self didn’t quite know how hold it, to peer at it with a discerning eye, and so I wore it quietly, overwhelmingly on my back.

A few days later, I empty out Emmanuelle’s school bag, and it is filled with papers and projects.   Most things I file away in the garbage, tucked under an empty milk carton or some other obtrusive piece of trash, but something she has written on a half-sized yellow piece of craft paper catches my eye.  I’m not sure what it says, as she is just beginning to learn to sound out words, and so I leave it on the kitchen table for the morning.

“I wrote, ‘Mommy, don’t go,’” she explains, over waffles the next morning.    “That’s from when you came to my school and I cried.  I’m so sorry for crying.  I just love you sooo much,” she says, the veins in her neck bulging and twitching as she emphasizes the word “sooo”.  I don’t think that I’ll go back to school to visit for a while because it pains me to leave her in her state of anguish.  That little forlorn child was once me.

My mother stops by for a rare evening visit, and although we only have a short time together, I manage to apologize for my three-year-old self, for my mysterious behavior.  “It’s because I loved you so much, and didn’t want you to leave,” I say.  “It wasn’t because you didn’t wear makeup.”  We laugh, trying to overcome years of a pain I might have inflicted, and I notice she is not wearing any makeup at the moment.  Her eyes look tired, like she is overworked, a paler and thinner version of her youthful self.  And I marvel at how even after 25 years, a few shared minutes of conversation on the couch can still spark my own longing, my lifelong wish for her not to escape, to depart, to leave me on my own.  Mommy, don’t go, I think, as I close the door behind her.  For I am both a child and a woman, a daughter and a mother, pulled in two directions, leaving and left behind.

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Lazy Leah

My medical instrument

Image via Wikipedia

(I can’t really call this non-fiction.  It is based on true events, and some random memories I have, but I wove it all together in a way that made sense to tell the story.  This was a challenge to write, as I tried my hardest to capture the world of a three-year-old.  The language is basic and simple, but hopefully can be just as rich.)

My mother takes Leah to the doctor again.  Leah who cries all the time.  Leah who has been so sick since a few weeks after she was born.  She got sick because we kissed her too much, and they took her away to the hospital.  We loved her, and wanted to kiss her all the time.

When she was better, my parents made a Kiddush.  It was Simchat Torah and they promised to celebrate if Hashem would heal her.  He did.  There were the pink cookies that I liked and a lot of the men fell asleep on our couches with towels under their heads, and threw up into empty garbage cans.

But now Leah was sick again, even though we didn’t kiss her.  We can’t kiss her until she turns one year old.  My mother says she looks like a doll.  She doesn’t really look like my doll, because my doll has hair and Leah doesn’t.  But she moves like a doll.  Her head hangs down and she can’t pick it up, can’t look at the sky or the stars, or the secret place where Hashem hides.  She always looks at the floor.   Sometimes she spits on the floor, and I don’t like it because it feels wet under my feet.  Then I have to wipe them in the carpet, which has long yellow and brown strands on it, like a dirty mop.

My mother takes Leah to a special doctor who is far away, and she leaves us at Bubbi’s house.   Bubbi gives us some jelly on bread as a snack, but that doesn’t feel like a snack to me.  That feels like lunch.  I want a cookie, and she says first I have to finish my whole piece of bread.  Her bread is funny because each slice comes in its own wrapper and she keeps it in a drawer.   Our bread comes in a big bag and we keep it in the freezer.  Probably when my father was a little boy, he would go to school and have a sandwich from the wrapped bread.  One time Bubbi told me that he took the wrong brown paper bag to school, because he thought it was his lunch.  At lunchtime, he opened it up and saw it was a bag of raw noodles.  I guess noodles didn’t come in boxes back then either.  He must have been sad and hungry, staring into a bag of hard noodles, thinking of his freshly wrapped bread in another bag at home. This story makes me want to cry.

My mother comes back from the doctor, and Leah is sleeping on her shoulder.  We are playing on Bubbi’s kitchen floor, coloring with these wide crayons that look like someone cut them in half because one side is long and flat.  They also don’t have wrappers, but are just smooth and waxy.  We use this flat side to rub against the paper, and because the tiles feel rough under the paper, we are able to make designs that look like wood.  I made seven pictures of tree-bark.  I can’t really write my name, so I just make a scribble-scrabble line and pretend it is script writing, and leave the pictures in a secret pile under the table, hoping that my brother and sister don’t take them and keep them.

I look up at my mother, happy that she is here, but not yet ready to stop making bumpy pictures.  “What did the doctor say?” my grandmother asks.  My mother’s face doesn’t look the same as it did that morning.  I wonder where all of her pretty make up went, and why her eyes look wet, and I turn away, back to my picture, because I don’t think she looks good.  She looks like someone else’s mother, not mine.  My hair sweeps over the sides of my face, like a curtain, and I can’t see her anymore.

My mother doesn’t answer my grandmother, but I hear them walking down the long tiled hallway, stepping in places that I need to press my paper on, to see what kind of design the crayons will make.  They close a door to a back room, and my sister Esther who is already five, presses her ear against the door.  “Mommy’s crying,” she said.  “Loudly.”

The next day after my mom picks me up from nursery, she takes me and Leah to the library.  Leah can’t walk because she is little, so my mom wears a red backpack that is backwards, and Leah goes inside, her fat legs sticking out from holes in the bottom.  Her head seems loose and tired; it wants to go everywhere, but can’t seem to pick a place to rest, so mom has to hold it with the soft-skinned side of her hand.  She presses it into her chest, and Leah can see the books in the library without her head rolling away.

“Can you please help me find some books on Cerebral Palsy?” she asks a stranger, with very big glasses.  She probably needs these big glasses to see all the books too, and doesn’t have anyone to hold her head and help her.  I don’t talk to the stranger because I don’t know her name, and her glasses make her eyes look like Cookie Monster.  While we are waiting, Mommy takes me to look at some books for kids.  She takes out some books with rabbits on the cover for me, and while she is bending down, I secretly lean forward and kiss Leah’s leg.  It feels warm and soft next to my lips, and so I kiss her leg again.  And then I try her knee.

“Is this okay?” I ask Mommy, because she has stopped taking books off the shelves and is looking down at me.

“Yes,” she says, “as long as you don’t kiss her face or hands.”

I nod, and continue kissing Leah’s leg, all the way down to her toes.  Her skin is a little wet from my mouth, and so I use my sleeve to dry it up.  The lady with the glasses comes back with a heavy pile of books for my mom, and together we wait in line, each of us holding our things, Leah’s head tipping over, because mommy’s hands were full.

We get into the car and go back to school to pick up Donnie and Esther from their older nursery class.  I am excited to show them my books on small animals and rabbits, and I wonder if Mommy is going to read us stories.  When we get home, we all help carry the books inside, and I take a book over to the couch.  “Can you read it to me now?” I ask.

“No,” she says, “I am busy with Leah, and I need to cook supper.”  But instead she sits on a chair at the table and starts to read her own book, while nursing Leah.

“Can you read me that book?” I ask.  And she quickly closes it, pulls me onto her other leg, and opens the children’s book that is in my hands.  She reads, and if I close my eyes, her voice sounds like it is someone else’s from television.  I wonder what happened to her real voice.

One day after school, Abba is in the car with Mommy.  He is driving and she is sitting in the front seat next to him.  They buckle me in back next to Leah, who is facing backwards in her baby car seat.  “Is it shabbos?” I ask, because usually we only get to see Abba on Shabbos.  He works a lot and is never home, and I don’t know why he is here.

“Leah has a doctor appointment,” Mommy says, “and this time I wanted him to come with me.”

“Another one?” I ask.  “Is she sick again?”

“I hope not,” my mom says, “but we need to take her to one more doctor.”  I’m still not sure why Abba has to be there.  Maybe Mommy is scared that the doctor will give her a shot too.  Or that Leah will become too heavy for her arms and she’ll want someone else to take a turn holding her.  Either way, I am glad Abba is there.  The last doctor appointment made Mommy sad and I couldn’t look at her.  I can look at Abba instead.

Abba pulls open two big blue doors in the front of the building, and we walk inside, our shoes making loud noises on the floor, like we are in a parade, or like my shabbos shoes sometimes do on the sidewalk on the way home from shul.  I tap my feet a little extra loudly, and the noises echo in the empty waiting room.  There is only one woman with two little girls, sitting on the orange plastic chairs, and I try to guess which girl is sick.  I imagine it is the one who is lying her head on her mother’s shoulder, and on our way to our own row of orange plastic chairs, I hold my breath as we pass them by so I don’t catch her germs,

“Thank you for coming,” Mommy says to Abba, in a quiet voice.  “I couldn’t handle bad news alone again.”  He looks at her, but doesn’t smile, and she puts her head on his shoulder like I sometimes do when I am tired.

We only sit in the chairs for a short amount of time, and then a pretty lady with a blonde ponytail calls out “Lee-uh”, and my mom stands up and waves.  Her name is really said “Lay-uh” and I wonder how Mommy knew that the sick girl in the waiting room wasn’t named Leeuh, and that the blonde lady wasn’t looking for her.  Abba takes my hand and we all walk down a hallway that smells like old bandaids, and into a small office.  There is another plastic chair for me to sit in, but this time it is blue.  Blue is a boy-color and so I don’t really want to sit on it, because then people might think I’m a boy.  There is also a   circle-shaped chair with lots of wheels on it, and while my parents are putting Leah on the table and undressing her, I try out the rolly-chair.  I stand on one of the shiny legs, lean my body on the top, and, like a scooter, push myself across the room.  The chair spins while it glides, and I feel like I am on a ride.  I go back and forth a few times, until my mom notices me.  “Sarah,” she says, “that chair is for the doctor.”

“Okay, I’ll give him a turn when he comes in,” I answer.  I think of how lucky doctors are, that they get to have such fun chairs.

When the doctor arrives, I jump off the scooter-chair, and stand next to the blue seats, hoping he won’t mind that I used his chair even though I’m not a doctor.  “How old is she now?” He asks my parents about Leah.

“Six months,” my mother replies.  “And she can’t even hold up her head.  They think it’s Cerebral Palsy, from the Meningitis.”  At these words, she starts to cry, silently, and I look away.  There is a picture on the wall of a sad little girl with a red hat, holding up her doll to a doctor.  The doctor is checking the doll, and he does not have a rolling chair.  I stare hard at the picture, wondering what happened to the doll and how she got sick, especially if she is not real.  Maybe the girl with the red hat kissed her too much on her hands and cheeks.

I look back at Leah, and hope that she gets better this time.  The doctor is touching her, pulling at her arms, then dropping them back down.  He rolls her over on to her stomach and tries to make Leah look up at him, but she doesn’t.  She presses her face into the paper on the table, and she sticks out her tongue, licking the paper until it becomes see-through and it tears.  Mommy and Abba look up at each other.  Nobody looks at me.  I look at the picture again.  I wonder if this doll can hold up her head.

“No,” the doctor finally says.  “She’s not sick, she’s just lazy.”  Mommy starts to cry.  I can look at her because she is loud and laughing, but tears are coming out at the same time.  It is different now, and her face looks like it has been washed and all the dirt is gone.

Abba wraps his arms around Mommy, holding her tight, and I think she probably can’t breathe, he is squeezing her so hard.  They stand there like that for a while, laughing and smiling, and I want to be hugged too, to share in their happiness, so I press my head in the small space between their legs, trying to pull it open with my hands to make room for the rest of me.  A three-person hug.  And then they pick up Leah, who is not sick anymore, and all four of us are hugging.

That night I sleep in Leah’s room, even though when I sleep in my bed there instead of my bed in Donnie and Esther’s room, I have the same bad dream of a statue with only one arm, holding an apple, standing in the doorway.  Her neck is strong and tall, and the top of her head almost hits the door as she comes in.  I don’t know if she is going to eat this apple, or if she is giving it to me, to poison me, to make my other arm fall off, but I want to be with Leah, to protect her from the statue.  Leah, who in 25 years, would become muscular and strong, who would go on to get a PhD in chemical engineering from Princeton.  Leah, who couldn’t hold her head, who they thought had Cerebral Palsy.  Lazy Leah.

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That Which Blossoms in the Space Between Us

Jaap Vermeulen, Jacoplane in a Neonatal intens...

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“This place is creepy,” Yoni says, rolling over on his thin, foamy mattress.  His large black eyes squint at me in the darkness of our hospital room, his lashes thick and heavy beneath his prominent brows.

 

“Isn’t this the kids ward?” I ask, from a perch on my own identical bed, a few feet away.   There is a pale blue curtain that can be drawn between our beds, dividing up the already cramped space, but it hangs open, agape.  “Shouldn’t it be a little bit happier?”  The Mother/Baby unit was immaculate and bustling, full of life, but here, the halls are silent, dark, a road without any little footsteps.  Since pediatric surgical procedures are not scheduled for weekends, the unit is empty, and so the hospital was able to accommodate us, affording us with a complimentary room.

 

I had given birth two days earlier, but because the baby arrived six weeks pre-term and was forced to stay in the NICU despite her birthweight of 5 lbs, 14 oz, the hospital administration made an allowance for us to stay a few flights below in the empty children’s wing, so that I could be there to nurse the baby around the clock, and so my husband could support me.  I was weak, raw, emotional.

 

I hesitantly stepped into the bathroom in our room, and saw that it was even more daunting than our sleeping quarters.  The tiles were all chipped and the toilet was crying out for a good bleaching.  The shower stall had no door or drain, and the exposed pipe on the floor was like a ghoul’s mouth, open, ready to swallow indiscriminately.  I created a thick layer of toilet paper on the seat prior to sitting, and only when I felt the barrier between myself and years of collected germs to have been satisfactorily built, was I able to sit.

 

At 2am the phone in our little room rang.  It was the NICU calling to remind me to come upstairs for a feeding.  I was tired and lethargic, and as I traipsed through the halls of the hospital in search of the elevator, my uterus began to cramp and my head began to ache.   I make it through most of the lengthy feeding, the baby latching on behind my draped corner of the neonatal intensive care unit, and we sat together in the recliner, the plastic coated BOPPY pillow clinging to my bloated bare stomach as it supported her tiny body, my copy of Still Alice, left unopened by my feet.

 

“Stand behind my shoulder,” I hear a woman command her husband.  Like me, she is cloaked by a thin partition, her image rendered private, but not her conversation.  I hear the husband grunt, and awkwardly shuffle around the recliner, to reposition himself.  “If the baby falls asleep, your job is to wake him up so he can continue eating.  And also rub my back because this chair is too stiff.  Don’t forget to take a few pictures for the scrapbook.  Get ready with the diaper…” she drones on.  I am feeling pangs of sympathy for the husband, and want to slip him a script under the curtain, replete with expletives to have his wife shut up.  She is clingy, naggy, and as I think of my own husband sleeping alone downstairs, I am slightly jealous.  Jealous of the overly doting husband a few feet away, of the wife who so effortlessly can share her burden by spitting out commandments, of Yoni sleeping, when I think it should be me, instead.  I want him behind me, breathing his hot breath on my neck, observing my efforts, applauding my skills as a mother.

 

A while later, I emerge, breathing the less sterile air as I head back towards the children’s wing below, anxious to return to my bed and off of my tired feet, emboldened that my time alone with the baby solidified my skills as a caretaker.  “How did it go?” Yoni asks, his voice muffled with sleep.  In the dark, I can see the shape of his body beneath the scratchy blue blankets.  He doesn’t budge.

 

“Okay,” I say, “but I’m not feeling so well.  My head.  My neck.  There’s something wrong.”  He props himself up on his elbows.  “I feel like there’s a bubble of air in my neck.  Maybe from my epidural?”  I had heard of this before, complications with epidurals that lead to severe pain, and I imagine this to be me in my usual exaggerated way.  “A spinal headache.  I think that’s what it’s called.  I have it,” I say authoritatively, as if I myself went to medical school and have suddenly become an expert on epidurals.  I sigh and tenderly lie back on my lumpy pillow.

 

“You’ll be fine,” Yoni says, assuredly, trying to dismiss my concerns.  He knows me and my overactive imagination.  That I think I am on my deathbed every time I get a little joint ache, that I fear my brain might be leaking out with every nosebleed.  I curl up under my own matching blue blanket, the wool scratching at my sensitive skin through the top-sheet, and drift off to sleep, grasping onto his words as I become one with my dreams.

 

But a half-hour later I am up again, the bubble feeling as if it has grown, threatening to burst out of my vertebrae to relieve itself.  I am shivering in the sheets, shaking in fear and discomfort.  Never having felt this pain before, I become nervous, and I feel guilty waking Yoni but I need to tell someone about my symptoms, to come up with a plan of action, lest I die in my sleep.  “Help.  My neck,” I whisper.  And in an instant, he is awake, staring at me across the chasm of our beds, his face transparent like the divider curtain.

 

“Can you move it?” Yoni asks, his voice etched with concern, still hoarse from sleep.  I swivel my neck and it seems to work.

 

“Should you wheel me downstairs to the emergency room?”  I ask, wondering if I need some medical attention.  “I mean, I guess if I am having a stroke or something, I am in a pretty safe place.”

 

“You’re not having a stroke,” he says, his tone gruff and forceful, like if he says it with enough passion, it won’t be true.  He swings his legs over the side of the bed, and in an instant is by my side, his open palm offering me two Tylenol from his overnight bag and a cup of water.  “Here,” he says, “swallow these, and see if that helps.”  When Yoni climbs back into bed, attempting to make himself comfortable in our meager accommodations, he picks up his head, and tosses his pillow at me.  “Take this.  Elevate your head a little.”  And he becomes still on the stiff mattress.  I envy his confidence.

 

Together, we fall back asleep, our bodies facing each other, lips folded in half-smiles, and it’s as if there is no gap, no boundary between us.  He understood that to heal me, to alleviate my pain, I need to be discredited, disproven.  That if he shared my panic, my pessimism, my afflictions would have grown, spreading to my brain, my limbs, down to my toes.  If he coddled me and smothered me, lingering behind my shoulder, I would deflate.  But he gave me an apt moment’s concern, and released it, unable and unwilling to dwell on my fears alongside me.  He believed in me, and stepped away, so that I can figure things out on my own; in my ailments, my relationships, my motherhood.  By creating a distance, he gives me strength to become an individual, to realize my own greatness.  For this, I will be eternally grateful.

 

Yoni went up for the next feeding, excited for his own opportunity to bond with the baby, and he fed her my expressed milk.  I was excited for the opportunity to sleep for longer than two consecutive hours.  And when I awoke, I was swathed in relief and gratitude.  I stretched my limbs and discovered that my pain had dissipated, my spinal headache burst, my stroke, un-struck.

 

Even 18 months later, the memory lingers, hovering over the photos of us embracing our newborn.  In the hospital, when we were stripped to the basics, living meagerly and simply on two thin beds, with thinner sheets, and Yoni tossed his pillow at me.  He gave me his one luxury, knew instinctively that this was what I would need to survive, to recover, and he knew me more than I could know myself.  As the pillow took its flight and arced from his hands to mine, I nestled it beneath my head, holding and hugging, my luck, my pride, my gift.  My husband.

 

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