| Family First Feature |

Stepping Up, Stepping In   

Three women looked around, saw the void in their families, and realized they could be the ones to fill it

The phone call Nechamy got from her mother-in-law wasn’t a shock.

Chaim, Nechamy’s oldest brother-in-law, was going on “vacation,” an extended stay at an inpatient rehab facility. Could Nechamy and her husband take in one of Chaim’s kids?

Nechamy and her husband had seen this coming. First, they’d noticed how Chaim — the former life of the party — stopped showing up to family events. He and his family missed the family Chanukah party because of “work” and they couldn’t make it to a sibling’s vort because of “meetings.”

“Is everything okay?” Nechamy’s husband used to ask his brother on the odd chance they bumped into each other.

“Yeah, just busy,” Chaim would reply, but everyone could see the black shadows under his eyes, and the way he couldn’t keep his gaze still. His wife looked the same.

What had started as taking opioid pain killers after they suffered multiple fractures in a car accident had become a full-blown opioid addiction for both of them. Chaim and his wife were stuck in the never-ending cycle of drug use — and their kids were paying the price.

The once-vibrant family was fading. When it came to their kids or drugs, the parents often chose the high. They weren’t capable of caring for their children — yet pushed away anyone who tried to help. “For years, none of us could reach the family. We’d show up at their door, and they wouldn’t answer, even though we could tell someone was home,” says Nechamy. “If we’d try to go to the kids’ school and speak to them there, they’d ignore us.”

Later, the family found out that Chaim had threatened his kids and forbade them from having anything to do with the extended family. “It was heartbreaking,” Nechamy says.

Then, after close to a decade, something changed. Chaim and his wife called one day and asked for help.

Nechamy and her husband knew that was code for “money,” but they took the opportunity to finally get a foot in the door. “We played dumb about their drug use and helped them with their groceries. After years, we finally had contact with the family again, and it broke us to see how bad things had become.”

Keeping up with the drugs was an all-consuming force for Chaim and his wife. “Nothing else mattered, so he dropped minyan, Shabbos, and kashrus. He and his wife didn’t care about any of it as much as they cared about the chance to get high again.”

Meanwhile, Chaim’s kids had been neglected. Studies say neglect is even more damaging than abuse, a theme Nechamy saw first-hand. The kids were dealing with unimaginable trauma.

Once Chaim and his wife were willing to admit they needed help, and Chaim even agreed to go to rehab, it wasn’t even a question for Nechamy and her husband: even though they  were still young, with a house full of their own little kids, they would take in Chaim’s teenage daughter.

And so, they became guardians of an angry, traumatized teenager nearly a decade older than their own children.

When Leah’s younger sister became a kallah, it took only a few weeks for her to realize something wasn’t adding up. The family had celebrated with a l’chayim and vort. Then they set a wedding date for a few months off, but instead of starting the hectic flurry of preparations, there was nothing.

“How’s all the shopping?” Leah would ask the kallah.

“Mommy didn’t take me yet,” the kallah would reply.

When Leah would speak with the other single siblings still living at home, they’d mention tidbits that didn’t make sense. The hall had called to confirm the menu, but Leah’s parents weren’t taking the calls. The future mother-in-law wanted to know about plans for the apartment, but Leah’s parents hadn’t even started looking.

“What’s going on?” Leah’s brother asked her. He was also confused.

Together, the two pieced together the story. “My parents’ financial situation had really changed over the years,” Leah explains. “When the first of us got married, my parents were excited and wanted to set the couple up well. They kept this standard for the next few kids, but because their financial situation wasn’t what it had been, it wasn’t really within their means.”

During the most recent shidduch, the shadchan asked about financial commitments. Leah’s parents answered as though their situation hadn’t changed in 15 years. Meanwhile, the reality was that what used to work just wasn’t working anymore.

“They couldn’t afford to make the same standard wedding anymore, but my parents hadn’t accepted that yet. It was also hard for them to step away from that standard because if they made nice weddings for the older kids, how could they not do it for the younger ones?”

They’d made a commitment they couldn’t keep. The wedding prep was stalled — and there was a risk the mechutanim would back out if they found out.

Knowing that the whole shidduch was on shaky grounds, Leah and her siblings called an emergency meeting. Those who knew the situation briefed the others, and together they put together a plan.

“We took out personal loans and started paying for the wedding ourselves,” Leah says. It was a nerve-racking dynamic to navigate — a difficult balance of finances and feelings. They had to marry off their sibling and make sure their parents weren’t hurt along the way. But there was a sister who needed them, so the siblings stepped up to the plate.

Over the years, Sary’s parents and aunts and uncles moved out of town or overseas, but their mother — Sary’s grandmother — liked living where she was and refused to follow them. She lived alone in her big house in Brooklyn, and Sary lived across the street.

In the beginning, it was a wonderful arrangement. “She would always offer to do my grocery shopping and was always available when I needed a last-minute babysitter. Every Shabbos day, she’d have us over for the seudah. She was a fantastic cook, and I learned most of my kitchen hacks from her. We loved having her so close, and it never occurred to me to ask, ‘Where’s this headed?’ ”

When Sary and her husband first moved to the block, Bubby was a vibrant 70-year-old. But eventually, she turned 80, then 85, and the family realized she wasn’t getting any younger. The dynamic slowly shifted. Where Sary once called Bubby for help with the kids, Bubby was now calling her. The spice container rolled under the table, and she couldn’t bend to reach it — could Sary send one of the kids? She had a doctor’s appointment and didn’t want to walk alone in the rain — was someone available to go with her?

“I was her first call,” Sary remembers. The other local grandkids officially shared the responsibility of looking after Bubby, but practicality often won. If the circuit blew or Bubby had a fall, Sary and her family were the closest — and the first to run over. “Eventually, we became the go-to for everything. We were the ones who responded to all the emergencies, so we were the ones who took her to the hospital. When it came to following up with her care, it made sense for us to take her to the doctors again since we were the ones who knew what was going on, and we were familiar with the local healthcare facilities and system.”

One day Sary was at Bubby’s house to train in a new nurse. “What’s her medication schedule?” the nurse asked. Sary looked at Bubby to answer. Later, the nurse told Sary off. “You mean to tell me that an aging woman is the only one who knows which meds to take and when? What happens if she forgets? What if she’s unconscious and the emergency responders need to know what’s in her system before they can treat her?” She made Sary review the entire medication list and learn it, too. From that point forward, Sary became Bubby’s medical spokesperson and liaison.

It was a slow transition, but after 15 years of living across the street, Sary and her husband became Bubby’s official caretakers. They were the point of contact for all out-of-town family, the mediators when the aunts and uncles disagreed about Bubby’s care, and the ones looking after her every day. It wasn’t a role Sary actively chose, but it’s a role she was needed for — and a role she actively filled.

Sary is the first to say that it wasn’t easy. Most days, she’d bang her head and ask, “Who decided that it’s okay for an elderly woman to live without her kids nearby?”

There was a part of Sary’s brain that was always on, and always thinking about Bubby. “Especially toward the end, I was either actively taking care of a crisis or waiting for the phone to ring with another one.” She got in the habit of glancing outside the window every morning. From the den, Sary could see across the street to Bubby’s house. Were the windows open already? That was a good sign — Bubby had gotten up and out of bed. If the windows were still shut, what was wrong?

“It took me a long time to kill that reflex,” says Sary. “Even once Bubby passed away, I would keep checking every morning. I’d have to remind myself every time that it’s someone else’s house now. I don’t need to worry if the windows are open or closed anymore.”

Sary’s husband would check on Bubby every morning and evening. During the day, Sary was her secretary. She’d field the calls from doctors, answer questions from the children overseas, and let the other grandchildren know, “Yeah, Bubby is up now, and it’s a good time to stop in for a visit.”

When Bubby needed 24-hour care, Sary arranged the logistics — government funding, agency applications, schedules, and overtime payments. “It was a little funny to become the go-between with my parents and aunts and uncles,” she says. If the family was paying for something out of pocket, Sary was the one to go to all Bubby’s kids and collect their share.

“We fell into those roles because it was logical and practical. I won’t say it wasn’t hard, but it was two sides of the same coin. Yeah, we were across the street so we were the ones looking out for her, but being across the street meant that for decades before, we always had a caring grandmother only a few doors away.”

While Sary’s transition into her role as Bubby’s caregiver was slow, Nechamy’s transition was sudden. One day she was the mom of kids all in the single digits. The next day she was responsible for raising a teenager. An angry teenager.

“All Chaim’s kids were having a hard time,” Nechamy says, “but Shani, the kid we took in, was definitely the most troubled. Her sister went to their grandmother, Chaim’s wife’s mother, but Shani had never gotten along with her bubby, so she planned to live on the streets or hop around between friends’ houses. When we took her in, it was a matter of life or death.”

Nechamy would look at Shani and feel heavy with guilt. Why hadn’t she and her husband done something earlier, before the situation got so bad? She says that very feeling is part of why they agreed to give Shani a home. For so many years, although they’d tried, they could do nothing to help the family. “This was our redemption. We could finally do something and try to make up for all the times we could do nothing before.”

The first few days in their home, Shani refused to speak.

“How was your day?” Silence.

“Do you want dinner?” No response.

This began Nechamy’s life as a parent of a trouble teenager — “and it’s been a roller coaster since.”

Raising teens is always a challenge. Raising teens who went through as much as Shani has a whole different story. “We had no idea what to do,” Nechamy remembers. “There were so many nitty-gritty questions every day. Yes, we asked general sh’eilos, but when you’re in the middle of a tense conversation, you can’t say, ‘Hold on, Shani, I want to call a rav and ask him what to say about this.’ I had to go with my own intuition a lot, so every step of the way I was questioning myself, wondering, Am I saying the right thing or did I just negate weeks of effort with one word?

Leah also says that navigating what to say to her parents and her sister the kallah was one of the hardest things she’s dealt with. She and her siblings wanted to shield their sister from the drama behind the scenes. They also wanted to protect their parents’ dignity — even as the roles were reversed, and the children took the financial lead.

Leah would offer to help her mother with errands by taking the kallah to choose linens. Then she’d casually pick up the bill and never mention it again. A different sister would find a gift certificate in her wallet to the housewares store that was “expiring very soon,” so did the kallah have any use for it?

“I don’t think my parents ever realized that those gift certificates came from us,” Leah says.

For the big expenses, the siblings would make vague comments about gemachs that give loans with good terms and “we’ll discuss it after the wedding.” The “gemach” was really a collective pool of money the siblings had taken out personal loans for.

“It was sticky, but we had no other choice,” says Leah. “We wanted to protect everyone involved, so we worked to do it as delicately as possible.”

She says that from the outside, it looked like the siblings were having a party. They were constantly on the phone with each other and their WhatsApp chats were pinging nonstop.

“I would collapse at the end of the day, completely drained. What was happening was not derech ha’olam. I was only in my mid-twenties and already paying for a wedding.” Leah remembers showing up with her sister and their children at a gown rental ten days before the wedding and asking to try on gowns. The sales lady was shocked they hadn’t come sooner.

“But when was I supposed to have come?” Leah asks. “The day I took my sister shopping? The night I spent several hours on the phone with the bank? The week I spent calling all the hachnassas kallah organizations?”

She would look at her friends who also had siblings getting married and felt a disconnect between their experience and hers. They had to show up at the hall with gowns. Leah needed to come with checks.

“My siblings and I were very matter of fact about it. It was mind over matter. We were doing what needed to get done, but inside the four walls of my house, I would crash. It was very gut-wrenching to realize the situation my family was in, but we had to roll with it.

“I kept telling myself that it’s not about me or my siblings. It’s about my sister. This was the one time in her life when she’d be getting married. We were doing this for her.”

Until this day, Leah’s sister still has no idea that it’s her siblings, not her parents, who married her off. “And it’s better that way.”

She doesn’t need her sister to know the crushing weight they all carried on her behalf. “We were in our twenties and none of us were wealthy, but suddenly we were balancing the costs of a wedding. It was never a question that we would do it — but there was definitely the question of how?”

It helped that the siblings were all in it together, but there were still moments when Leah looked in awe at what her life had become. Every month, when payday came, a huge chunk was set aside for her part of the loan. It’s what you do for family, Leah says. “Family is everything, and your first achrayus is always there. You have an obligation to help your family get through whatever comes to them. I don’t see it any other way.”

She also couldn’t discount the guilt. Leah was one of the siblings her parents married off well. Just because her sister came later in the family, did it mean she deserved any less? Just because it wasn’t Leah’s responsibility, did it mean she could look away?

So Leah did what she had to do — coordinating between siblings, tracking the numbers, and updating the spreadsheets. “I wish I’d known back then that there’s ‘the day after.’ When you’re dealing with a big situation like that, it feels like your whole life. But you’re doing it because one day they will be a couple, then a family. There will be another Jewish home — and you’ll be so happy you could help build it.”

Did Nechamy have any concerns about taking in her niece?

“A million.”

How would Shani’s presence affect her kids? How would they keep them safe? How could they stick to their principles and enforce boundaries — but without pushing so hard that Shani was pushed away? How could they make sure Shani didn’t hang out on the streets or start dabbling with drugs herself — and what should they do if she did? How could they help Shani navigate her trauma and be there for her without causing more harm? How would they define the line between being there and becoming martyrs?

One of the biggest questions was the interplay of Shani’s chinuch and that of Nechamy’s children. In fact, when the family spoke to someone who specializes in chinuch, he advised, “Don’t take Shani in.” It would be too detrimental to their own children, too large a risk.

At that point, though, Shani was already living in the house, so sending her out wasn’t an option. “We were the only stable adults she ever had in her life, and we couldn’t add ourselves to the list of people who failed her.”

“She’s staying here,” they told their chinuch mentor. “Now help us work out how.”

Still, it was hard. It crushed Nechamy to see “the horrible ways parents can ruin their kids’ lives.” It felt so incredibly unfair. So many of Shani’s challenges — the lack of trust, the dishonesty, her self-destructive behaviors — were because she was in survival mode.

At first, Nechamy pushed herself to go above and beyond. Then she realized that all Shani needed was “normal.”

“It struck me once when I asked how her day was, and she looked all confused and then said, ‘I guess that’s a normal thing parents are supposed to ask their kids.’ No one had ever asked Shani that question before.”

Nechamy says that having Shani changed their home — for the better. “It caused me to look carefully at how it runs. Do we set a good example of a frum home?” When you have a kid who doesn’t care about Yiddishkeit walking around the house, the opposing force needs to be just as strong. Shani’s presence influenced Nechamy to be less laid-back; she began to put more effort into the atmosphere she created. For example, they rarely sang zemiros at the Shabbos table, but once Shani came, they made a point of doing that. It also forced her to be more patient with her own kids. Nechamy never worried that her children wouldn’t appreciate the beauty of Yiddishkeit, but for Shani she started leaning in more. “I need this girl to see a calm home, and that Shabbos is amazing, which means my kids got to see even more of that, too.”

“There’s a house for sale a few blocks away,” Sary’s husband told her one day a few years ago. They were looking to buy a bigger place — and the property seemed perfect. They put in an offer and closed on the deal. Then Bubby broke her hip.

“I knew we couldn’t move,” says Sary. “How could we move off the block when Bubby needed us? Who was going to flick the switch when the fuse went out? Or pop in to make sure she took her meds before bed?

“We kept delaying the move for one month and another month, until we finally accepted that it wouldn’t happen, and sold the deed.” It seemed crazy to give up a house on behalf of Bubby, but it was never really a choice. “Some people told us, ‘Just move,’ but I would ask, ‘And then what?’ ”

So Sary stayed and continued to be Bubby’s primary caretaker until the last day. At the shivah, many people came over to say how incredible she was. “I used to respond that Bubby did so much for us, too. It’s easy for everyone to look at the end, but there were decades before when she was the one taking care of us. Of course, we wanted to be there and make sure the last years were as comfortable as possible.”

She was happy to be there for Bubby, yet shared something one of the social workers had once told her. “There’s a system for geriatric care in place for a reason. When you utilize government programming, you stop all the responsibility from falling on the extended family. It doesn’t make sense for a family to take on the full burden alone; you need to set up care in a way in which everyone still retains their own semblance of a life.”

“Don’t feel guilty if you can’t do it all,” Sary says. “You know yourself best, and you know what you can handle. No one else can tell you if it’s the time for you to step up or not.”

For the first few months after she took Shani in, Nechamy resented the extended family for not doing more. She stepped up — where were they? “Looking back, I have major regrets over the way I dealt with it, and how upset I was. I thought I needed to do whatever was necessary to get the family to be more involved in Chaim’s troubles, and that meant putting a lot of pressure on them, which I shouldn’t have done.  I wish I had realized that sooner and been less harsh. Ultimately, you can’t force someone else to feel an achrayus, and you can’t force someone to do what you want them to do. It’s bad middos and a complete waste of energy.”

After time passed, she realized that her parents- and siblings-in-law had their own trauma and sorrow to process. She couldn’t expect them to behave on demand and react the way she wanted them to. In fact, Nechamy realized that it was unfair. Expecting them to be as proactive as she was meant she wasn’t recognizing their own painful part of the story.

“I can’t impose anything on anyone else. I’m responsible for two things in life: myself and the impression I leave on my kids. Worrying about the rest pulls my focus away from what’s really important, what I can actually control.”

She quoted the mishnah, “B’makom she’ein anashim…” saying that the words have become her rallying cry. “There was a need, and we filled it. That’s really all.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 838)

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