(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.