She stares at him, waits to feel angry, misunderstood. But she feels none of those. Because, the fact is, well, he’s right
he thing that no one tells you about having kids, Tammy thinks as she gently closes the bedroom door, is that you sign away your peace of mind. For, like, life.
She heads down the stairs and joins Daniel in the kitchen. His hat is still on; he must’ve just come home.
“Hey,” she says, smiling at him as she whisks his plate into the microwave and pours him a glass of Coke.
“Hey yourself,” he says, settling into a chair.
“What?” she asks self-consciously. She places two bamboo mats on the glass-topped dinette.
“Nothing. It’s just nice to be home.”
“Awww.” She’s gotten used to his open emotionality over the years, but it still sometimes catches her off guard.
She lays out two salad plates from her favorite Golden Rabbit set, and serves spinach leaves with shitake mushrooms.
The microwave beeps. Daniel gets there first.
“Can you sit?”
Tammy giggles. “So, best part of your day?”
Daniel sits down and lifts his fork. “Have I said ‘right now’ yet this week?”
Tammy rolls her eyes. “Yes, last night. You passed your quota for cheesiness.”
“Kay, so mussar seder, for sure. It just felt so alive today. Reb Yechiel was on fire.”
“That’s awesome.” When was the last time she felt she was on fire?
“Hmmm.” She mentally scrolls through her day as if it were an orderly Word document. “Bedtime,” she says decisively. “Shmu went to sleep so nicely; I was happy to see that chart trick working. Oh, and Mommy called today.” She changes the topic.
“Oh yeah? What’d she say?”
“Just wanted to tell me she’s so proud of me. Uh, did you tell your entire family about the new job?”
“Sure did! They’re all ecstatic. We’re officially the coolest Pressers now with you being an ER PA.”
Yeah right; it would take a lot more than that for her to be the coolest in his family. She’s more used to hearing words like “responsible,” “organized,” “perfectionist,” and the occasional “intimidating.”
She pushes away her plate as her stomach does a triple flip. “Uch, I’m nervous.”
Daniel raises his eyebrows. “You, nervous?”
Dessert is homemade ice cream. Her phone rings as Daniel loads the dishwasher.
The rich voice of Naomi, Daniel’s oldest sister, fills the room.
“Any other mother of three who decided to work three twelve-hour shifts, I’d tell her she was stark-raving mad. But you, you got this. How many Excel sheets have you drawn up?” Naomi laughs at her own joke. “You’ll be amazing, Tams. And we’re here if you need us!”
Daniel wiggles his eyebrows. “Excel sheets? You?”
Tammy laughs, but honestly, the answer is seven.
“Yes?” said Pooh.
“When I’m — when — Pooh!”
“Yes, Christopher Robin?”
“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”
Tammy lowers the book. Racheli is curled up on top of her blankets, thumb in mouth, curls askew. Shmu is tucked into his blankets so severely, you wonder how he got in in the first place. His eyes flicker. “What does it mean, Mommy? Why can’t Christopher do Nothing anymore?”
Tammy stares at him without really seeing. “Because, Shmu, when you’re bigger, there’s always what to do. Speaking of which…” She jumps to her feet and kisses his head.
“Got to switch the load in the washer to the dryer. Good night, sweet man.”
She pads down to the laundry room, the calming scent of laundry softener slowing her racing mind. D-Day is tomorrow. There are lists to be checked, clothes to be laid, lunches to be prepped.
“I have this,” she says aloud.
Her phone pings; a text from Sarele.
“Hatzlachah rabah on Day One, baby sister! You’re going to be amazing!”
Her phone pings again. Daniel’s mom.
“I’m proud of you, darling. Let me know what I can do to help, and the best of luck.”
Okay, someone obviously sent a private message to the whole family, and she suspects it was Naomi in the Library with a Candlestick.
But still, the support is sweet if startlingly rare. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Good luck, Tams! You’re going to crush it!” Naomi again.
Well then. Nothing boosts self-doubt like the knowledge that if you fail, you fail your entire family.
And with that comforting thought, she heads to the kitchen to make a week’s worth of packed lunches.
The hospital building is blue in the early morning light. The steering wheel is slick under her hands, and after swinging into a parking spot, she turns off the car and just sits. She’s early, and that means more time for nerves. What if she gets fired on her first day? What if she kills someone? What if she kills everyone? What if she forgets everything she’s ever learned and just starts making Excel sheets about how to store the hospital bedding? Hey, she really could.
Okay, 6:46. Time to enter. Move, feet, she commands silently. She slips on her white coat, opens the car door, and she’s off. Tammy Presser, mom of three, ER PA at your service.
She makes it to her work station after only two stops into the bathroom. One was to call Daniel and tell him she can’t do this, she’s coming home, and the second was to call Daniel and remind him to hairspray Shmu’s peyos so they stay behind his ears. But now she’s at her station, clocked in, eyes on the tracking board.
She’d met most of the team at training, Alyssa and Jared have already come over to say hi and Dr. Lazarus made her feel great by describing her excitement to have Tammy on the team. She’ll meet the nurses later. Now it’s time for Patient Zero.
Grady, Harrison comes in with a cold.
Her brain freezes.
Her knowledge takes over. He has left- sided chest pain. She checks his vitals, performs the exam. Pneumonia?
Calling Alyssa, she sends him for a chest X-ray, and it returns positive for infiltrates; it’s pneumonia. Whoo!
He leaves with the nurses, she signs her name on the record, her handwriting smooth and confident, her heart pounding.
Marl, Sandra comes in, accompanied by her husband. Tammy goes through the routines of the physical, then freezes.
“You can’t lower your chin to your chest?” she repeats. “Just do it like this.” She tucks her chin down, but Sandra is unable to mimic her. Meningitis. Her hand is shaking, she needs it to stop if she’s going to perform a lumbar puncture without tapping the spinal nerve. She takes a giant cleansing breath and gently squeezes Sandra’s hand. She’s got this.
Weber, Thomas’s asthma attack is followed by Miller, Chaiky, so that’s a nice change of pace.
“How old are you, Chaiky?”
“Four.” The blonde pigtails are so different from Racheli’s dark curls, but she’s still reminded of her own little girl.
“And your tummy hurts?”
Probably a stomach virus but worth checking into.
The hours pass, and before she knows it, Dr. Lazarus is telling her to go grab lunch.
The morning is gone, half her first day over.
Salad in hand, she heads to the break room to call Daniel. Alyssa is there with Mari, a sweet nurse with an amazing bedside manner.
“There’s the super star!”
Tammy looks around, confused, and raises her eyebrows at Alyssa.
Alyssa grins over her yogurt. “You were on fire out there.”
Tammy thinks about being on fire, about Daniel’s mussar seder the other night, about feeling alive.
“Well, you know, first day, need to prove myself.”
But inside, she has a feeling that Alyssa’s right. Here in the ER, she can be a superstar.
She’s home by seven thirty.
“Are they still up?” she asks Daniel breathlessly.
“Well, hello to you too, Madame PA. Racheli is not, Shmu is, Penina just went in with a bottle.”
She waves to him apologetically and flies up the stairs.
“Shmu?” Her whisper is loud, and for a moment she’s scared she’s woken him, but then two black eyes gleam out of the darkness and her heart melts. Finally. She’s home.
“Mommy? You home from work?”
“Yes, sweetie. You said Shema already?”
“Yeah, with Daddy. Mommy, can you read me Pooh?”
“I’d love to, Shmu. But I need to go say hi to Daddy. How was it today, without me?”
Please have missed me, please.
“Good. Daddy was here. And Hashem.”
“So true, Shmu. Love you!”
“That kid is something else,” she says, coming down the stairs. She’s suddenly so tired, her eyelids hurt.
“He is,” Daniel agrees. “So is his mom.”
She smiles, but she feels empty. She needs to sleep, recharge.
“I made you supper.”
Sleep can wait. She follows him into the kitchen.
She’s never been much of a park person, there’s always too much chaos and noise and whining. And that’s just the mothers.
She smiles at her own snobbiness as she settles onto a bench. There was a younger Tammy, a less jaded one, who embraced social scenes, who looked for friendships at every Chuck E Cheese.
Yet the fact is that she intimidates other women. Never on purpose, never intentionally. But most women just don’t appreciate her fastidiousness. And after a while it stopped hurting and just became a part of life. Besides, she has her sister and sisters in law and they’ve stuck around long enough to realize that there’s more to Tammy than labeled pantries and rigid schedules, even if they’re not all BFFs.
But in the month since she began her work in the ER, she’s been feeling nostalgic for the park, for regular Mommying moments like pushing swings and wiping dirty hands.
She sits on a bench, sunglasses down, observing. Then Shmu is hungry, Racheli wants to play on the jungle gym, and Penina needs a sun hat. She lifts her sunglasses onto her sheitel, stands up, and life slides back into focus. She missed this, real life, small things.
Chevy Stauber waves. Dassy Lerner comes over to discuss ER life. Bailey Landau joins them. They’re impressed. She feels it. And, she thinks, as she pushes Racheli on the swing, she hates it.
She’s not surprised when five minutes later, they’re all seated at their usual picnic table, and she’s alone, as usual. Well if she can’t be popular, at least she can be so wildly successful it won’t matter.
“I literally sit in my car for ten minutes every morning, stressing over what the day will bring.”
“Oh, same,” Mari agrees.
Tammy throws her latte cup in the garbage and tries to sneak out of the call room before she’s asked to join the insecurity party.
“Tam!” Mari calls.
“How long do you mess-stress before entering our hallowed establishment?”
She smiles at them.
“Eh, mess-stress isn’t my thing. I’m more of a jump-right-in kind of girl.”
No need to tell them about her first day at the job jitters, all those months ago. They’d only been just that. Since that day, she jumps out of her car and practically skips with anticipation into the austere building.
She waits for the rolled eyes and snide looks she’s so used to, but they don’t come.
“Nice,” Alyssa says, high fiving her.
“Major goals,” Mari chimes in. And that’s it.
“It’s like,” she tells Daniel later, “someone finally thinks my personality not only isn’t flawed, but ideal!”
Daniel looks at her, expressionless. “I’ve always thought you were ideal.”
She grins at him and checks her work phone. The ER chat is blowing up with a conversation about overtime. She wouldn’t mind doing some overtime, making a little extra.
Racheli comes in, babbling. She scoops her up and puts her back in bed. She should really sit with her, have some private time. But her bed is calling… and Dr. Lazarus has just joined the chat, and she really wants to see what she has to say.
She plants a kiss on Racheli’s forehead and walks away. Tomorrow.
“Chazak, chazak, v’nischazeik, my mother baked a chocolate cake and in the cake there was a rake and on the rake there was a snake, chazak, chazak, v’nischazeik!”
Shmu cracks up, absolutely certain that he’s just shared a brand new limerick with his parents.
Tammy chokes back her laugh.
“Wow, Shmu, that song is hilarious! Are you making a siyum?”
“Yes! On Perek Aleph! We need to wear Shabbos clothing and bring in nosh. Mommy! Can you make a chocolate cake, like in the song?”
Tammy thinks about a chocolate cake, and how if she wasn’t working, she’d probably even make a little fondant snake with a rake to perch in the icing and how Daniel would send all his sisters pictures and they’d all shake their heads and say, “That Tammy’s something else.”
But she is working, and she’s tired, and frankly, baking a gourmet cake for a bunch of six-year-olds doesn’t hold much appeal when there are a week’s worth of lunches and dinners to make.
“Sorry, Shmu. Daddy will take you to the store to pick out a nosh, kay?”
“I will?” Daniel asks, blinking, as Shmu pouts.
“Do you mind? I’m bombed. And I have a cooking marathon ahead, and I wanted to reread some of my textbooks, brush up on some topics.”
From the looks of it, Daniel did mind. Very much so. But she needed his help. He’d have to understand.
She shrugs and doesn’t meet his eyes.
Langer, Marty had been sitting there for a while before she has a chance to examine him for his complaint of dizziness.
She smiles at the older man and begins to check his vitals.
Something is wrong. The hair rises on her neck. How one earth did the nurses miss this? He’s a stroke-risk!
She wipes her forehead with a shaking hand.
“I need labs for Mr. Langer. I’ll page it, and call down to CT, STAT.” Her voice is shaking. She makes an effort to strengthen it.
He can’t stroke on her, she’s not ready for this.
The CT is performed with record speed. She finds Dr. Lazarus, and they bend over the screen. Yes, the radiologist has initiated a stroke protocol.
Her stomach erupts in belated butterflies. She’d been right.
“Good work, Presser,” Dr. Lazarus pats her elbow approvingly. “Saved the day on this one.”
She wouldn’t say “save the day.” Okay, fine, she kind of would.
She knows she’s bustling, but she can’t help it, there are five patients left on her track and she needs to leave to PTA in an hour.
She could make an effort to slow down.
“Patient had sinus congestion for two days with no fever, so I sent them home with Flonase and a prescription for pseudoephedrine, no antibiotics needed,” she says aloud to Alyssa. Then, in a whisper, “Should I slow down?”
Alyssa looks at her like she’s grown three heads. “Girl, if you can go faster, I’d give you my blessing.”
Tammy blinks. Oh, she can go faster. She can always go faster.
She makes it to PTA by the skin of her teeth, Daniel is sitting on the side, falling asleep over a sefer.
“Hey, you,” she calls.
He startles awake. “You made it.”
She’s not sure if she should be insulted by his surprise. She chooses not to be.
“Baruch Hashem! Patient was coding, but he’s stable. Are we next?”
Daniel looks at his watch. “Yep. We’re at 8:05. The eight o clock is in there now.”
Tammy blinks. “Five minutes! The slots are five minutes? Uch, Daniel, it’s not real PTA. I can’t believe I rushed back for five minutes of pleasantries.”
She would’ve kept kvetching but her husband was looking at her like he’d never seen her before and it was unnerving.
The sizzle of onions has always made her feel domestic, and these past five years, being a homemaker, she’s had her share of domesticity. But now, even homemade onion dip holds no appeal.
Peace-loving, unflappable Daniel is upset. Tammy sighs and tucks a strand of hair back under her tichel. Why can’t life balance as neatly as an Excel spreadsheet? Why is it that when one thing straightens, another seems to fall?
Work is amazing. She’s amazing at work. But home…
A round of coughing breaks through the monitor. Tammy watches Cheli until she falls back asleep. Daniel had done bedtime; they’re down to the last page in Pooh, apparently. She’d been too tired to read, too antsy. There was so much to do on her non-work days, the lists were endless. Sitting with Shmu, answering his questions… it takes a lot out of her. More than she has right now.
Daniel comes in, blinking in the light.
“When you coming to sleep?”
She smiles at him coolly. “Oh, soon. Figured I better cook up a storm if I don’t want another guilt trip about poor priorities.”
He looks sheepish, or maybe it’s the pajamas and slippers.
“Tam, I’m sorry I gave you a hard time. It’s just… ever since you started your job… I’ve kind of felt like I’m boring you. Like we are boring you.”
Tammy blinks. The onions are burning but she doesn’t shut the flame.
Daniel shrugs. “It’s how I feel.”
She stares at him, waits to feel angry, misunderstood. But she feels none of those. Because, the fact is, well, he’s right.
Shabbos morning, she stands in front of her mirror. It’s always been hard for her, to get all dressed up without putting on makeup. But there’s something freeing about it. She blinks; good, she still has some mascara on.
You find your husband boring, she tells her reflection. She lowers her eyes in shame, then opens them wide.
But I gave him my all these past five years, since completing PA school, she says to herself, indignantly. I was there, every meal, every Shabbos, every date night, every simchah.
Why can’t I live for myself now a bit?
Why can’t I just do what I’m good at, to actually help people with my abilities instead of being known for the city’s most organized playroom and most regulated children?
Why is that wrong?
But her reflection doesn’t have the answers any more than she does.
She does overtime on Monday and gets paid time and a half. It feels good, really good. Not the money, but the fact that she can be useful past twelve-hour shifts.
She misses Cheli’s Tu b’Shevat performance for it. Why on earth do they schedule these things smack in middle of the work day? Not everyone is a stay-at-home mommy. Cheli hands her a little tree with a photograph of her smiling beatifically at the camera, her bow crooked in a way that will drive Tammy crazy for all eternity, and a quote that says, “Watch Me Blossom and Grow.”
She kisses Cheli, apologizes for missing the play, and wonders what on earth is wrong with her.
They finish Pooh that night. She reads it aloud, slowly, savoring each word, loving them, hating them, the way they make her throat close up and her eyes sting.
“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me. Not even when I’m one hundred.”
Shmu’s eyes are huge, Cheli’s asleep, wearing her Tu b’Shevat crown.
His little hand reaches out to hers; they clutch each other as she reads the last words of a boy bidding his childhood goodbye.
“…and in that enchanted place on top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
She closes the book.
“I don’t understand,” he whispers.
I do, she thinks, sniffing. I do.
Daniel has been her only true best friend, ever. Would he know what to say?
He’s too hurt, too nogeiah bdavar.
But as always, he surprises her.
“It makes sense, Tam.”
She looks at him, sitting in the passenger seat of her van, clutching the cappuccino she’d brought him, knowing he’s itching to go back into seder, yet knowing without a doubt that at the same time, there’s no place he’d rather be than right here in the car with her.
“You’ve always been so talented, so gifted. And while it’s nice to have an orderly home or color-coded closets, you’re too smart to be content with that. And you thrive at the ER. You’re exactly what they need.”
She laughs a little, a dry brittle sound.
“I told the same thing to the girl in the mirror,” she says.
Daniel raises his eyebrows. “Well, did she tell you that great minds think alike?”
Tammy looks at him.
“No. She told me I need to quit the ER.”
He looked so shocked, it’s almost comical.
“There’s an Urgent Care position open, hours ten to two, five days a week. Nice, easy, a little pink eye, some strep throat to keep things exciting.”
Her voice is coming out dry, brittle. Other girls would cry. Not Tammy. She just imagines all those who’ll gloat, the park moms, her sisters–in-law, all those who’ll nod knowingly about overextending oneself and “a mother’s place is at home.”
“You’ll be great at it,” he says automatically. “It’s going to be the most efficient Urgent Care in the Tristate area. But I don’t understand.”
“I know,” Tammy says. She takes a deep breath, lets it fill her, thinks about an efficient Urgent Care. The image isn’t terrible. “You don’t understand, because you’re soft and kind and have genuine priorities. For me, it’s always been about doing more, doing my best. And now, for the first time, my best is taking me too far. Far away from the kids, far from their childhoods. Far away from you. Don’t try to persuade me just to be nice. I need to do this. We both know it.”
Daniel looks at her, and for once she doesn’t ask what he’s staring at. For once, she feels like she deserves for him to look at her like that.
“Thank you,” he says simply.
And right then, for the next few moments, it’s enough for her.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 738)
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