“But this was always the plan. We were only ever foster parents to Josh. My sister never wanted to give him up for good”
Levi’s dropping hints again, words and phrases and fragments of sentences. As if I don’t know what’s happening. As if I’m not watching a tsunami rear its ugly, deadly head over our lives.
As if any amount of warning could prepare me for the inconceivable.
“She got the job,” he mentions one day. Oh so casual. He doesn’t say who she is. I don’t ask.
“I spoke to her today,” he says, a week or two later. “She sounds good.”
I don’t answer. What should I say? That’s nice? Just wonderful? I’m so happy to hear?
“Batya,” Levi says eventually, cornering me in the laundry room so I can’t avoid the conversation anymore. “We need to talk.”
I throw a bunch of towels in the machine. “Now? But Josh is coming home soon.”
Levi sighs. “And then it’ll be supper time, and then I have a chavrusah, and then it’s too late at night, can’t it wait till tomorrow. Please, Batya, we need to deal with this, it’s not going to disappear if we pretend it’s not happening.”
I don’t care for logic right now, but his eyes are beseeching. I breathe once, very slow and deep. “Okay.”
His shoulders sag with relief. “Thank you. I know this is hard. But we need to discuss it.” He talks quickly, as if he’s worried I’m about to change my mind. “Marilyn’s calling me nearly every day. She wants to work things out, travel arrangements, make a transition timetable or something. Apparently her social worker suggested that.”
“A transition timetable.” I start pairing socks, mechanically. Match them up, fold together, twist into a ball, toss onto the pile.
“Yeah. Like he’ll go visit for the day, then overnight. The next week he’ll go for a few days... and eventually…” He coughs. “You know.”
Match. Fold. Twist. Toss. I throw the next pair of socks forcefully; it teeters off the pile and falls to the floor, disappearing behind the towels.
“She can’t do this,” I say desperately. “She can’t. Who says she’s stable enough? Has she even been formally assessed? How can she just turn up after eight years and ask for Josh back? It’s not even fair to him.”
Levi leans forward, palms upraised. Surrender. “But this was always the plan. We were only ever foster parents to Josh. My sister never wanted to give him up for good.”
“She didn’t care that much eight years ago,” I mutter.
His eyes flash. “She was ill, Batya! She was in the hospital, and it took a long time until she was stable enough to leave! And now it’s been a year that the medications are working, she hasn’t had a relapse in a long time, she’s got herself a job and is taking care of her apartment and she wants her son back. And she has every right to want him.”
The washing machine hums and spins, throwing around a multi-colored whirlpool. I stare into the glass until my eyes water.
“I know it’s hard,” Levi says again, placing a hand on the door handle. He doesn’t want me to slip out of this again. I glare.
Hard? What’s hard about giving up a son? It’s choking, it’s torture, it’s killing something inside of me. It’s ripping out my heart and throwing it into a raging ocean.
It’s not hard. It’s fathomless.
I look at Levi, his posture, the sadness in his eyes. How is he not fighting this? How is he taking it so calmly? We’re only the foster parents, we need to respect his mother’s wishes?
The laundry room is airless, stuffy, humid.
“Josh should be home, I should go downstairs,” I mumble. Levi’s hand slides off the handle, I wrench the door open and escape down the stairs.
Michal brings her kids over for supper. I’m happy for the noise and distraction; no chance of a follow-up chat about transition timetables.
I serve meatballs and rice, sneaking glances at Josh in his place beside Levi, looking morose. He hasn’t been acting like himself. Something angry and protective rises up in my chest; he knows, his mother’s been calling for him a lot, he’s nervous about his world turning upside down.
We’re his protectors. We need to do something.
Levi says something quietly to Josh. He jerks up, gives a small smile. Then his expression turns miserable again, and I watch him pick at his food.
“Ma, you don’t want to know what’s been going on with that leak I told you about,” Michal says dramatically, feeding her two-year-old off her own plate. “You know we had the plumber come over? Well, he said he’d come back the next day to sort it out, he didn’t have the right tools or something — then he calls and says he’s sorry, he’s not going to make it…”
She talks on, Levi interjecting with a suggestion or two. I can’t focus.
There’s a scraping sound across the tiles as Josh shoves his chair back.
“Thanks,” he mumbles as he leaves the room. His plate is still full.
I serve and clear in mechanical silence. The kids chatter and bounce around until finally, Michal herds them to the door in a flurry of sticky kisses and little gloves and coats.
“What’s wrong with Josh?” I blurt out to Levi as soon as they’re gone. “Did he say anything to you?”
“I think something happened in school.” Levi drums a hand on the counter. “He’s in his room. I don’t want to intrude on him in there. Let’s give him his space. Maybe he’ll come out soon.”
I’m just finishing the dishes when Josh slinks down the stairs. Levi’s already left for Maariv.
“Josh! You want something to eat?”
His face is sullen, shuttered, closed. My heart aches. He’s come so far, he’s a world away from the frightened six-year-old who barely spoke and cowered when we approached. But now, with this situation — it’s draining all that warmth and life out of him, all over again.
“I have a note for you,” he says, spitting the words out. “From school.”
I sit down, try to look inviting. A few weeks ago, it would’ve been so natural to signal him to sit, offer some cookies. Now everything felt forced, urgent, sacred. Untouchable.
“Everything okay, Josh?”
His face spasms a little. Anger? Pain? He pulls out a note from his pocket and hands it to me, tightly folded.
I unfold the note, skim it rapidly. The words meeting, principal, confirm appointment jump out at me.
I look up. “ Josh, what hap—”
But he has already disappeared.
We are sitting on hard plastic chairs meant for student offenders.
“Rabbi Mendelson will be available shortly, he’s just dealing with an emergency,” the secretary tells us blandly.
I shift. We haven’t had a chance to talk since the laundry room conversation, and Levi’s itching to bring up the subject again.
“Batya,” he says in an undertone.
I shake my head, eyes fixed on the secretary’s bent head. “Not here,” I hiss between my teeth. “This is totally not the right place to talk.”
He angles his chair a bit, talking in an urgent whisper. “Listen, she can’t hear us. There’s no one else around. We need to get practical here.”
One of the rebbeim comes in and feeds a huge stack of papers into the copy machine. It starts whirring loudly, and Levi raises his voice.
“Marilyn’s asking for him to start visiting next week. And she’s spoken to Josh about it, too, I’m sure. We need to address it directly, not avoid it. When should we speak to him?”
My eyes are filling again. “Speak to him? About what? That we’re just letting him go, that we’re standing by while he’s shipped off to his mother, who’s barely religious and spent a few years in a psych ward before remembering she has a son? How do you tell him such a thing?”
“We’re the parents,” Levi says, and something rips through me. He doesn’t notice. “We need to take responsibility. We’ve always known this might happen. Josh knows it, too. We need to prepare him, it’s not going to be an easy transition…”
“No. No way. I’m not doing this,” I say fiercely, just as the copy machine grinds to a halt. My voice echoes in the sudden quiet of the office. The secretary fixes me with a reproachful stare.
“We need a lawyer,” I mutter to Levi. “We need to prove that she can’t take him, she’s not okay, it’s not fair to Josh! He’s a little kid, he’s just fifteen, we can’t throw him into a whole new environment.”
Levi leans forward, speaking in an urgent undertone. “We can’t do that. Marilyn has the law on her side. She’s the mother, and if the psychiatrist and her social worker think she’s stable enough to take care of him, we don’t have a leg to stand on. And,” he adds, “We’ll destroy it for ourselves. If we fight back, she’ll just take him sooner — and she’ll never let him keep contact with our family. It just isn’t worth it, Batya.”
I shake my head, mouth set. “But there’s religious rights as well, he’s been brought up frum, he goes to a yeshivah, what’s she gonna do, dump him in the nearest public school? It’s gonna ruin him.”
“We won’t get anywhere by fighting.” Levi makes a hand gesture to stop me arguing. “No, I’m serious. If we go along with her, be friendly and supportive and make this work, then she might take us seriously if we have something to say about his schooling, where he’ll fit in best. But if we attack her, or try to withhold Josh, it’s game over.”
It feels like game over already. My heart aches. One last resort.
“Josh won’t want to go. We’ll speak to him, tell him that it’s his choice, and we’ll support him if he chooses to stay. Surely he has the right to refuse?” My voice picks up. “I’m sure social services will take our side if he’s the one who wants to stay. They can’t force him to go back to his mother if he’s scared, or doesn’t want the upheaval, or thinks she can’t take care of him…”
Levi’s eyes are sparking dangerously. “No. No way in the world. We are not taking our son and pitching him into a battle between his mother, who he loves and misses, and us. Besides, who says he’d choose to stay with us? He might feel torn and manipulated, and that would just make him angry. Or he would be stuck, feeling like he has to choose his mother, but feel guilty for letting us down after everything we did for him. How is that fair for a young boy, to make him choose between parents like that?”
I am clinging to threads of hope, but they are slipping away. “But Levi—”
“Batya,” he interrupts me. “Batya, listen to me. You can’t withhold a child from his mother. We can’t fight this. It’s not going to work. We need to face the reality, and work with it, we need to —”
“Mr. and Mrs. Speiser?”
We both jump. The secretary points to the principal’s door. “You can go inside.”
We stand up. My legs are shaking.
“It’s cruel to shake his life up like this,” I whisper fiercely as we walk over to the door.
Levi looks away. He lifts his hand to knock, then lets it drop again. “It’s crueller not to,” he says.
“Ma, practically speaking, how is this going to work?”
It’s Sari, of course it would be. The oldest, the worrier, the planner.
“We’re coming for the whole Pesach. Kayla’s coming for first days, Rikki’s moving in for the Sedarim, it’s just Michal who’s walking over from her place. How are we gonna manage with space?”
I can’t think about Pesach. I’m thinking about Rabbi Mendelson and his concerns about Josh’s growing apathy. He doesn’t seem to care so much anymore, the principal had said, watching us steadily. Josh is a bright boy, but recently, he’s just lost interest in his schoolwork.
I shake my head. As if that’s the worst of our worries. On Sunday, Josh would be spending the day with his mother. Who knew where they’d go? What they’d eat? Oh, she’d promised to serve him only kosher, although, as she told Levi, “It’s been years since I’ve done that myself.” But what would they do together? The mall? Bowling? A movie?
Would Josh suffer there, hating every minute?
Or — I stiffen at the thought — would he enjoy himself? Want to go back? Forget the life, the love, the education and the nurturing that we poured into him with every ounce of our energy?
“Ma?” Sari says loudly. “Ma, are you there?”
“I’m… yes, I can hear you.”
“Okay. I lost you for a moment. So what’s the plan then? How are we going to do it? There are three couples, and even if we put some of the kids on mattresses, that’s still minimum two more rooms…”
I know all this. I also know that we won’t have a problem at all, because there’s going to be an extra room vacant the first days of Yom Tov.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, mustering confidence. “I’ve got it covered. We’ll be fine.”
Any of the others — Kayla, Michal, even Rikki, who’s always a little anxious — would be okay with that. But Sari is Sari.
“But Ma, could you explain to me how? There’re only six bedrooms. You’re not thinking of having the kids camp out downstairs, are you?” Her voice sharpens. She’s imagining vivid horror scenes, kids on couches and tossing around cushions gleefully, raiding the pantry, carefully-planned bedtimes and sleep schedules flown out the window.
“No, nothing like that. Don’t worry, Sari, it’s really going to be fine.”
It doesn’t cut it. She launches into a calculation, who needs which bedroom, how many mattresses can we fit into the largest room, and where, exactly, are we planning to put the last couple?
I’m too exhausted to stand my ground.
“Josh’s room,” I say suddenly, my voice too loud. “Josh’s room, okay? He’s not going to be here for first days.”
And then, before she can say anything, even though I’ve never done this in my life, and certainly not to one of my girls — I hang up the phone.
So little time.
The calendar moves forward, Purim disappears in a haze of cellophane and sugar and half-drunk bochurim collecting for their yeshivah. One minute I’m washing the dishes from the Purim seudah; the next, it seems, I’m scouring surfaces and stocking up on extreme amounts of aluminum foil.
And next week, next week, Josh will be going to spend the first half of Pesach with his mother.
They would be at Levi’s parents for Yom Tov. Some comfort; at least my mother-in-law had a kosher kitchen and Josh wouldn’t be alone with her all the time. But even so. I think of Josh, my innocent boy, sitting stiffly at a Seder table with English Haggados and boxes of crisp, square matzos. My father-in-law with his shiny white yarmulke. Marilyn, disinterested, riffling the pages. They wouldn’t spend too long on the Haggadah, surely.
My heart is burning in my chest. I have to do something, take action, anything. I can’t stand by like Levi’s doing, talking to Josh gently about the changes, leading him to devastation.
I’ve been his mother eight years now. I have rights, too.
I put down my sponge and head out to the hallway.
There’s a muffled reply from upstairs.
“Josh, would you come down a minute? I need to bring up a bunch of boxes from the basement. Pesach dishes and stuff.”
His head appears, peering over from the landing.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll be a minute.”
We head down to the basement. The storage room is musty. I breathe through my mouth, look around, mind racing.
So little time.
I start to move boxes, back and forth, as if I don’t know which ones are the ones I’m looking for, buying time, anything to prolong the moment, to find the words. Josh stands awkwardly at the side.
“Uh, can I help?”
“In a minute, when I’ve found them… we’ll make a pile to carry up to the dining room, okay?”
He grunts. I move another box. Back. Forth.
“We’ll… miss you by the Seder, Josh,” I manage. It’s a start, I think.
Josh doesn’t answer. Is he angry? Does he think we should have fought to keep him? That we let him down? I knew it, I told Levi all along…
I take a deep breath, forgetting to close my nose, and immediately cough out the smell.
“Are you… looking forward to it?”
Immediately, I sense my mistake. Levi’s been insistent that we never question Josh, never try to interrogate him when he gets back from his mother’s, just wordless support. Just continue acting normal, loving, be there for him, no questions asked.
He can’t feel like we don’t trust him, that we’re trying to spy on her, Batya, please.
But I’ve done it. I’ve broken the rule, asked him to share his feelings about this new relationship with his mother.
“It doesn’t matter,” Josh says, his voice low and angry. He kicks at a box. “I don’t care.”
“Josh,” I say, wishing there was some way to put my heart into words. “It’s not the same here without you. We miss you.”
His body is tense, fists clenching by his sides.
“Is there… anything you want to tell me?”
He shakes his head, mutely, back and forth.
I can’t stop there. I should, but I can’t, and I abandon all pretense of looking for boxes. “Josh, what do you feel about — the move? You can tell us, you really can. We’re… here for you.”
His face is very pale in the dim light of one yellow, swinging bulb. “You don’t understand,” I hear him mutter, and suddenly, he explodes. “You don’t get it, you don’t get anything!” He wheels around, knocking over a broken vacuum cleaner. He shouts into the empty basement, and I try to clamber out of the mess to join him. “You don’t care about me, do you? It’s just about whether I stay frum, what did you do with your mother, how will you feel over Yom Tov? Did you discuss schools yet? How is your mother, Josh? Do you care about how she is? Or are you hoping she’ll get sick again so I can stay here? How about what I want? How about what it’s like being a kid without a home?” He is breathing fast.
The basement door opens. Levi stands there, confusion stamped on his face. Josh looks up, and becomes mute and stony. He pushes past Levi and runs up the stairs.
“What just happened?”
My hands are shaking. “I don’t know. He came down to help me bring up the boxes.” I pause, then add, “I just asked about Yom Tov… how he feels about going to his mother.”
Levi’s eyes widen, then narrow.
“I had to!” I say defensively. “Anyway, he complained that we don’t understand him, that we don’t care how he feels. Maybe it’s because we’re not asking him anything, not giving him the chance to refuse to go?”
Levi is shaking his head, back and forth, back and forth. “No. We’re giving him every opportunity to talk if he wants to. What we’re not doing — what we agreed not to do — is try to milk him for information about his mother… about his future. Batya, that’s just not going to work.” His voice is pained and a little accusatory.
Tears spring to my eyes. I step back, further into shadow. “Well, excuse me for trying to care about my – son.”
Levi sighs. “I’m going upstairs. He should know we’re available if he wants to talk.”
That you’re available, you mean.
I feel tiny, incapable, worthless. I ruined it.
Then I’m angry. Really? Eight years of being his mother, and I can’t ask a small question? Levi’s being too soft on him.
But I don’t really believe myself.
I slide down into a sitting position on an old stool. It’s grimy and dusty, missing a leg, so it wobbles dangerously under my weight.
I failed Josh.
I failed Levi.
Echoes, angry footfalls, words flung like shards of broken glass.
I sit there amongst the dust and debris and realize I’ve been wrong. There’s not so little time left. There’s nothing at all.
It’s disconcerting, seeing little Moishy sitting on Levi’s right. That’s been Josh’s seat for so long now.
“Kadeish!” my husband sings out. He is smiling, but I can see the strain in the corners of his eyes. He feels it, too.
“Ma, what’s up with Josh?” Rikki asks me, leaning over confidentially. I wince. Not now.
“He’s with his mother. She’s hoping to have him move back soon, she’s much better now.”
“Oy,” Rikki shakes her head, tutting sympathetically over her baby’s head. “What will happen, do you think? I mean, these things can suddenly get worse again, no?”
I shrug, look pointedly at Levi.
“Kadeish,” he says again, firmly.
Wine, pour, drink, spill. Mop up crying child. Urchatz, Karpas. The usual fighting over who gets to sing Mah Nishtanah.
“The youngest in each family,” Levi intones decisively. We lock eyes and I instinctively turn away. Rikki’s our youngest, but for the last eight years, Josh has taken that place. No one else notices anything. Now they’re arguing which order the kids should go in.
I close my eyes.
“Ma, you’re too emotionally involved in this,” Sari says, leaning across the table. “You need to let go.”
Kayla adds her two cents. “Maybe speak to someone about it, it’s like a grief process, no?”
“Girls, let’s keep to the Haggadah, okay?” Levi says mildly. “Shmuli’s ready to sing the Mah Nishtanah, aren’t you, yingele?”
I swallow hard. Sweet voices, bright eyes, white table, everything is a blur. Levi distributes chocolates to squeals of glee.
“Avadim hayinu,” he begins. I wonder where his parents are up to, they could be singing Vehi Sh’amdah by now. I think of Josh, the large booklet of Haggadah notes that he brought home from yeshivah. My heart bursts open.
“I’ll be back soon,” I mumble, and before any of my daughters can say anything, I flee the room.
Josh comes back on the third day of Chol Hamoed, letting himself into the house so quietly that we almost miss it.
“Did someone just come in?” Sari asks, lifting her eyes from the book she’s reading to the kids.
Footsteps echo down the stairwell, disappear in the slam of a bedroom door.
“Josh!” Levi and I say together, rushing out of the room.
He’s gone, though, but the traces of his arrival are apparent: there’s a jacket by the door, a small suitcase, a knapsack abandoned by the stairs.
I bend to pick up the knapsack. The zipper’s carelessly open, and a hodgepodge of items tumble out: pajamas, some nosh, a yarmulke.
“What’s this?” Levi is beside me, his voice tight. For a moment I think he’s looking at the yarmulke, too, but then his eyes are glued to the packages of food on the floor, horror playing across his face, and he nudges aside potato chips and an uneaten apple —
A granola bar.
His mother. Has given him. Chometz.
“Oh. She put that in there?”
Josh is downstairs again, the yarmulke attached to his overgrown curls with a couple of large, silver clips. He’s never worn those before. We pretend not to notice.
I try to put the pieces together. “Wait, you didn’t know? She didn’t show you what she packed up?”
“I mean, she was all proud this morning, she went and bought food with the OU symbol for me to eat on the way. I didn’t really eat though, I wasn’t hungry.” He peers at the offensive bar. “Gee, I didn’t realize I had that in my bag.”
“Well, let’s just do what we have to do with this now,” Levi says, aiming for a light-hearted tone. “We’ll get the fire going again, get rid of this.” He kicks the offending wrapper toward the back door, loathe to touch it.
Josh looks up with eyes that are suddenly frightened. “I didn’t know it was there, I really didn’t,” he says.
Levi touches his shoulder, but he flinches, stepping back. Levi’s hand drops, and his eyes are sad. “We know, Josh. We know.”
It’s hard to focus on Hallel when your heart is cracking in two.
“Keep the doors open. That’s all we can do,” Levi repeats this like a mantra as we walk to shul on Yom Tov morning. Josh hasn’t made an appearance yet, and we don’t push him, beyond a quick tap on the bedroom door to let him know we were leaving.
The wind nips at my sheitel, fiercely. What happened to springtime?
He might never come back.
“He might not choose to come,” Levi says quietly, and I startle. “But that’s beyond our control. Batya, there’s nothing, nothing we can do to make him do anything, to keep him where we’d prefer to see him. We had eight years, and we did the best we could. But it’s not in our hands anymore.”
If I cry now, that’s the end of my eye makeup for the next two days. So I close my mouth, and Levi’s words echo in the quiet street.
It’s true. It’s not in our hands. It never was.
We don’t speak for the rest of the walk. Levi heads inside, I climb the stairs to the women’s balcony, take my seat. I see Levi swaying over his shtender, the seat beside him empty. My stomach spasms.
He might never come back.
I think about his frightened tone yesterday. The angry shouts in the basement. Poor boy, he’s so young, and so torn.
Levi’s right, I realize. We could never put more pressure on him. He would only break apart. Look at all the pressure he’s under already, to get accustomed to a whole new life with his mother, to have our unspoken expectations still holding him, to keep everyone happy apart from himself…
I am crying into my machzor. It’s Pesach, not Yom Kippur. This is so embarrassing.
I grab hold of myself. Focus, focus on the words. There’s a hush as Shemoneh Esrei begins, and as I stand up, the tears threaten to begin again.
Chazaras hashatz. Hallel. An outburst of joyous song, raised voices. Likro es ha-Hallel. It’s a mitzvah to sing today. And yet.
Shevii shel Pesach is when the neis of Kriyas Yam Suf actually took place, Levi said last night. It’s the day of miracles, of unimaginable salvation, of shirah, of light.
I think of the Jews who crossed the sea today, hundreds of years ago. How did it feel, to be on the other side of an unconquerable obstacle? What was it like to see their taskmasters washed up on the shore, the ocean spilling treasures, gold and silver and precious stones?
Of course they sang.
Hallel is finished, they take out the sifrei Torah. My mind is still in a time warp, thousands of newly-freed slaves on the sand.
How did it feel, to be free — and completely stranded in the unknown? Vast desert stretching ahead, little children, animals, no food or water… how did it feel? How could they sing?
The leining begins and the answer flashes into my consciousness; I don’t think it, it seems to come from somewhere deep inside. I hear the words inside me, it’s Levi’s voice, but it’s also my own, and suddenly I know.
They could sing, right there, on the cusp of the greatest uncertainty, at the edge of the desert — because they had been carried this far. The One who performed miracles for them, split the sea, took apart Nature for a breathtaking glimpse of Eternity — He would carry them on, too.
I look down and suddenly, the empty seat beside my husband is full. My heart leaps and everyone is standing and the baal korei is starting to sing, the song of the sea, the song of faith. There is a desert ahead but here we are, a nation who traversed the ocean on wings of a miracle, and who knows what might yet happen.
We came this far. We’ve been carried, wings of miracles, wings of hope. We had a gift for eight years, a son who might have never been ours to start with. We were given the gift of giving, we gave love and warmth and everything we could. And now all we can do is remain right here, open hearts, open doors, there if he needs us. It’s all we can do, but it’s enough for now, it’s enough to create just a small oasis in the desert lying ahead.
There’s a sheen in my eyes but I can still see Levi reach out and touch the bent shoulder beside him, and this time, Josh doesn’t flinch. And then the room blurs and song echoes and all I can see are two large, shining clips, securing Josh’s yarmulke to a head of honey-blond curls. The light glows off them and they sparkle, like gemstones in the sand.
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 806)
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