“I know what you’re worried about, okay? I know and you know and let’s clean up”
It was late Motzaei Shabbos when we got the call.
“Mommy, Bubby’s on the phone.” Ayala came running down the stairs holding the phone out.
As Mommy took her phone, I shot Ayala a funny look.
“What?” I mouthed.
Ayala shrugged, but the corners of her mouth turned down. They say there is no better friend than a sister, and I just knew something was wrong. A pit settled in my stomach as I saw Mommy’s face whiten as she clapped a hand over her mouth and, still silent and listening to Bubby, headed toward the stairs.
Once Mommy was out of earshot, Ayala turned to me, worry creases lining her forehead. “Bubby sounded awful,” she whispered.
We stared at each other.
“Do you think…” I started.
“Shhhh,” Ayala hissed back. “Don’t even say it.”
We each sat there quietly, our game lying neglected on the table. Motzaei Shabbos was game night, when Mommy and Ayala and I played board games with Mommy once the house was clean and the little ones settled for the night. I wondered if Ayala was thinking the same thing I was. I shot her a glance. Her forehead was still creased and her eyebrows furrowed. She stared down at the table with a pointed frown.
“Do you think Penina is okay?” I finally blurted out.
Ayala’s face flamed and she looked up at me. “Shhh! Mimi, this isn’t funny!”
“I don’t think it’s funny,” I said hotly. “I’m worried about—”
Ayala pushed her chair back and slammed her hand down on the table. “Stop!” she yelled. “I know what you’re worried about, okay? I know and you know and let’s clean up.”
She started sweeping the cards into the box. I opened my mouth to object but closed it when I noticed that Ayala’s lips were pressed tightly together and her eyes were shooting sparks.
Mommy came down a while after Ayala finished cleaning up the game. I was moping around the living room, kicking a small rubber ball around. Ayala had disappeared.
“Mimi,” Mommy said softly when she saw me.
I ran to her and sagged against her body. She gave me a tight hug.
“Ma, why’d you change back into clothes?” I asked, my heart sinking into my knees. The soft robe was gone, replaced by regular clothing. “Where are you going?”
Mommy sat down on the couch, her eyes cloudy and her face etched in deep pain. She pulled me down next to her.
“That was Bubby,” she said quietly. “She called to… to tell me that…” Mommy’s voice shook and she swallowed. “Penina was taken to the hospital again. She… she didn’t really want Bubby there, so I’m going to be with her for the night. Tatty will help you girls hold down the fort until I come back tomorrow.”
“But— but—” Questions bounced around my brain like the little rubber ball. “Will you be home by the time we’re back from school?”
“I hope so.” Mommy gave my shoulder a squeeze. “I’ve spoken to Ayala already. You two should probably get ready for bed now, anyway. It’s late.” She planted a soft kiss on the top of my head. “I’m sorry I couldn’t finish the game.”
Tatty came downstairs and left with Mommy to drive her to the hospital.
I went upstairs and found Ayala sitting on her bed in her pajamas. She had a book in her hands, but she was staring at the dark window.
“Ayala,” I said, “sometimes I wish Aunt Penina had something… not so horrible, y’know? Something… something we could talk about. I mean, if it would be kidney disease, or heart disease, or even cancer, we could come to school and ask kids to say Tehillim, share, tell people… People could help us or understand why we’re upset. But…” I shrugged helplessly, “it’s not like that with this. This is such a big secret but, honestly, I wouldn’t even want anyone to know!”
“I know what you mean.” Ayala sighed, but I felt better that she was willing to talk about it now, and I sat down beside her. “It’s not like you really want to tell people your aunt is in a mental hospital.”
“No!” I agreed. “And there are so many, I don’t know, untruths about mental health conditions, and people say the craziest things sometimes.”
“Not just sometimes.” Ayala’s voice was dry. “People say the most thoughtless and insensitive things. I wish I could tell everyone I know that just like a person with a — what’d you say before? A kidney disease? Just like they’ve actually got something wrong with their kidneys — and they didn’t cause it, and they can’t cure it alone — so it’s the same thing with a psychiatric patient.”
“Right.” I felt tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. “She actually has something wrong with the chemicals in her brain. It’s not her fault!”
We sat there together, quiet, but in a way I found it comforting. There wasn’t really anything to say, nothing we could do to fix it, but it felt better to share it, to feel understood. I felt bad for Mommy, having to see her big sister going through something so horrible, so misunderstood, so terrifying. I looked at Ayala and wondered where Mommy found her courage. It wasn’t the first night, and likely wouldn’t be the last, that Mommy would spend away from her home, supporting her sister in a psychiatric hospital. As she had told us, Penina’s illness often made her suspicious even of those who loved her, which was a really scary place to be. Having Mommy there with her was a big comfort. As I looked at Ayala again I felt a surge of love and appreciation toward her. I held out my hand and Ayala grasped it tightly. Yeah, we fought often, like all teenage sisters do, and we disagreed about lots and lots of things, and to be honest, sometimes I didn’t even feel like I liked her. But yet, inexplicably, when things weren’t going well, and when big things came up in our lives, I felt closer to her; safer with her, almost.
I tried to picture Mommy and Tatty in the car on the way to the hospital. Mommy would be crying, the anticipation of seeing her sister in so much pain yet again almost too much to bear, Tatty’s low voice reassuring her. I thought of Penina, of the wonderful, funny aunt she was during her good times, always buying us great presents for our birthdays and writing hysterical cards to go along with them, playing Rummikub and drinking mocha coffee and laughing. I thought of her in pain, confusion, misery, during the not-such-good-times, and I felt like my heart was cracking under the weight of her suffering.
Ayala shut her book and sighed again. “We’d better go to sleep,” she said.
“Yeah.” I stood up. “I hope Mommy has a good night.”
“I can’t imagine she will,” Ayala grimaced. “She’s told us in the past that Aunt Penina really needs a lot of support after a bad episode. I don’t think she’ll get much rest tonight.” Ayala put the book away and snuggled under her blankets, preparing to sleep.
As I got ready for bed, I pictured Mommy and Penina spending the whole, long, dark night together, Mommy’s voice gentle, present, just there for her sister. Right before I turned off the light, I looked over at Ayala’s sleeping form.
I guess it’s true that there is no better friend than a sister.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 797)
Oops! We could not locate your form.