| Family Tempo |

From the Ashes

Could her family ever forgive her?


ruly Strick’s dreams are alive with fire. It crackles and burns around him until he can’t see anything but dancing orange. His lungs cry out in complaint as he breathes, the afterimage of the fire scorching the insides of his eyelids so he can’t escape even when he squeezes his eyes shut. The noise is so loud, like a thousand latkes frying on the stove around him, and he wants to scream.

This isn’t what happened. He had been in his bedroom with Mimi’s protective arms around him, window flung open so they could breathe. Ima had paced back and forth with Nachi as they waited for the firemen to come. There had been no fire in the room, just a hot doorknob and smoke wafting through the air, and Sruly had been afraid but also okay, because they’d all been together. Safe, with smoke rising around him.

He doesn’t feel safe in his dreams. He feels small. The fire is a monstrous dragon, whirling around him with glittering, poisonous scales. Mimi is behind the flames, her hands turning black and blistered as she reaches to him, and Nachi is calling him through the thunderous crackling. And Ima….

Ima’s hand lands on his arm, gentle and warm, soothing every spot where the fire touches. Sruly gulps — he can breathe now, can taste clear oxygen whooshing in — and Ima stands close, laying her head against his shoulder, until Sruly’s eyes open at last.

He isn’t in their old house. He’s in the Reichs’ carriage house, where they’ve been living for the past three months. There is no fire here. There is only Ima, sitting on his bed with her hand on his arm. Sruly sits up and burrows into her arms, willing away the horrible dream.

Ima runs a hand through his hair, her eyes warm and sad. She doesn’t speak. She can’t speak, Sruly knows. During the fire, Ima had been the one to get them all to his room with the big window, to call for help and save them, but she’d gotten hurt in the process. Fire, duh, Mimi says, because she thinks being ten means she knows everything. It burned her vocal cords.

Every day, Sruly remembers a little less how Ima used to sound. It’s a little like forgetting Abba’s face, but there are pictures for that, and Abba had already been sick in Sruly’s earliest memories of him. Ima’s voice had been ever-present in Sruly’s life, a companion through his daily life. The bus will be here any minute! Your rebbi says you’re top of the class in teitching. Your room is a mess. I made your favorite dinner. It sounds different when he looks at old videos on Ima’s phone, more strident, sharper. Sruly thinks Ima’s voice had been sweet. A little deeper than Mimi’s, but with a kind of smoothness to it, like the words just rolled off her tongue.

Ima talks in other ways now. She kisses Sruly’s forehead and then gets up, and Sruly hears her shuffling through the little carriage house kitchen, her bare feet padding across linoleum. The stove clicks on, and Sruly tenses, even though the stove has nothing to do with the fire, it had been a clogged dryer vent —  the firemen had said so. But only when it turns off a few minutes later can Sruly relax.

Then Ima is back, a mug in hand. The cocoa is warm but not hot, the scent wafting through the room and erasing the dream-induced acrid fire that lingers in Sruly’s nostrils. He washes negel vasser — the basin always by his bed now like an insurance against a potential fire — and he sips his cocoa, letting it warm his body like his mother’s voice once did.

Ima sits with him until the sky lightens in the window and Nachi’s alarm for minyan is going off, shattering the silence between them.

Mrs. Strick is Dr. Hoffman’s most frustrating case in years. She’s cooperative and polite — brings cookies to the office — and she does every exercise he prescribes obediently, follows every instruction without objection.

And nothing works. It’s been three months since the fire, since the minor damage to Mrs. Strick’s vocal cords. Dr. Hoffman has dealt with dozens of cases worse than Mrs. Strick’s, has been called a miracle worker, and Mrs. Strick’s situation hardly qualifies. It’s a job for a lesser doctor, a general ENT instead of a laryngologist, and he’d only taken her on because she’s a widow in the community who had needed immediate support.

Scans show healed muscle, nearly like new. Dr. Hoffman isn’t arrogant; he knows he works no miracles. The body is miraculous, constructed by a greater Being. The body mends itself, and Mrs. Strick is in her mid-thirties and otherwise healthy. She should’ve been speaking weeks ago. But she sits on the exam chair with an affectionate nurse holding her hand, and she can only puff out empty air.

Earlier, Dr. Hoffman had suggested she might benefit from seeing a very different sort of specialist, and he knows she’s been following this directive, too. Still, there’s no change. The suspicion lingers in his mind now, yet again, as he inspects her, but he keeps silent. When he discussed it in the past, she had stared blankly at him and then gone to the front desk to make the next appointment.

This feels, sometimes, like a fool’s errand.

“I want you to try to hum,” he says, laying his hand against her neck. “Make any noise. Don’t worry about words yet. Just a sound.”

Mrs. Strick bobs her head, and she strains. He can see the motion in her mouth, the way her epiglottis seems to shake with the force of it. He can feel the vibration in her vocal cords, the practiced movement that should, by all accounts, end with a sound.

But there is nothing, only Mrs. Strick’s head falling back against the chair, and her face falling with exhausted disappointment. “Oh, honey, no,” the nurse croons. “You’re doing great. Just keep at it.”

And she does. Mrs. Strick is a hard worker, even as tears spring to her eyes from the effort. Dr. Hoffman switches on a flashlight, peers into her mouth again as though the secret solution might be somewhere within it.

There are no words, no sounds, just the silent, ragged breathing of a woman who can’t speak. She is sunken and small in this office, her frustration raw and exposed like she doesn’t reveal elsewhere. Dr. Hoffman has seen her after shul a few times, standing with friends who talk uncertainly, as though they’re not sure how to carry on a conversation with a silent woman. But Mrs. Strick always stands out, has a regal fragility to her that makes her seem larger than life.

Here, she has none of that. She is only a woman, shaking and straining to find her voice, and there is defeat in every slump of her shoulder. And Dr. Hoffman hurts alongside her, wants her recovery with the same vehemence she must, because there are some people in this world who deserve better.

When she leaves, it’s with the nurse beside her, murmuring comfort into her ears, and Mrs. Strick turns once only to catch Dr. Hoffman’s eyes. In them, there is regret and grief, and Dr. Hoffman’s suspicion solidifies into frustrated certainty.

He eats one of her cookies once she’s gone, tastes pain and gratitude in the chocolate, and he has to put aside his own sentimentalism before he can continue to the next patient.

Mimi Strick isn’t traumatized. Like, okay, she goes to a therapist now and doesn’t like the sound of fireworks. There had been so many noises like that in those endless few minutes before the firefighters had come, popping and crackling down the stairs like every appliance in the kitchen was exploding into little bits all over the walls. Which is so dumb, because Mimi had done the dishes and everything, and now they’re never going to use those dishes again, so what was the point?

But Mimi isn’t waking up every night crying. She’s living in Chaviva Reich’s carriage house, and she’s gotten tons of clothes and books since the fire. Yeah, it’d be better to have her old stuff if it wasn’t all ruined and stank of smoke, but it’s been pretty cool to start over, and she feels tough now, like she’s survived something bigger and more impressive than everyone else.

She’s doing fine. Everyone says it. Mrs. Glasser thinks she’s been recovering nicely, and Chaviva’s mother tells Ima that Mimi is a superstar. Mimi goes to school and hangs out with her friends and doesn’t bother with pity parties or drama, because Mimi is great.

The only thing that isn’t great is this: sitting at the kitchen table in the carriage house on Thursday night, placing potatoes into the food processor one at a time, the noise like a thick mound of claustrophobia in the air. One of the potatoes is too thick to fit into the tube of the processor, and Mimi pushes it harder, grunting with the strain.

A hand lands on it, appearing so quickly and silently that Mimi jumps. Ima tugs the potato out, cuts it cleanly in half, and passes it back to Mimi. Just as silently, Mimi takes it and pushes it back into the processor.

It’s not that she’s mad at Ima for not talking. That would be stupid, and Mimi’s not stupid. The Stricks are all super smart, just like Abba had been, and Ima used to tell them that all the time. Never you’re so bright, because she reminded them that their minds were a gift from Hashem, but you thought that through so well, because thinking is what they do with the gift they’d gotten. Mimi gets hundreds without studying, though Chaviva’s sister says that middle school will be way harder.

Whatever. Mimi’s smart enough not to blame Ima for something she can’t fix. It’s just that the anger bubbles up within her sometimes, a fury that surges through her body like the potatoes move through the food processor, churning and flying upward. Sruly is rolling ground beef into meatballs beside her, and she is gripped with rage at him — he’s too close, he’s so sloppy, he’s being annoying. Nachi passes her an onion even though he could have just cut it himself, and Mimi wants to scream at him.

She doesn’t scream anymore. None of them do. There had been one night early on when they’d all fought — Sruly sobbing, Nachi snapping, and Mimi yelling — and then Ima had stepped into the room looking so devastated that they’d fallen silent. It doesn’t seem right, shouting when Ima can’t speak over them. Ima had made warm chicken afterward, her face drawn and her eyes solemn, and it had tasted like peace.

Mimi’s fine. She’s just mad at everyone: at Nachi for being so focused on his bar mitzvah instead of the crisis they’re in; at Sruly for being such a baby at night; even at Abba, for leaving them behind to do this themselves.

Ima senses it. Without her voice, Ima has become a pro at all the voiceless talking they do, what their movements and expressions might be hiding. And Miri drops onions into the food processor, lets them blend with the potatoes, and refuses to say anything, lest it explode from her like the coffee maker on the wall that night, crash-crash-splat.

Nachi leaves to practice leining with Rabbi Reich, his voice filtering out across the backyard to the carriage house. Ima puts Sruly to sleep, turns pages of a wonder book with a speaker on the side while Sruly snuggles up against her. Miri sits in the kitchen and lets her fury fill the room, thick as smoke, fogging up the windows and the oven door and the whiteboard calendar where Ima writes down all their appointments and their jobs and puts little hearts by their names.

When Ima returns, it’s with careful steps. She quickly mixes couscous over the stove, while Mimi stares at the cutting board and reminds herself that she’s fine.

Then Ima sets a bowl of couscous in front of Mimi, sits down beside her with a searching gaze, and Mimi blurts it all out. “I smelled it,” she says in a rush. “I was reading late — after I’m supposed to shut off my light, I know — and I smelled the smoke.” She’d ignored it, had been drowsy and lazy and told herself it was someone’s barbecue, but that had been stupid. No one was barbecuing at midnight. Mimi is supposed to be smart, but she’d been stupid, and now the house is burned down, and Ima doesn’t talk.

She’s fine, she’s just mad, and she’s maddest at herself, because she could have stopped it. She doesn’t cry. She’s not allowed to cry, because only babies cry over something that they’d caused. This is her fault, no one else’s. She has to face up to it.

But Ima spoons out a little bit of couscous and puts it to Mimi’s lips, like she’s still a little kid who needs her mommy to feed her, and Mimi takes the bite. It tastes sharp and hot, like fire coursing down her throat to meet the rage within it.

Then Ima’s hand is on her cheek, and the next bite tastes like comfort. Like words, though Ima can’t form them. You were falling asleep. You’re not perfect. This is not your fault. Mimi knows what Ima would say, and none of it feels quite enough to make it all better, but hot tears begin to fall down her cheeks anyway, salting the couscous as Ima puts her hands over her own eyes.

And then when Ima shifts to get the challah bowl from the counter near the stove, yeast-puffed high like a lid of dough across the top, she lets Mimi punch it down, fierce and furious, battering it with fists that don’t hesitate for a moment. It feels good. It feels like something real.

She eats more couscous as Ima divides up the dough, and it slides down her throat like forgiveness.

It’s strange, Sarah Reich often muses, how relationships change over time. She’s known Faiga Strick since they were in high school together, though they’d run with different crowds. Sarah had been more outgoing, had done GO and the school play. Faiga had been quiet and reliable, a sweet girl whom Sarah had liked from a distance.

Then she’d moved around the corner, a friendly face with three little ones and a sick husband, and they’d clicked immediately. Sarah had been coping with a newborn baby with special needs and three other children too young to be understanding, and it had been Faiga’s affectionate support that kept Sarah together during the tumultuous years with Avigdor. Yerachmiel took Dovid Strick under his wing throughout his last years, but Faiga had been the one to care for Sarah and her son instead of the other way around, an unerring support at her side.

Sarah wants desperately to do the same for Faiga now, no matter how pushy she might get about it. The carriage house is the bare minimum. She flips through Faiga’s paperwork after doctors’ visits as though she might be able to help. Faiga’s parents had returned home a few weeks after the fire, and Faiga texts them pictures of the kids and little else, so Sarah has appointed herself as communicator for Faiga’s mother.

Maybe it’s too much. Faiga was always fiercely independent, but Sarah has decided to be what Faiga needs, even if she isn’t what Faiga wants. She still remembers that horrible night; the flashing lights had awakened her, and she and Yerachmiel wandered outside to find the neighborhood gathered in front of the Stricks’ house.

She had seen the ladder against the boys’ bedroom window and children emerging, one at a time, in the arms of the firefighters. Faiga had come last, had been carried down with her face so white, she looked like a ghost in the red-shattered dark, and then she’d let out a single, heartrending scream.

It had been the last time Sarah heard her voice.

She’s sure she’ll hear it again, even though there’s been no progress. In severe cases, a surgery can be done to restore the vocal cords, but Faiga’s paperwork doesn’t indicate that it’s necessary. It indicates that she should be fine, in fact.

“It’s only a matter of time,” she tells Faiga over coffee. Faiga has brought over scones, perfectly constructed and with the exact texture of the ones Sarah’s mother used to make. “The doctor says you’re on the mend. And the bar mitzvah isn’t until next month. You’re bound to have your voice back by then. Maybe even by the time Nachi puts on tefillin.”

Faiga nods, but she looks troubled. She opens her mouth — hesitates, and this is the hardest part, watching Faiga try and then sinking into her seat in defeat — and Sarah lays a hand on hers. “If you don’t, it’ll be okay,” she says gently. “You’re doing great.”

She is learning a new kind of patience now, something she wishes she’d had back when her family had been in disarray after Avigdor’s arrival. This is a conversation, even if Faiga doesn’t speak. It’s all on her face — in the wan smile, as though Faiga doesn’t believe a word Sarah’s saying, and in the way her eyes avoid Sarah’s gaze.

“We should go,” Sarah says at last. “The HVAC guy was supposed to come at nine, right?” She had made the appointment for Faiga.

Faiga moves now with a weight to her steps. To the untrained eye, it might look graceful and dignified, but Sarah has known Faiga too long, has seen her in happiness and grief and everywhere in between. Faiga’s steps are slower, drag as though there is something struggling to take root each time she pauses, holding her to that spot. Faiga is in pain, but in her silence, only Sarah is aware.

The house is an eyesore, still scarred and hollowed as insurance and contractors are ironed out. Next door, Faiga’s nosy neighbor is on her porch, her sharp eyes fixed on them. She watches Sarah distrustfully, but her face softens when Faiga smiles at her. Faiga’s magic, Sarah supposes as they walk inside, pushing open a door that is just a piece of wood laid against the entrance.

Inside, the house is half wreckage, with hints of something new blossoming in the stripped walls and supports. The HVAC guy is in the laundry room off the kitchen, peeling out bits of metallic crumble from the space where the dryer vent had been. “Looks like it was clogged for a while,” he calls, his voice muffled. “People don’t realize they’ve gotta clean these out every six months. Especially if you do a lot of laundry or leave your dryer on when you’re not around.”

It’s a cautionary tale they don’t need to hear again. Of course everyone in the community has cleaned dryer vents since the fire, an attempt to ward off the Stricks’ misfortune. Yerachmiel had done it himself the next morning. “We had no idea before this,” Sarah says, and she turns and sees Faiga’s face glossy with tears.

She hasn’t seen Faiga cry since the fire. There is something unnerving about it, how the gasping sobs sound almost like a voice, how the pain rushes from her when Sarah has only known Faiga to be so, so strong.

It would be the dryer vent that starts this, that brings Faiga to buckling knees, to leaning against the wall and shaking with grief and guilt. “No,” Sarah says, almost a moan, and she reaches for Faiga. “No, you didn’t—” But, of course, Sarah has always counted on Yerachmiel to take care of those little things around the house, and Faiga has no one. When were her dryer vents last cleaned? Is it something a husband would remind his wife about on his deathbed?

This is the weight Sarah sees Faiga carry with every step: not the inevitability of her tragedy, but the opposite. It could have been avoided. In another home, it might have been. Faiga blames herself.

Something changes in adult friendships, when hugs become casual greetings and touch becomes glancing and impersonal. But Sarah can’t stand back and watch Faiga fall apart with nothing but a hand to her back. She holds her tightly as she might a child and sways with her in painful, tearful affection.

IT takes a special sort of psychiatrist to see a client who doesn’t speak. Dr. Rosenthal, unfortunately, doesn’t believe she’s uniquely talented. But Faiga Strick keeps coming back, sits at weekly appointments and nods vigorously when Dr. Rosenthal suggests different coping techniques for her or her children, so Dr. Rosenthal does her best.

Faiga seems to have a remarkable capacity to handle adversity. She has friends and is overseeing the reconstruction of her house. Her children are healing. The oldest boy is due to put on tefillin soon. She continues to work at the school where she’d been secretary, though they’ve moved her to photocopying, where communication is less necessary.

Less, but not wholly unnecessary. Dr. Rosenthal’s been in touch with the school as well as Faiga’s doctors, and she glances down at the paper in front of her, a note that had been clipped to a photocopied paper. B&W only, it says, an innocuous comment from the copy room. A comment, an indirect communication, like the insurance forms Faiga filled out on her first day here. Faiga sends thumbs-ups in response to text messages, writes down appointments on a whiteboard that Dr. Rosenthal encouraged her to put on the wall at home. There are conditions where someone doesn’t communicate at all. This is hardly one of them.

Dr. Rosenthal thinks it might be past time to discuss it all.

Faiga appears in the doorway with her face a little pink and a salad in her hands. She always brings food, as though it is her voice now. Dr. Rosenthal appreciates it, but she wonders about it. “Sarah Reich spoke to me earlier,” she says gently once Faiga sits, and Faiga nods, a confirmation that she’d agreed to the call. “She says you’re harboring a lot of guilt.” It’s something she’s spoken about before, something Faiga has always shrugged off.

Not this time. Faiga’s fingers twine together, her head bowed. “I could tell you it wasn’t your fault — accidents happen, there are dozens of things in every house that can start a fire spontaneously,” Dr. Rosenthal says carefully. “But I don’t think you’d believe me.” Faiga stares at the floor.

Dr. Rosenthal says, “You’re the only protector your children have, and that’s terrifying.” She’s sure this is what’s eating away at Faiga. Dr. Rosenthal lost her own mother young, was raised by a father who’d shut down, and she has spent a lifetime and a profession struggling to understand it. “Do you feel like you failed them?”

Faiga’s head dips up, then down. A nod. Dr. Rosenthal clears her throat. “I want you to remember,” she says, “exactly what you did that night. How your house burned, and you didn’t run. You gathered your children and got help. You protected them. Sruly and Mimi and Nachi are safe, healthy. There was no lasting damage to anyone.”

Faiga looks up, a wave of frustration crossing her face. She passes a hand over her neck. “No lasting damage,” Dr. Rosenthal repeats, and she treads carefully, says the words she’s been contemplating for weeks. “Your vocal cords have healed. The neighbors remember you crying out after you were out of the house, too.” It’s bothered Dr. Rosenthal for months, how Faiga had been able to scream, but she’s danced around it until now, until Sarah Reich called with a description of Faiga’s unspoken pain. “You don’t write what you want to say, though you’re perfectly capable of writing messages to take care of things. There’s a possibility your problem isn’t physical, Faiga. It’s psychological.”

Faiga shakes her head strenuously, denies it all, and Dr. Rosenthal forges forward. “Do you think you might be punishing yourself?” she asks, gently. “That you’ve taken away your words because you don’t feel you deserve them anymore?” Tears slip down Faiga’s cheeks, silent and still. “I wonder if you’re stopping yourself from being the person you were because you think she failed everyone.”

She leans forward, and her heart goes out to this lost, tragic woman. “You know what I think?” she asks, and perhaps it’s too far, to offer a client absolution, but Dr. Rosenthal is winging it every day with a case like Faiga’s, and she won’t stop now. “I think you’ve suffered enough.”

Faiga squeezes her eyes shut, and she doesn’t respond, only pulls her shoulders tight and trembles in silence.

Faiga hadn’t spoken on the night of the fire, when she’d awakened to fire alarms blaring and her house bathed in smoke. She’d collected the children with a finger to her lips, warning them not to breathe too much of the smoke, and Nachi had been the one to make the phone call to the fire department while she’d opened all the windows in Sruly’s room. She’d breathed in — once, just once, when she’d peered downstairs with fatalistic horror — and it had been enough to make her throat burn, burn, burn, until it became the only thing she could taste.

She makes delicious food, heaps of it for everyone who insists on helping her, but all she tastes is ashes.

Ashes, like it was the dryer vent, like look what you did to your children, like they were all counting on you. Like the death of her strength, a pretense she had constructed so carefully after her husband’s death. Like their lives burning down before them, until Sruly can’t sleep at night, and Mimi is perpetually furious, and Nachi has a shadow on the most important day of his young life. Ashes, because she is meant to be their rock, and she has destroyed them.

Dr. Rosenthal has seen what Faiga has been trying desperately to conceal from the world, what Faiga hides with smiles and food and false poise. There is a murky swamp between her thoughts and her words, dark and swimming with all the ways she’s failed her family. Her voice is lost within it, sinking to the bottom of the mud, and she feels grim satisfaction at her own impotence and pain. It’s what she deserves.

Isn’t it?

I think you’ve suffered enough, Dr. Rosenthal says, a pardon Faiga can’t believe she deserves. But it lingers in her mind as she returns home, as she cooks a dinner she won’t be able to taste, and draws a little heart next to the day in three weeks when Nachi will put on tefillin. I think you’ve suffered enough. Faiga makes a second heart on the whiteboard, then a third. I think you’ve suffered enough. She draws more hearts, stops and bakes a cake, makes more hearts until the whiteboard’s covered with them and she lets out a scream that scorches her throat raw and doesn’t make a sound. She sobs, silent tears that spill like water from a hydrant, and then she straightens and stares at the heart-dotted board.

Hearts are nothing. Food is nothing. She can put on a show of strength, can be the collected, graceful woman she sees in the mirror at the best of times, but none of that can make this better. It comes down to her, to breaking out of the muck that has stolen away her voice, to stop working around her problems and face them.

She wipes away the hearts with the side of her hand, the marker residue like ashes on her skin, and she writes in appointments with Dr. Rosenthal, one a week, with the question mark Sarah will know means they are meant to be scheduled.

It is time to fight for herself.

 Nachi Strick had been eight during shivah, the only one really old enough to understand what had been going on. He’d missed Abba, been overwhelmed by the steady stream of visitors, and he heard from them, again and again, you’re the man of the house now.

When they left, Ima had told him in no uncertain terms to ignore them. You’re a child, and I never want you to feel like anything else. Nachi still feels an obligation to be the mature one, Ima’s support in the house, but he’s also felt a little bit like everyone’s kid. The whole community has taken care of him — bringing him to shul on Shabbos mornings, learning with him on Motzaei Shabbos, even playing ball with him until he’d gotten a decent arm. It makes perfect sense that on the day he’s putting on tefillin, half the neighborhood would be there.

Someone has arranged for a huge brunch to be served at the shul, and Nachi’s whole class has come. The room feels like it’s glowing with simchah, with the energy of something wonderful, and Nachi doesn’t know if he’s really important enough to warrant all this excitement, but he’s glad. Good things are nice and should be celebrated more.

Rabbi Reich moves him through the room, and Nachi grins at every “Mazel Tov!” and shakes hand after hand. His rebbeim and the menahel are here, the largest crowd of well-wishers he’s known, and it’s dizzying. He spots other familiar faces — the Mullers from next door, Dr. Hoffman from shul, the rest of the Reichs — and then, at last, he spies the table where his mother and siblings sit.

Sruly says immediately, “Can I touch your tefillin?” and Nachi hastily moves his tefillin bag as far from Sruly as he can. Mimi watches him with raised eyebrows, probably annoyed at all the attention he’s getting but with a smile betraying her contentment. Ima sits with them, listening to their chatter and nodding at the people who come to greet her. No one waits for a response — everyone knows about Ima — but there’s been something different about her for the past few weeks. Nachi isn’t into feelings and stuff, even when he wants to look after Ima, but she’s been a little happier lately, a little more content than before.

He eats a bagel and is very happy. Today is a great day. He’ll have to go to school eventually — his classmates are disappearing into carpools a few at a time — but he lingers in the shul even after his rebbi leaves, unwilling to leave this perfect moment.

The moment leaves him instead, as moments do. Rabbi Reich drives Mimi and Sruly to school while his wife and Ima take care of the cleanup, and soon the room is empty. Rebbetzin Reich leaves for work. Nachi clutches his tefillin bag as Ima takes the last tablecloth to the garbage.

When she returns, she is holding a little box. She sets it down on the table with the plasticware and opens it in front of Nachi, a miniature cake inside with the words Mazel Tov iced onto it. She offers him a smile, the one she does now where it looks like it hurts, and then she opens her mouth.

Nachi is frozen in sudden disbelief. The crackle of an errant light fixture, the rustling of the leaves outside, the honking drifting in through the window… all sounds fade away. There is nothing in this moment but them, Nachi gaping and Ima with her lips slowly forming something like a word. Nachi holds his breath, waits, listens—

It’s just a word. Just the start of a word, like a breath in the wind, so quiet that Nachi almost misses it, and nothing like the voice he remembers. “Nach—” Ima starts, and then the word fades into voicelessness, frustration flickering across Ima’s face as she gives up.

It’s enough. It’s everything. It’s a gift he’d never expected, and Nachi feels comfort bubbling through him as he meets Ima’s gleaming eyes. “Love you, Ima,” he says, trying to make it sound casual, not studied at all. Ima sinks down into her seat and holds on to his hand with her quivering one. She doesn’t say anything else — can’t say anything else, not even I love you, too, but that’s okay. Nothing great comes quickly.

Nachi cuts a piece of the cake and takes a bite. He can taste Ima’s response.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 835)

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