Shifra: I put my relationship with my son in your hands. How could you desert me?
Naomi: I know you were counting on me, but I need to think about my long-term stability.
I shifted restlessly and avoided Shimon’s eyes. “Nothing.”
He continued eating while I sat with my arms folded and stared at the wall above his head.
“Did we go into overdraft?”
“Faigy’s principal called again?”
“No, don’t worry.”
“You sold the sheep I was saving for the Korban Pesach to cover the electric bill?”
“Just checking if you were listening.” He lined up his knife and fork side by side, precisely in the center of his empty plate and leaned back. “So what’s up?”
I turned to look at him. “I think we should go. To Yosef’s graduation.”
Shimon didn’t reply immediately. I wondered if he was choosing which question to ask first. Finally he said, “Why do you think it’s important that we go?”
I stood up. “Because. In his world it’s important. We don’t value a college degree, but objectively speaking it’s a huge accomplishment. Especially for him, how hard he had to work for it. It’s…” I searched for a good analogy. “It’s like finishing Shas. No, wait, listen.” Mistake, Shifra, try again. “Of course it’s not like finishing Shas, I just mean it’s a huge accomplishment and a very meaningful event. For him. For him, Shimon, that’s the point. That’s why I think we should go. Because it would be meaningful for him. That’s how you maintain relationships, by showing up when the other person makes a simchah.”
This time I didn’t apologize for the analogy. It is what it is.
Shimon nodded. “You’re right.”
I closed my eyes and swallowed. Not that I wanted to be “right,” when it had all been so wrong for so long, but at least he had spared me from a prolonged discussion over this point.
Now Shimon stood up, pushing his chair under the table, and leaning his elbows on the top of the backrest. “When is it exactly?”
“Next week Monday.”
He nodded. “What about work?”
What about it? I wanted to scream. Who cares about work? This is our son we’re talking about! Our relationship with our son! But I didn’t scream, because he was right. Because everything in life is a Venn diagram. It’s simplistic to say your family comes before your career — everyone knows that — but what about when they overlap? When your son needs you to be there for him, and your family needs you to have a stable income? And Shimon had just won this contract, of course he had to be there.
“It’s only one day,” I tried.
Shimon shrugged. “The third day,” he said.
I licked my lips. It was too big of a risk.
“You could go,” he said.
I stared at Shimon. With everything that had happened with Yosef, we had always been a team. The number one rule — parents united. One thing, at least, that we had done right.
I pulled out one thought from the thousands that were crowding my brain. “Who would take care of the kids?”
“Well, let’s work backwards. When would you leave?”
I clicked open my e-mail. The whole thing felt surreal. “The event starts at 2 p.m.” I tapped the keyboard, searching quickly for a flight, feeling like the whole thing might disappear, I’d wake up and find it had all been a dream. “I guess I could get a flight at 6 a.m., it would give me plenty of time to get there and maybe even freshen up. There’s a 10 p.m. flight back. Maybe I could take him out to eat after the graduation.” Now the dream was real, taking on a life of its own. “I wonder what kind of gift he would appreciate? I want to get him something he’ll really like. Something that will make him think, ‘they get me.’ ”
“Okay, wait, back up. I need to leave the house at 7 a.m. Could Rina get the kids up and out in the morning?”
I frowned. “She’s only 13.” The older boys were away in yeshivah, and anyway they were boys.
“You always say a 13-year-old girl is better than a 20-year-old boy.” There was a lilt in Shimon’s voice, and I knew he was happy we were making this work.
“It’s true,” I retorted. “But it’s still a lot to ask of her, to get five younger siblings out the door in the morning. And she doesn’t drive. How will Yocheved get to kindergarten? And if Rina sticks around until all the other kids leave, she’s going to miss her bus, so she’ll need a ride too.”
Shimon pulled his fingers through his beard. “And then we’re going to have the same problem in reverse in the afternoon.”
“Maybe the kids could go to friends in the afternoon.” I hesitated, would that work for the younger ones? “At least until you get home. Do you think you could be home at six?” I knew it wouldn’t happen. “Or at least seven?”
Shimon lifted his hands, palms up. “Do I know? You can never tell with these things.” He looked at me wryly. “At least we’re confirming that our decision for you not to work out of the house is totally justified.”
This time I shrugged. Maybe yes, maybe no; you make a decision and then start fitting the other pieces of your life around it, so it looks like it all fits perfectly. But it’s like ivy — wherever you put the wall the ivy will grow, and if we had chosen a different way, everything would have been different.
When it comes to Yosef, I try not to think about how different things could have been.
“Maybe,” Shimon was trying again, “we could hire a babysitter to pick up Yocheved at two and then be in the house until you get home.”
“Where in the world am I going to find such a babysitter?”
“Come on.” Shimon paced the dinette. “There has to be a way to make this work. Someone, a friend, a neighbor, a sister?”
I shook my head. “Who are you kidding? Every time I gave birth we had this problem. Everyone has their own families. No one can come take over our family for a day.” I gave him a crooked smile. “We are totally indispensable.”
“Wait.” Shimon stopped pacing. “Maybe Naomi could do it? She could come over early in the morning and be here all afternoon.”
I stared at Shimon. “Do you think I could ask her?”
“Why not? She practically lives here anyway.”
“That’s not true,” I protested. “She’s doing much better these past few months, it was only right after the divorce that she—”
“I didn’t mean it that way.” Shimon collected the plates and silverware and carried them to the sink. “I just think it’s reasonable to ask her. I bet she’d be thrilled to help, in fact.”
He was right.
I thought maybe I should surprise Yosef, but Shimon vetoed that idea. “If we act like we’re not coming, he’ll spend the next week feeling disappointed or resentful. But if we tell him you’re coming, it’s a whole week of feeling cared about and loved.” I liked the sound of that, so I told him. I wished I could see his face as I talked, but he definitely sounded happy, and I was so glad and relieved I was able to tell him I was coming.
I bought him a set of Apple AirPods and wrapped it carefully. I aimed for a happy, light tone on the card (although I hesitated over the greeting — Dear Yosef? Dear Joe? but in the end I chose Yosef, for better or for worse): Dear Yosef, congratulations on this amazing accomplishment! We are so proud of you! We love you always… Like a couple of tiny little earpiece thingies could possibly tell him how much we love him.
But he’d know, I was sure he’d know, that’s what this trip was all about.
I bought Naomi a gift too — a new book I knew she’d enjoy. I knew she’d never spend the money on herself. Feeling unexpectedly emotional, I wrote, To my dear friend Naomi, with tremendous gratitude for making this possible. I left it on the entrance table where she’d see it right away.
I was throwing the last few things into my luggage when my phone buzzed.
I read the text from Naomi and the blood drained from my face.
I think I screamed. Whatever it was, Shimon came running in. “What? What?”
“She canceled!” I pointed to the phone with a shaking hand.
“Stop crying,” Shimon begged me. “Stop crying! We’ll figure something out!”
It was 11 p.m. I had to be at the airport in five hours.
“I have to go!” I cried hysterically. “I have to go! I told Yosef I would be there!”
“I’ll go to work late, Rina will come home early, maybe one of the neighbors can get Yocheved…”
“You’re going to lose the contract!”
“No, I won’t.” He bit his lip. “I hope not. I mean…”
I turned away. I had to go to Yosef. I wanted to go. I was his mother, I had to be there.
If I could tell Naomi one thing, it would be: I put my relationship with my son in your hands because I trusted you to come through. How could you desert me at the last minute?
When I got divorced, my neighbor Shifra basically saved my life.
It started before I even got home from the beis din; there was traffic and I wasn’t going to make it to pick up Binny on time. My mind was gridlocked with bitter thoughts and the only name I could extract from the fog was Shifra’s. She lived nearby, she was home at this time of day, she was a super-coper type who managed her large family effortlessly. So I texted her, and she rescued me.
And when I walked into her house to get Binny, she took one look at my face and steered me to the nearest chair.
“What happened?” she said. “Is there bad news?”
“Yes. No.” I said. “I just got my get.” My mouth was dry and as I spoke my field of vision began to shrink, so all I could see was Shifra’s face staring at me, the area around her shimmering, with flecks of light going in and out and the edges fading to gray.
She gave me a cold drink that I drank robotically and I didn’t say a word when she guided me to the guest room, just fell on the bed into unfeeling oblivion. When I woke up, Binny was eating meatballs and spaghetti with the rest of Shifra’s kids. She sent me home with a pan of food for myself, too. We ate it for the rest of the week.
At least we had something to eat because the rest of my life was a mess. That night I tried to make a list. The most important thing, now that I was finally done with the get and could focus on the future, was to find a job — a good job that would pay enough to cover rent, food, child care, insurance, auto expenses… Help. The anxiety overwhelmed me; I dropped the paper like it burned me and let it disappear.
I had no family nearby. My parents were so distraught over the divorce that it was too emotionally draining to even talk to them much. I had one sister-in-law in town, but she thought the divorce was my fault. I was totally on my own.
Shifra became my family.
A few days after the divorce I woke up and was shocked to discover it was Friday. You can do this, I told myself. You’re divorced but you still have hands and feet. You can go to the store, pick up some groceries, and cook for Shabbos like you’ve done every week for years. You can do this. I knew I could — it’s not like it was my first Shabbos alone. But the actual divorce seemed to have triggered a sense of trauma and the fury and anguish started crowding in on me. My thoughts became fragmented and disorienting, I wanted to howl noooooooo, cry and scream what am I gonna doooooo and kick the walls and it took all my energy not to let the wave crash over me. At that moment Shifra called to say she was expecting me and Binny for all three seudos.
That’s what I mean when I say that Shifra saved me.
She invited us often for Shabbos, and I’m pretty sure she was behind the invitations I was getting from other neighbors. She knew I was stuck at home in the evenings once Binny was asleep, and she’d always ask me if I needed milk or bread or any errands. Before Chanukah she dropped off a box with a menorah, oil, wicks, and a card with the brachos and halachos. Before every fast day, she brought me soup and rolls. Homemade.
Grief comes in waves. Coping, for me, came in waves too. Some days I felt purposeful and empowered; I cleaned the apartment, made necessary phone calls, brought Binny to Morah and picked him up, fed him something nutritious and put him to bed on time. Some days I felt overwrought and wrung-out and on those days the house was messy, we ate pretzels for supper, and I crumpled into bed as soon as Binny fell asleep. But eventually the good days came more frequently and the pain started to recede and I felt like it was springtime, good feelings tentatively poking their way through the ground, checking if it was safe to come out.
Then I was ready to make that list again, ready to start rebuilding for real. Once again the first thing on the list was a job.
I’d been temping until then — I’d signed up with an employment agency, and they sent me work whenever they had it. Mostly it was substitute teaching in schools, which I hated — I wasn’t good at it and it didn’t go well — but I needed the money. Sometimes they sent me to office positions — receptionists, answering phones, data entry. All mind-numbing work, the kind that could be done by just about anybody, which was why I was able to do it even though I had no training or skills.
Temping only worked because of Shifra. I don’t think I even realized, until the fog cleared, how much Shifra had been doing for me. Anytime I had work, I’d bring Binny to her house in the morning and she’d drop him off at his morah for me. I started to see Shifra as a cross between a mother and a best friend. And occasionally as a bossy older sister — like when I started to wallow.
“I’m never going to find a job,” I complained to Shifra after yet another failed interview.
“I don’t know. It was one of these power career places. No matter how willing to learn or what a team player I am, I can’t seem to talk the talk.”
“Maybe they’ll still call you,” she suggested. “Lots of places are willing to train someone who’ll be a quality employee.”
“Yeah,” I snapped. “Sure. A quality employee. They’re just running after me. Lining up outside my apartment door. That’s why I’m scrabbling desperately for any interview I can get, and staring at piles of unpaid bills.”
“Sorry,” Shifra said calmly, “but that’s the way the world works. Lots of people have a hard time finding a job, especially their first job. You’re not experiencing anything unusual, and if you go around with that attitude, it’s going to make it harder for you to find a job, not easier.”
“I know, you’re right.” I blew out a breath. “I’m just stressed out because of, you know, money and everything.” Money and everything. I looked around the apartment. How many warnings do they send before they really cut off the electricity? I really, really, really needed to find a job.
“I have another interview next week,” I told Shifra. “Maybe that will work out.”
“Oh, great. Where is it?”
“Some therapy agency.” I glanced at the Post-it on my fridge. “TheraPeople. It’s about 45 minutes away, but it’s doable. They need someone in accounts payable. An employee left, another employee is leaving soon — something like that.” I stared at the Post-it note. The agency had told me to make sure to present myself as “committed and dependable,” because no company wants to hire someone unreliable. How do you look “committed and dependable”? “It’s accounts payable. I could do accounts payable, I think.” A thought occurred to me. “Maybe if they’re so desperate I’ll have a real chance of getting the job.”
“You have a real chance of getting the job even if they aren’t desperate,” Shifra said.
I think that might be the greatest thing Shifra did for me. She didn’t pity me and she didn’t allow me to pity myself.
When Shifra told me about Yosef’s graduation and asked me if I could take over for her the entire day, I didn’t think twice. (Although I was actually confused — I hadn’t even known this son existed. He must have left home before I moved here, so I’d never seen him. And I couldn’t remember if Shifra had ever mentioned him — though I had been pretty self-absorbed with the divorce, so I could have totally missed it if she did. )
“Of course,” I told Shifra. What wouldn’t I do for her? And it made me so happy, the opportunity to be a giver again. It was an exhilarating feeling.
The texts started coming immediately. Just wanted to remind you that Ezzie is allergic to peanuts — there’s an Epipen on top of the fridge.
The next day: The cleaning lady comes at 8 a.m. She knows what to do, I’ll leave cash behind the coffee machine.
And that evening: I told my kids tonight that you’re going to be here next Monday, they made me promise you would let them take extra snack.
When she texted me early Thursday morning I literally burst out laughing: Hi Naomi, I’m about to confirm my flight, I just wanted to confirm with you that we’re on for Monday?
We are totally on, I wrote back.
I was free most of Thursday — I had that job interview in the morning (pleeeeease, please G-d, I really need this job) but no temping, so I used the time to put my house in order so I could spend the day at Shifra’s on Monday. We ate with my brother on Shabbos and on Sunday evening Shifra dropped off four pages of meticulously written schedules and instructions. When my phone buzzed a few minutes after she left, I literally groaned, but it wasn’t a text, it was an e-mail, and it took me a minute to process that it was from the TheraPeople guy who had interviewed me. It was so nice meeting you, he wrote, We’d like to offer you the job. Please be there tomorrow, Monday, at 9. Looking forward to working with you.
I stared down at the e-mail, totally stunned. I got the job.
I got the job.
I GOT THE JOB!
Woo-hoo! I did a little dance in my tiny kitchen. Thank You, Hashem! I reached for my phone, I had to tell Shifra. Oh! Shifra! I was supposed to babysit for Shifra tomorrow. I hesitated. I really hated to let Shifra down, she had done so much for me. Maybe I could call TheraPeople back and ask if I could start one day later? No. No, I couldn’t do that. They needed someone totally reliable. I would sound like a flake. It would be over before I even started. Shifra would not want me to risk it. She would figure it out somehow, she was always that type; anyway, she had a husband to help her. Grinning, I picked up my phone to text her. I got the job. Shifra was going to be so happy!
If I could tell Shifra one thing it would be: I know you were counting on me for this one-day trip, but I need to think about my long-term stability. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 745)
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