She can’t seem to find her voice — but now her son needs it
The apartment layout is familiar; the Chaitons live on the floor below hers. Michal notices the window in their living room with the same view of what she thinks of as “her tree.”
Her twins like to climb onto the back of the couch and press their sticky hands and faces against the glass.
Tonight, as she’d headed for the door on her way to the Chaitons, they were at the window in their matching racing-car pajamas. “Yehuda. Laizer,” she’d called. “Mommy’s going bye-bye.”
Yehuda had opened and closed his small fists, and said, “Bye-bye.”
Laizer had stared out in front of him.
They’d tested Laizer’s hearing last month because they’d noticed he no longer looked up when they called his name.
“His hearing is normal,” the doctor had said. “Normal is good.”
“Normal is miraculous,” she’d answered.
Mrs. Chaiton is walking around, greeting the women. She stops in front of Michal. “Nice to finally meet our upstairs neighbor. Your husband is Shua, right? Our husbands daven together.” Her eyes, crinkly and kind, are focused fully on Michal. “And you are?”
“Michal,” she says, and then she can’t think of anything else to say to her hostess, so she forces a smile.
Michal counts about 15 women in the room, all neighbors whom she’s seen around the building. She doesn’t know most of their names, even though she moved in almost two years ago, right after the twins were born. She’d told herself she was too overwhelmed to say more than “hello” when she shared an elevator ride or passed a neighbor in the grocery aisle.
She can tell from the snippets of talk and laughter that these women know each other, know each other’s children. She’s the only one standing alone.
Still, she showed up tonight. That has to count for something.
She’d seen the flyer in the lobby, recognized the name of the speaker — an author of an impressive collection of parenting books — and liked the subject: Parenting with Soul.
But now she’s wondering if it would be rude to leave before the program starts. Just then, the speaker — Michal recognizes her blunt-cut dark sheitel from the flyer — starts walking toward the front of the room.
The speaker is so short she has to slant the wooden podium so they can see her face. She shares how, whenever one of her children gave her a hard time, she’d remind herself, “There are no mistakes. This particular child, with his or her challenges, was entrusted to us so we can grow together.”
The speaker looks slowly around the room. “Ladies, think of something your child does that annoys or upsets you.” She pauses. “Now, ask yourself a question: Where is the opportunity for growth? For example, if your child is clingy, instead of pushing him away, you can show him extra sensitivity. If your child throws a tantrum, instead of yelling at him, you can model how to express anger while talking calmly. It’s in these teeth-gritting moments that we shape our best selves.”
Michal leans forward so she won’t miss a word. She feels a little breathless: This is what I need. Exactly this message. Exactly now.
The speaker wraps up. “Remember: We have to serve Hashem with what we’ve been given, but also with what we haven’t been given.” Then: “Any questions?”
What if I don’t get it right? Michal wants to ask.
Instead, she sits very still.
Around her, women raise their hands.
“One of my kids won’t eat anything except white bread with jelly.”
“Is it normal for teenagers to fight every day?”
“My youngest holds onto my skirt and cries when I bring her to playgroup.”
Playgroup. Michal aches every morning after she drops off the twins, but she’s also guiltily glad for the slice of “me time.”
Today, when she’d come to pick them up, the morah had said, “I want to talk to you about Laizer.”
Her heart had thumped. “What about Laizer?”
“Not now. Maybe tomorrow night? Come with your husband. It’s just… I see a lot of children, and I notice things.”
Even as Michal had nodded, she’d thought about not bringing Laizer back to this woman, or to anyone: Maybe if I keep him home with me all the time…
She’d called Shua. He’d been in the middle of tutoring. She’d never disturbed one of his sessions before.
“The morah wants to meet with us about Laizer.”
He hadn’t asked why this couldn’t wait until he came home.
Was it this week or last week when she’d told him, “Did you notice Yehuda is adding a lot of new words, and Laizer isn’t even using the words he knows?”
“We said we wouldn’t compare them,” Shua had said. “Remember?”
But when there’s a twin, there’s a built-in measuring stick. It’s too easy to see what the “shoulds” are.
Just this morning, Yehuda had said, “Mommy, juice please.”
When was the last time Laizer had called her Mommy?
The women in the room are more relaxed now. Some are standing around the table in the back of the room, taking tea and cookies. There are offers of advice and jokes about serving jelly at a son’s wedding and learning how to sleep standing up — a comfy “we’re all in this together” vibe that Michal senses, as an observer, looking in. This could be funny, if it wasn’t so sad, she thinks: a mother who can’t bring herself to speak up about her son who won’t speak.
Shua looks up from his sefer when she comes in.
“Hi. How was the class? Oh, what’s wrong?”
She’s already walking past him, falling into the couch, her head in her hands.
“Michali.” He’s sitting next to her now. “Michali, tell me.”
The first time she met Shua, she knew within minutes that he was “the one.” He had a way of hearing her so completely that she didn’t have to worry about getting the words right.
“Michal is my quiet one,” her mother used to say. “Every family needs one of those.”
Her two sisters had constantly talked over each other.
Strange, how the memory rises now. Seventh grade. Calling her mother from school to ask if she could bring Orli home with her. Her mother had sounded happily surprised. Michal hadn’t told her mother that the teacher had paired Orli and her for the Makkos project.
That day, she’d worked well with Orli, the two of them gluing sequins onto the poster, losing some in the plush navy carpet. She’d loved that carpet. Loved vacuuming and singing into the noise. Her sisters were in the school choir. She’d thought about trying out, thought about what it would feel like to sing in front of the choir heads and know they were deciding if her voice was good enough…. Instead, she used to sing loudly in her room, but only while the vacuum cleaner was on.
She’d thought about asking Orli if she’d come back after the project was done. She rarely had friends come — other than her cousin or the daughter of close family friends. What if Orli said no? What if Orli said yes and they didn’t have anything to talk about?
The girls in her class made it look so easy: standing in loose clusters, teasing, giggling, even arguing. Michal tried to join in, but her thoughts looped and reworded themselves in her head, and by the time she was prepared to add something, the other girls were a few topics ahead of her.
Which was why, when she’d walked Orli out, she’d managed only a good night. Then she’d stayed in her doorway, looked out into the dark street long after Orli’s father’s car turned the corner, and made a mental list of things she could have said.
Shua knows to wait until she’s ready.
She whispers, as if saying the words out loud would give them more power. “What if there’s something really wrong with him?”
“Ahh.” Shua leans back into the cushion. “This is about Laizer.”
“Yes.” She’s crying now. “The other mothers’ problems seemed so… normal… fixable. And Laizer… I’m afraid…”
“He’s smart. He does puzzles so quickly.”
“But he’s losing words. I talk to him and he doesn’t answer.”
Shua stands and stretches. “Maybe it’s just the way he is. Like you. A listener, not such a big talker.”
She wants, so desperately, to take shelter in that. She shakes her head. This is more than just “the quiet one.”
“Shua,” she says, “I just learned that when we raise our kids we raise ourselves along with them. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.”
We’ll help him.
We’ve already started. Tonight, I went. I stayed. I heard.
She goes into the twins’ bedroom. The night lamp glows in soothing blue over the two wooden cribs, side by side, under the alef-beis hooked rug she made during the months of her pregnancy bed rest.
Curly haired and chubby cheeked, Yehuda and Laizer aren’t identical, but people have trouble telling them apart. She knew one from the other as soon as they were placed in her arms.
She wants to pick up Laizer. Hold him close. Go back to what was: two sweet babies.
The word comes to her now, and already she’s pushing it away.
Her tears are back. Hot and silent. This child. These parents. We all have growing to do.
Tomorrow we’ll go to the morah. We’ll listen. We’ll ask questions.
She watches her sons, so alike in sleep. Even the soft sound of their breathing is in rhythm.
We serve Hashem with what we have. Also with what we don’t have.
A voice. What Laizer doesn’t have now.
What she must give him. Her voice.
Afraid and wobbly, but strong enough to be heard, lifted by the force of her love.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 716)
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