Friday Night Poetry
I don’t know how long I’d been facedown on the bed when my fourteen-year-old son Jonathan came into my room.
“Mommy, are you okay?” he asked. I sat up on the bed and shook my head just enough to acknowledge his question.
“Is it grandma?” He had answered the phone when my mother called.
I nodded. My mother’s mean spirit was nothing new. We’d been through this before. He knew not to go on.
“Are you going to minyan?”
Every day since his bar mitzvah Jonathan had been attending our synagogue’s minyan. Most days he went in the morning before school. But on Fridays he went in the evening, for the more extended and better-attended Sabbath service. Before Jonathan’s interest in religious services sparked, I had never gone. But now I went almost every Friday as a way of spending time with him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said in a monotone. Jonathan stood in the doorway, but didn’t say anything. And when I turned away and stared ahead at the window in front of me he left, closing the bedroom door softly behind him.
I focused on a bare, skeletal branch stretching across the windowpanes in front of me. I was tired. So tired of everything. Tired of hating my mother.
I felt myself breathing in and breathing out. I pictured Jonathan standing alone at shul and wondered if he’d be worrying about me during the service, unsure of what he’d find when he came home. I was halfway up already, and decided to go. The service was only forty minutes and I could wallow in the synagogue almost as well as at home. Throwing my legs over the edge of the bed, I moved toward the closet, dropped my sweats and pulled on slacks and a sweater. Staring in front of me at the mirror, I blotted my eyes and nose with face powder and stepped back to see how I looked. My jaw was hanging and my eyelids, puffed from tears, were halfway shut. I was still at the mirror when Joseph, my twelve-year-old, walked in.
“Mommy, I think we have to put Whiskers to sleep,” his voice quivered.
Whiskers was Joseph’s four-year-old gerbil. Three months earlier, he had undergone surgery to remove a tumor on his right front paw. Two months after that, the tumor had reappeared. The vet told us that she could amputate but advised against it; Whiskers had already exceeded his two-and-one-half-year life expectancy, and even if he made it through surgery, his quality of life would be dismal with only three paws. She had suggested we take Whiskers home until the tumor became too cumbersome, and then put him to sleep. Joseph hadn’t been happy with her solution. He wanted to prolong his gerbil’s life. But reluctantly, because the vet had said it was best for Whiskers, he had agreed to take Whiskers home.
I looked at Joseph slouching in front of me. I looked at the clock. It was ten minutes before six. I grabbed the phone from the night table next to me and called the vet. If it had to be done, I didn’t want to prolong the ordeal until Monday. When the receptionist answered the phone, my voice faltered, and I slowed my words, hoping that concentrating on my annunciation would stifle my tears. But it didn’t, and gasps tumbled between my words. I felt out of control and embarrassed, crying over a terminal gerbil. But the receptionist was obviously in the right job. Without hesitating, she promised they’d wait for us even though the office closed in ten minutes. Dressed in my shul-clothes, I grabbed my coat, Joseph got Whiskers in his gerbil tank, and we rushed for the car.
Generally a haphazard driver, I concentrated on navigating the traffic’s rush hour knots. Beside me, in the passenger seat, Joseph was whimpering.
“Joseph, Whiskers has had a long and very good life. You loved him and took very good care of him.”
Joseph closed his eyes, nodded and swallowed a sob. “I know, Mommy. But it’s still sad. I’m going to miss him.”
“It is sad. It’s very sad. But he’s not going to know what’s happening. He won’t feel anything, Joseph. He’ll be sleepy, that’s all. We’re all going to miss him.”
Actually, I rarely saw Whiskers, whose home was a cage on Joseph’s bureau. Still, at that moment I really did think I would miss the little rodent. When Joseph had told me about Whiskers’ first tumor, three months earlier, I had felt compelled to take care of it immediately. When my children get sick I take them right to the doctor, and when I get sick on a weekend and my doctor says he’ll see me on Monday, I go to a hospital emergency ward. A creature’s health and comfort should not depend on someone else’s convenience. Whiskers was no exception.
Usually I catch only half of Joseph’s incessant chatter. But riding to the vet he sat frozen and silent, staring straight ahead through the windshield. I didn’t know what else to say and the rest of the fifteen-minute trip passed without another word.
There were only two cars in the parking lot outside the veterinarian's office. With a sympathetic smile, a woman in cranberry-pink scrubs greeted us from behind her counter.
“Have a seat. We’ll be with you in just a few minutes.”
Joseph and I sat down beside each other in the empty room. Holding Whiskers’ tank firmly on his lap, Joseph hunched forward and stared at the gray wall in front of him. I put my arm around him and massaged his shoulder. My hands and feet were cold, my shoulders tight, and I bounced my legs at fast-forward speed. The receptionist came to usher us to the examining room, and I pulled back, hesitating. But when Joseph jumped up, instinctively I followed.
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Jonathan Vatner on Mentsh
Our 670 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:
Two Incidents at the Cafe Kamienica
Whatever It Takes
Jews, Goddesses, and the Zohar