The vet scooped the scurrying Whiskers out of his tank and cupped him in her hands. Whiskers was trembling. Rubbing the back of his head with her index finger and cooing down at him, the vet fingered his right paw and manipulated the tumor. Her manner was calm and her gentleness, lulling. I hoped she’d look up at us and have another option. But she didn’t.
“You’re right, Joseph. Whiskers’ tumor is growing rapidly, now. It’s getting awkward for him to move with it.” The vet was a petite woman, around thirty, and still stroking Whiskers’ head, she had stooped down a notch to be eye level with Joseph.
“He’s had a very good and very long life. He’s won’t feel any pain. His life will be good until the very end, and he’ll be very happy in heaven.”
Joseph nodded. His body was locked, with his eyes focused on Whiskers who was clasped in the vet’s hands. The vet smiled at me sadly, and left, taking Whiskers with her. When the door closed behind her, Joseph spun around and threw himself into me, burrowing his head in the bosom of my down jacket. We held onto each other and cried. It was Joseph who first moved away. He wiped his eyes on the sleeves of his jacket until I found a box of Kleenex behind the examining table. After many Kleenex and as many deep breaths, we decided we were composed enough to make it through the waiting room without crying.
We raced to the car, slammed the doors, looked at each other, and the tears started again. I leaned toward Joseph, putting one arm on his shoulders and stroking his hair with the other. The vet and the receptionist walked by, smiled at us and got into their cars. I keep a box of Kleenex on the car floor and Joseph and I passed it back and forth.
The traffic on the street and sidewalk had quieted, but neither of us moved. We cocooned in our car, camouflaged by the dark. Joseph and I held hands, me squeezing his and then he squeezing mine. With each clench I took a deep breath, trying to exorcise a piece of the despondency that had raided my guts.
“Do you want to go get another gerbil, Joseph?” I asked after a while. There was a pet store ten minutes away and I thought a new gerbil might lessen Joseph’s grief.
“Mommy, no,” he answered, jolted by my callousness. “I can’t just replace Whiskers with another gerbil.” I smiled at him, moved by the depth of his feelings.
Finally, we drove home. The house was dark when we pulled into the garage. I turned off the ignition but neither of us moved to get out of the car. We sat there, weeping. The garage lights flicked off.
“Mommy, are you crying about Grandma?” Joseph asked in a soft, unwavering voice.
“Yes, Joseph. I’m crying about Whiskers and Grandma and all the sad things that have happened because of her. It’s never going to stop, and it hurts me so much.”
He reached across the front seat and put his hand in mine. “Mommy, we’re your family now, and we love you.”
His words deepened my sobs, and tightening the wrap of my hand around his, I closed my eyes.
“Let’s go inside,” I said, opening the car door, finally.
No one else was home. My husband Andy was still at work, Jonathan was at synagogue, and eight-year-old Josh was at a friend’s house. Joseph and I went upstairs. He dragged his sleeping bag onto my bed and turned on the television, while I flicked on my electric blanket, put on my pajamas and slid between the warming sheets. The newspaper was on my lap but I didn’t try to read. I turned toward Joseph and watched him. He lay on his stomach, his head and arms sticking out from beneath his magenta sleeping bag. He had propped his head on upturned hands for a television view unobstructed by the footboard. His favorite stuffed animal, a five-year-old white tiger, nestled between his anchored elbows. He didn’t fidget or glance about. His body was still, but not stiff.
“Joseph, how are you doing? Do you want to talk? ”
“Mommy, I’m sad, but I’m okay.” He sounded matter-of-fact. Joseph had Andy’s combination of sensitivity and strength, and my ongoing, involuntary worries about my children’s futures subsided for the moment. I smiled at Joseph and he smiled at me.
“Joseph, do you want to say kaddish for Whiskers?”
A Jewish but non-observant acquaintance had once told me that when her son’s hamster died, they had said kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead. On my own, I would have never thought of saying kaddish for an animal, and when she told me about it, I couldn’t decide if the image of her and her son standing in their garden praying for the newly buried hamster pleased or reviled me. I hadn’t given it any thought since then, but that evening I decided that, right or wrong, if Joseph thought it would help him, we’d do it for Whiskers.
“Mommy, I think that would be sacrilegious and cheapen it, don’t you?” he turned to me, not smiling and looking surprised that I asked the question. I hadn’t realized that he even knew the meaning of sacrilegious, or kaddish. But I realized that I agreed with him.
Leaning back against the headboard of my bed, I stared at the outside blackness framed by the white windowpanes. My worries about Joseph were dissipating. But rising to fill the space was the despair that had invaded me two hours earlier. It marked its territory inside me with a thud, like a bowling ball had been dropped into my stomach.
I heard doors opening and slamming downstairs. One by one, Jonathan, Josh and Andy bounded into the bedroom looking for us, each of them stopping in the doorway when they saw Joseph and me in bed. They collected around us, their pre-weekend excitement dimming as they listened to our story.
Earlier in the day I had prepared dinner, and the smell of the baking chicken wafted into the bedroom and spurred Andy downstairs to pull the meal together. Josh and Jonathan sprawled on the floor to watch the network news. Joseph got down to join them, leaving me alone on the bed. When the news was over the three boys straggled out of the bedroom.
“Shut the door on your way out,” I called, turning onto my stomach and dropping my head to the pillow. The light from my bedside lamp passed through the veil of my closed eyes and jarred me. I wished I had turned it off, but I didn’t have the fortitude to pull out my arm from under me and click it. Instead, I turned my head.
I heard the bedroom door open and felt a muffled bounce ripple across the mattress. I knew it was Andy sitting beside me on the bed.
“Will you turn off the light?” I asked without turning to look at him.
“Come on Sarah, it’s time for dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’ve got to eat.”
I rolled my head to the other side. Gazing at the eye-level redness of the cherry night table beside the bed, I told Andy about the phone call from my mother.
“Forget about her. We’ll work things out without her.”
But it wasn’t the fear of not working things out that had sunk me. My mother’s guerilla warfare - sometimes all-out offensives, other times minor ones - was wearing me down. Andy and I had been married nineteen years, and if my family traumas wearied and pained him, he had the advantage of not taking the attacks personally.
I remembered the time that Whiskers and his mate had babies. Within hours all that was left of the newborns were the carcasses. Later, the pet store owner told us that gerbils eat their young, and Andy had noted the not-so-dissimilar behavior in my family.
Ten years earlier Andy, then an assistant professor at Harvard, had been denied tenure and we were forced to relocate from Boston, where we had lived three miles from my parents. The day we moved into our Philadelphia house I called my mother.
“I never imagined I would someday live in such a beautiful house,” I said, unable to hide that I was crying. “But I would rather live in a hut if I could be near you.”
There was a thud. She had hung up. I called her back.
“Do you think I have nothing else to do but worry about you?" she said, and then hung up, again. She refused to talk to me for six weeks.
It happened a lot. Without any explanation or discussion, she would stop speaking to me. And when she was ready to resume, she would return one of my many phone calls and demand an apology. It was years before I would understand that when it came to my mother, my behavior and intentions were irrelevant.
“Eat without me,” I said, dismissing Andy from my bedside. “And turn off the light.”
“Look Sarah, you’ve got to come down. It’s not fair to the boys. Get up and I’ll put dinner on the table,” he said from the door.
Like a facedown Egyptian mummy, my crisscrossed arms hugged my straight, stiff body and I didn’t move.
Dan Friedman & David Zellnik
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A Jewish Perspective on the Museum of the American Indian
with Esther Nussbaum on Yad Vashem
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Jonathan Vatner on Mentsh
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