Would caring for Shimmy tear our family apart?
Had the hem of her skirt not snagged in the stair lift on her way up and sent her somersaulting backward, Yael may have made it into her parents’ apartment on time to prevent war. Instead, she could only wince as her knee throbbed and her sisters’ voices rose like smoke.
“Sweetheart, you’re feeding him like I feed my Gavi,” Toby was saying. “It’ll take him all day to finish breakfast, he’s going to miss his dayhab van.”
Toby using endearments — this was bad news. When Toby’s kids uprooted her garden 15 minutes after the gardener left, she called them “my dear adorable nachas sweetie pies.”
“Backseat driver,” Nechama retorted. “How about taking over instead of just standing there?”
Yael frowned. Forget the fight — just another in their litany of endless squabbles. Why were both of her sisters there?
This situation was insane. Ma was relying on her three daughters to manage Shimmy’s care while she sat with Ta in Cleveland for another round of treatment. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Kirk hadn’t quit on them the day their parents flew off, leaving them high and dry.
She heard Toby sigh.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming over? You’re not helping me by taking the morning shift. I’m still here from the night, I could’ve done breakfast, no problem. The afternoon is what’s impossible, I need to serve my own kids supper, I can’t come again then!”
Yael heard Shimmy grunt in the background, but her brother’s voice was drowned by Nechama’s.
“Thanks a lot for appreciating my help,” Nechama snapped. “I came to try to make your day easier. Why am I always the one taking responsibility and then getting flak for it?”
“Hello, as if! Anyway, maybe Yael can come?”
“Yael’s sleeping over here tonight, remember?”
Yael hauled herself upward, using the banister for support. Big deal! She would take care of supper, even if she was doing the night shift. Reuven would understand, he was so supportive about this whole situation. If only her sisters would stop fighting, and right there, with Shimmy in the room.
She groped for her phone, only to discover that it had fallen out of her bag. She looked down; her phone had slid across the floor, battery and cover strewn on either side. Argh.
“Well, then,” Nechama was saying, “you could tell Ma to fly back home and take over. I have an appointment with Zevi at the eye doctor at 4:30, and we waited months for this appointment. I can’t cancel.”
“Tell Ma, very funny,” Toby said. “You have an appointment on a Sunday?”
“Yes, on a Sunday. In the city. Call up Dr. Fuzailov’s office if you don’t believe me.”
“I didn’t say I don’t believe you. But I don’t know what you were thinking signing me up for this afternoon without asking me beforehand.”
“I was thinking that as a loyal sister, you’d want to be here for Shimmy. I guess I was wrong.”
“Oh, so I’m the villain here!”
Holding the banister tightly, Yael slowly hopped up the stairs. When she reached the door to the apartment, she summoned a smile to her lips.
“Good morning!” she chirped, limping into her parents’ apartment.
Nechama’s eyebrows shot up. “Yael? What are you doing here?”
“I came to pick up Ma’s milchig mixer bowl, I want to make cheese babka for Tante Henny for the Shabbos Kallah.”
Shimmy waved at Yael. Yael waved back. “Hey, Shim!” she called.
Shimmy glared, plunking his braced legs down on the footrest of his wheelchair. A moody thud echoed.
“Hey, Shim,” Yael repeated, expectantly.
“Hi,” Shimmy said tiredly.
If her knee had only felt like a knee instead of a building on fire, she would’ve grabbed the spoon out of Nechama’s hand and shooed her sisters out of the house.
Nechama slammed a bowl down on the table. Bits of oatmeal soared through the air. “Listen, I’m taking Zevi to the eye doctor. I trust you to figure it out.”
“Excuse me?!” Toby flared. “No thank you for your trust! I can’t be here, don’t you— hey, whatsamatter with your foot, Yael?”
Yael hobbled over to the sofa and collapsed into it. With her knee comfortably cushioned, she weighed her options: join the conversation or pretend she hadn’t heard a word? She had to make up her mind quickly.
“Tripped,” she explained. Then, taking the opportunity to stall, she said, “Wait, I forgot my phone. It fell out downstairs. Let me go get it.” Supporting her knee with her hands, she tried pulling herself up again.
“I’ll go get it for you,” Toby said. “Don’t get up. Just tell me where it is.”
“You sure?” she asked. “Thanks! It’s downstairs in the hallway, on the floor. The battery fell out.”
She eyed Toby thoughtfully as she strutted out of the apartment, shoulders stiffly raised. Then she turned to Nechama and tried catching her attention with her eyes so that Shimmy wouldn’t notice. It was no use. Nechama had turned back to the oatmeal and was shoveling overflowing spoonfuls into Shimmy’s mouth.
“I’m done,” Shimmy said, spittle sprinkling from his mouth. “Enough.” He wagged his floppy hand, motioning the plate away.
“You’re not done,” Nechama said impatiently. “You’ll be hungry soon. Come on, finish your food.”
The throbbing in Yael’s leg turned into a dull ache. She stood up and shuffled over to Shimmy.
“You’ll eat more later, Shim,” she said, coolly. “Nechama, come to the kitchen. I need to show you something.”
Nechama followed her out of the room. “What do you want to show me?”
“Nothing,” she said. “What’s the story with Kirk? Did Ma get through to him?”
“Yes. And guess why he quit? No pathetic story about hurting his back. He quit because Shimmy made him crazy, just like the past hundred nurses. Shimmy only wants his family around, and he gives these nurses a run for their money.”
Yael sank into a chair. “I’ll do the afternoon shift.”
“Uh… that’s good, I mean, thanks, but like, who’s going to be with your kids? And what did you call me to the kitchen for?”
“Reuven, it’s not a problem, and I called you here because Shimmy’s in the dining room. We shouldn’t talk about him when he’s around. It makes him feel stupid.”
“Oh, please. He’s so used to it.”
“Used to feeling stupid?”
Nechama rolled her eyes just as Toby walked into the kitchen, holding Yael’s phone. “What’s the meeting about?”
“Hey, thanks for my phone,” Yael said, reassembling it.
“Yael’s gonna do supper,” Nechama said.
“Oooh,” Toby sneered. “So you tattled on your sister and got little sis to save the day?” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
Yael cringed, staring at her phone.
“So not,” Nechama retorted. “She offered.”
Yael read a frantic text from Raizy Epstein, the school secretary. Miss Blau had left the wrong test with the sub, and she was getting married that night, what should they do?
Yael closed her eyes. She had to get to school quickly.
“Offered, right, sure,” Toby closed the open pantry door, hard. “Make me look like a heartless shrew, why don’t you. And you’re the noble big sister who bends over backwards for Shimmy. I know, I know. Tell me all about it.”
“Thanks for putting words into my mouth,” Nechama said stonily.
“Your thoughts are transparent. May as well spell it out.”
There was so much work waiting for her in school. Yael had developed a beautiful halachah curriculum over the summer. The girls had been studying all week for the halachah midterm, they were so driven to do well on this test. She had to come up with some sort of solution, a solution that would obviously require that she stay in school late.
Her sisters were still arguing. “If that’s the way you see it…” Nechama said.
Toby flung her arms down. “That’s the way it is. That’s how it always was.”
Plans whirred in her head. Babysitting, supper arrangements, review the teachers’ plan sheets for the week.
“I’ll be here,” Yael said firmly. “I offered.”
Toby didn’t react, as though she hadn’t heard her at all.
“I’m so done,” Toby said bitterly. “Maybe if I stop taking shifts and you’ll make Ma return and leave Tatty by himself so she could take care of Shimmy, you’ll feel better.”
She picked up her bag, glared at Nechama once more, and left.
Yael’s phone vibrated as she was picking out a custard donut for her brother from the bakery. Ma claimed Shimmy’s sugar consumption left him hyper and unable to focus, but Yael demurred. His face lit up every time she bought him a donut.
She reached for her phone.
Nechama. Her stomach tightened. Her sisters not being on speaking terms for over a week now made every phone call complicated.
The reception was bad. It took a few seconds for Nechama’s voice to stabilize.
“What are we doing about the wedding on Sunday?”
Wedding, wedding… oh right, the Sampson wedding in Monsey, Tante Henny.
“Uh… go? Write a check? I mean, what should we be doing about it? I’m still looking for a way to get the cheese babka delivered before Shabbos, if you know anyone going…”
“Tatty and Ma are going early. They want to leave the house four o’clock. I think the chuppah’s early.”
“Okay, so what’s the problem?”
Yael grimaced. Would her sisters ever stop calling Shimmy a problem?
“Shimmy’s not going along?”
“No, he says he’s not feeling well or something, I don’t remember.”
“He’s so cute. I love how he knows on Wednesday that he won’t feel well on Sunday. Well, anyway, so?”
“What so? It doesn’t look like the agency is sending a new nurse by Sunday. Someone has to go give him supper and get him into bed.”
“You’re asking if I can do it?”
“No,” Nechama said. “You obviously can’t miss the Sampson wedding.”
She was right about that. Yael was close with her Aunt Henny, and she had every intention of attending her daughter’s wedding. “So then?”
“So then nothing! I took Shimmy to his last three therapy sessions. Don’t you think I’m entitled to take a break and go to the wedding?”
Wasn’t everyone? Yael dropped the paper bag onto the checkout counter and sighed. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Tell her. When was the last time she dropped in to see Shimmy without it being her turn?”
Yael bit her lip as she fished for change in her pocket. Last night, she wanted to reply. I met her when I went over to print some stuff out for school in Tatty’s office, and to return the mixer bowl. But the visit had lasted all of seven minutes, and Nechama would surely squeeze that information out of her.
Nechama coughed, and Yael realized that she’d landed a job: coordinating the Shimmy-sitting schedule, clandestinely. She had no idea what to do about the Sampson wedding, but if Nechama wouldn’t even utter Toby’s name, she was doomed.
“So I wanted to talk to you about the upcoming Chinuch B’Yomeinu convention,” Rebbetzin Brunner said.
The principals of all the departments were sitting together for a meeting. Yael listened with interest. The chinuch convention was something she looked forward to every year, and this year, after all the stress with her father’s treatments and the impossible Shimmy-sitting arrangements, the convention would be an especially welcome getaway.
“I took care of the registration for all of you,” Rebbetzin Brunner said. “It’s going to be an extended weekend again, starting Thursday morning, May 27. I want to take a little time to discuss the program.”
She looked down at a pamphlet on her desk. “In addition to the regular speeches and workshops, Chinuch B’Yomeinu is doing an interesting project this year. A workshop, but more interactive, where they want to get input from various schools. The exact question they’re asking is, ‘What have you done with a standard learning subject to make it have an everlasting impact?’ They want contributions from everyone, so schools can network and share ideas that work.
“So I was thinking, Yael spent so many weeks preparing our new halachah curriculum, and we’re seeing tremendous results. The teachers and the students are both loving the program, and I feel like we’ve made a breakthrough in this arena. Does everyone agree?”
The women nodded. Yael’s face flushed.
“I’m sure all schools will want to share their material, but I think we have a solid product to offer. Let’s organize the material in a way that we can exhibit it clearly and attractively. I think we could—”
Yael’s phone beeped loudly. Her face reddened. She glanced at the screen, a message from Toby: Emergency!
She sucked in her breath and replied with a bunch of question marks.
Rebbetzin Brunner coughed. “Everything okay?”
“Um, yes, I mean…”
Was it Tatty? Did something happen?
Yael’s heart raced as she waited for Toby to respond.
Ma just called Shimmy fell at dayhab. Run over quickly ma gonna b there in 40 min. She’s leaving work now.
Her throat tightened as she glanced from her phone to Rebbetzin Brunner and back to her phone. The women were all staring at her. She stood up.
“I’ll be right back.”
Yael walked out of Rebbetzin Brunner’s office, thinking quickly. Where was Toby anyway? Can you go? she texted her.
At doc’s office with 3 kids.
Nechama. Well, duh, obviously. Her fingers felt like putty as she thumbed to her name. Hi, Nechama. Ma called that Shimmy fell. Possible for you to go over until she gets home?
It wasn’t the truth, but it also wasn’t a lie. Ma had called, just not her.
It felt like a leap year before Nechama responded. Can’t sorry. In the city. And a second later, Where is SHE???
The phone was getting clammy in Yael’s hand. There was no choice.
She gave a slight knock and walked back into the office. “I’m so sorry, everyone, something came up, I have to go,” she said quietly.
Rebbetzin Brunner nodded understandingly. But as Yael packed up her papers, listening to the meeting resume without her, she bit back tears.
This was her halachah program, her hard work.
Soooo??? Toby texted her.
Yael slipped on her jacket and replied. I’m on my way.
When Yael’s father felt good, he slipped right back into his fun Zeidy shoes. Only he could organize a grand family outing like this, on one of those blissful days in early spring.
Yael watched as her five-year-old Mindy ran over to Shimmy’s wheelchair and jumped onto the footrest. “I want a ride! Push me, Zeidy, but fast!”
Yael’s father laughed and zoomed around the picnic area with the wheelchair while Mindy shrieked in fear.
“My turn!” Benny shouted.
With the kids happily admitted into Zeide’s Amusement Park, Yael joined her mother at table. She darted a glance at her sisters. Toby was chasing kids, Nechama a safe distance away, checking her phone. Her mother popped open a jar of hot peppers.
“This is so healthy for Shimmy. He doesn’t get out enough, it affects his mood.”
“Yeah.” Yael bit into a pepper. “I can’t get him to crack a smile these days. Look at that — he’s having a blast with the kids.”
“You’re the only one who knows how to make him happy,” Ma said. “Even if giving him donuts is an awful idea, well… You’re so good to him. “
“He’s my only brother, after all.”
“He always asks for you, and that’s because you really get him. You treat him like a person.”
The warmth of the day filtered into Yael’s heart. Then a whistle shrilled and she looked up.
“Lunch!” her father announced, clapping his hands to summon everyone to the table.
The kids fought over seats. Toby sat down next to their mother, and Nechama was still wandering around. Yael looked around anxiously. Where would Nechama sit? Maybe, if she sat some kids around Toby…
Ugh. This was so awkward.
She stood up to go serve her kids. “Hey, Yael,” Nechama called as Yael reached for a pile of plates.
Nechama came closer and shot a glance over her shoulder. “I wanted to let you know that me and Effie are planning a vacation. Just for one week, but it’s during a round of treatment, so I want to know if you could please cover my shifts with Shimmy when I’m away.”
“Uh, I guess, and so nice about your vacation. Where are you going?”
“California. Palm Springs.”
“Ooh, the hot springs?! Cool!”
Yael chuckled. “So, when are you going?”
“In two weeks. We’re leaving on the 27th.”
It was as though clouds had settled overhead and the glorious day vanished.
“May 27?” she repeated vacantly.
“Yeah, why? Is that a problem?”
“Um, yes. I actually have a convention that weekend.”
“Yikes. No way. What do we do about that? Does your principal expect you to go?”
“I want to go.”
“Um, I get it. But like, you go every year, isn’t it like same old, same old? I haven’t gone on vacation in years, and this is the only time Effie could take off from work, because after that comes summer season, which is the season at work, and he really needs this break. He’s stressed out like anything.”
Yael turned and spied her brother-in-law forking salad into his mouth. He looked pretty chilled, at least from a distance.
“We can’t go away the same week,” Yael murmured. “Ma is relying on us.”
Yael’s father walked over to them.
“Hey!” he boomed. “Are you going to let your kids starve? Come on, let’s sit everyone down to eat.”
“Okay, we’re coming,” Yael said absently.
She glanced at Nechama. Her lips were twisted, her eyes slits of steel. She was staring at Toby.
That, Yael thought grimly, is definitely not an option.
Because asking Toby to fill in for both of them would mean declaring World War III.
Yael’s eyelids were closing, but she fought them. Her computer screen started blurring. Coffee was the only answer.
With less than a week to go before the convention, she’d lost track of the number of cups she’d downed that day. The halachah program had to be perfect, whether she was the one presenting it or not.
Reuven walked in from Maariv. “How’s it going?”
Yael looked up from her screen. “I’m so tired, I feel like I’m wasting my time shuffling stuff around the page.”
“My wife, the rebbetzin.”
“I am not a rebbetzin. I prepare lessons for teachers, yay.”
“Ouch, someone’s in a mood.”
Yael turned her chair to face Reuven. “I can’t believe I’m not going.”
Reuven shook his head. “I think you’re making a mistake. It isn’t fair.”
“What mistake? Do I have a choice? What am I supposed to do? It’s crazy that Shimmy refuses to sleep over in any of our houses, it’s crazy that we can’t keep a nurse or an aide, this is a ridiculous problem, I mean, not a problem, Shimmy is my brother, I owe it to him, but—”
She blinked. Tears stung her eyes.
“You don’t have to give up the convention,” Rueven reasoned. “You can talk to Toby — or rather tell Nechama to grow up and talk to Toby herself — and ask her if it’s possible for her to move in to your parents’ house for a few days. Why is everything falling on you?”
Why is everything falling on me, always?
“I can’t. This fight has turned into a monster, I can’t touch it.”
The coffee burned Yael’s throat. Nechama was off to Palm Springs, while she—
She was going to the convention. She had to, she just had to go.
It wasn’t her fault that his sisters were at war. Let them grow up and reconcile like mature adults and figure out a plan. Reuven was right. It wasn’t fair. She was always the one to give in, she had to consider her own needs now, she had no choice, she just…
Just nothing. She turned back to the computer, but the coffee’s magic failed her and she could barely focus enough to read the screen.
“So Nechama flies off to California and expects us to cover her shifts?”
Toby’s eyes sparked. Yael stood in the doorway of her parents’ apartment, holding the bag with Shimmy’s donut.
“Well, no,” Toby said. “If she wants me to do that, let her apologize. If she can’t do that, I can’t do this.” She gestured in Shimmy’s direction. Yael bit her lip.
“I can’t do this,” Toby repeated, and then she left, night shift completed.
Yael was helping her brother get into his jacket when Shimmy tapped her arm.
“You know, Yael?” he said. “I think Toby and Nechama are in a huge fight. But they’re not fighting with words. Is that a weird fight?”
“That’s true, Shimmy. It’s a very weird way to fight.”
“I hate when people fight. Also, the donut was delicious, and also, you’re the only one of my sisters who really likes me.”
Yael felt her throat tighten. “Aw, Shimmy. Everyone loves you, you’re the best!”
Shimmy frowned. “Are they fighting about me?”
“N-no. No, of course not. They’re not fighting about you.”
Yael leaned over to zipper the jacket when it hit her. It was the truth, wasn’t it? Were her sisters fighting about Shimmy — or was this whole mess because they couldn’t ever just talk to each other, couldn’t work through an issue like adults? She hung Shimmy’s backpack on his wheelchair. She hated when people fought, she was always the peacemaker, always trying to protect everyone… but here, was she really helping anyone?
Yael glanced at her watch — 8:45. She would have to wait another ten minutes for Shimmy’s van. And Nechama should be on her way to work, passing by any minute. Her last day before her grand vacation.
Yael called her. “Can you stop in here for a minute when you pass?”
“Okay. Anything up?”
She was there two minutes later.
“What’s the story?”
Yael looked her straight in the eye. “The story is this. I can cover for you all of next week while you’re away. But I’m going to present my halachah program at the convention tomorrow night.”
Nechama opened her mouth to say something, but Yael held up her hand. “I need you to work out arrangements while I’m away. Delay your trip if you wish — or talk to Toby. Your choice.”
Nechama stared at her.
“I need to take Shimmy down now. Figure out what you want to do.”
She wheeled Shimmy out, sat him in the stair lift. Nechama didn’t follow. Fine, so she was stupefied by her baby sister’s assertiveness, Yael could not find it in her heart to care. She was going. She was going.
At the bottom of the stairs, she settled Shimmy back into his wheelchair. Then she hurried down the hallway, yanked open the front door and walked straight into—
Breathe, slowly. Attagirl, Yael.
“I left my phone charger upstairs, just running in to get it.”
This was going to be a scene. Yael’s heart raced as she pictured Toby walking in on Nechama. There was going to be fireworks. She had to say something, keep Toby out of the house.
Toby swung a paper bag through the air.
“And Shimmy, guess what? I bought you a donut!” She winked. “Don’t tell Ma.”
Through the jumble in her head, Yael’s senses fought for control. Tell her. Tell her that Nechama is in there and that she should steer clear of the house to avoid the battleground.
“You all right?” Toby asked.
“Yes, yes. Just…”
A wind rattled past them, shaking the leaves on the trees. Branches swayed and a loose twig snapped and fell to the ground at Yael’s feet. Yael toed it away.
Over the rustling breeze, Ma’s voice echoed. You’re the only one who knows how to make him happy.
Only one. Only—
“Just?” Toby repeated.
And then, something jolted in her brain, like clouds parting to reveal wisps of sunshine. “Just nothing!” she blurted. “I think I see your van, Shimmy! Let’s go.”
Toby shrugged and headed into the house. Yael watched the door close, then exhaled slowly. There was no van in sight, and there was going to be a scene up there. Her sisters would accuse and argue and defend. Or they wouldn’t, maybe they’d finally get past it, but either way, it didn’t matter. Let Toby go in. It was time for this craziness to stop. It was time for her sisters to fight their own battles.
And it was time for Shimmy’s van to arrive. He was in a rush. And she had a halachah program to present.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 741)
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