| What I Reaped |

Sweet Endings

On Succos, we gather our crops, reflect on our harvest. In life, we gather our experiences, appreciate what we’ve gained

It wasn’t supposed to end now. It had only just begun.

I stare at my husband of just half a year, trying to swallow the queasiness that climbs up my gut.

“But... why?” I ask again.

He hasn’t said a word. Not for weeks and months, morning, afternoon, evening. How was your day, fine, how was yours. There was nothing to prepare me for the bombshell.

Or was there? Have I simply ignored the warning signs, content in a bubble of newlywed bliss? Has he been deceiving me, or have I been the one fooling myself?

Burnout. The word hangs between us. It releases a trickle of words, a plea for understanding.

“I haven’t been learning for a while,” he admits.

I try to sympathize, to hear the desperation behind the guilt. What’s it like to struggle daily to keep up a role that’s draining the life out of you? But but but... he promised, we had a plan, and my parents... my parents had paid two years’ rent up-front. What about my friends and my seminary teachers and my beautiful dreams. I want this, want it so badly for myself and my baby and all the babies to be, for our family, our home and our forever life in This World and the Next.

When I run to the bathroom and heave over the sink, everything churns together, nausea and horror and a salty torrent of defeat. Because my dreams, they’re over when they’ve barely started to bloom.

 

“Are you okay?” he asks, heartbreakingly anxious, and I sip water and nod because seder is starting. Does it even matter?

One more week, he says, until next Rosh Chodesh, and after that…

The unfinished sentence hangs between us. What then? Will he work in a pizza shop? A grocery? Go get a degree? There’s broken pieces of a promise and burning shame.

It’s not fair, I want to cry. It’s not fair when I’m so ready and willing to be that supportive wife, to make everything work. All I ever wanted was the home of my seminary ideals, the song of Gemara, the pride in the struggle. I was ready to support it all, and now…

I’m sitting and nursing a hot drink on the last morning of the month, when it hits me. I am ready and willing to support everything — everything but him.

The man I married, who toiled in Torah for so many silent, agonizing weeks when his mind and heart rebelled. Those days, each and every struggling hour, could they be more precious than the years of smooth growth attained by someone who never felt the crushing despair of failure? Surely that small, precious slice of time, the effort, the sheer will and desire were something to celebrate?

It may be an ending, but let it be a happy one.

And so, I bake a cake. Frost it and add toppings. I slice melon and set out the Shabbos china. Light, happy, green napkins. Candy.

I am celebrating my marriage. I am celebrating the Torah. And I am celebrating my ability to let go, and support my husband — whatever path he will take.

I say it, and I mean it. And his eyes, the haunted, defeated sadness — it sheens over, blinks away, and I see a faint sparkle of hope.

The next day, he decides to give it one more month.

I’m happy, but also content in the knowledge that it will be okay either way.

We make some changes. He cuts down sedarim, changes chavrusas. Finds a maggid shiur who captures his mind and ignites the dying embers.

The months race by and then he is rocking our baby to the tune of Torah. I am busy and my husband’s schedule creeps to overflowing, another seder, another limud. Months pass, a year and another, and sometimes I can’t find the time to catch my breath, but I’ll never miss a siyum. We celebrate every milestone with a cake, a special dinner, and a glow in my heart.

I’m usually too busy to reminisce. But sometimes, my mind flits back to that first siyum, the cake, the flutter of a lime-green napkin. And I think how that goodbye celebration wasn’t a happy ending at all. It was the sweetest, most joyful beginning.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)

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    Nechama Burnham

    The last story in your theme collection What I Reaped totally took my breath away — because of Chana’s beautiful, elegant response to her husband’s announcement that he was leaving kollel, and how her courage, wisdom and real emunah heralded a turnabout. I’d like to share a turnabout that we experienced.

    This is a story about a young woman, Nechama Leah, with seven adorable and precocious children (my grandchildren!). We will skip the first chapters, seven months with few outlets for boundless energy, and the revolving-door nature of quarantine for one child after another… and back again. We will only highlight the picture of Mommy, six-week-old baby in arms, conducting the Seder herself, because the usual baal haSeder was in quarantine in his room. Suffice it to say, the parents’ efforts to keep it together, and with good cheer, were impressive.

    But then the couple came down with corona over Succos, despite all their precautions. Coronavirus, you may know, can sap one’s strength completely, and cause all sorts of unpleasant symptoms. The absolute worst scenario for Nechama Leah was not being able to go to shul on Simchas Torah, and bask in the rarefied light from her husband’s beatific face, not to see her children rejoicing with the Torah. Nechama Leah is a full partner in her husband’s Torah, giving up his company and his help so that he can learn, and she takes infinite pride in every siyum of his and the children, making a real occasion of these milestones. And now, to be locked out of this simchah? That would be the ultimate “potch in panim,” a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad way to spend Simchas Torah.

    Imagine my surprise when I called Motzaei chag to hear my son cheerfully answer the phone. Yes, they were feeling much better. And they’d had a very special Simchas Torah! They were able to see/hear various minyanim out the window. But the most beautiful part of the day was when the parents and children made their own hakafos around their dining room table, each child holding a Chumash, singing with spirit and fervor. The hakafos went on for over an hour, and for once in her life, the mother could sing and dance with her children and husband. Everyone could hold hands, they could sing lustily, unencumbered by masks. They could put all the ahavah and achvah of their family, and the lessons of emunah and ahavas Hashem the parents had taught their children, into their relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam and His precious Torah.

    Nechama Leah said it was positively the best Simchas Torah of her life, an unforgettable, unbelievable, incredibly uplifting, very inspiring day.

    And that is what they reaped.