The house was still vibrating.
The last child had left, pulling behind her the last semi-rolling duffel with her brothers’ leather belts supporting its girth. Inside her hipsterish-looking bag she packed the remaining camp towels – tossing the one we shook out to discover a terrycloth frame with the two of us looking through at each other, crying with laughter, as only camp packing at 2am can make you do.
Since the birth of our first child, this was the first time the stars had aligned leaving my husband and I the only ones at home. The oldest three were now married, the next one in New York, the twins touring Israel and Europe, another in Sydney, and the youngest two off at camp.
Even the opossum had packed out.
“Why didn’t you tell someone when you saw an opossum go upstairs?”
“Oh Maman, you should have seen how cute he looked – first he pulled his front end up a step and then wiggled his back half to join it, then stretched his little feet to the next step….” The two sisters gushed in agreement.
“Can’t you just scream like regular girls? He scared me silly in the hallway.”
The grey headed rat-like creature was pacing back and forth outside the twins bedroom, confirming both of our suspicions – there was snacking going on in there. My chivalrous husband heard my gasp, got up and chased the opossum downstairs where he took up residence under the bookcase, appearing nightly to flash his shark-like smile.
“Isn’t he sweet looking?” my husband asked. I must have missed something.
Our opossum must have been lonely for the liveliness of our nighttime crew who wrote books and papers, built computer games, and booked rooms in castles throughout Europe, while they created incredibly aromatic snacks throughout the night. When my neighbor reported finding an opossum in her garbage, “…really Faig, no kidding?” I realized we were actually alone.
I remember contemplating just this scenario with a four-year-old I had pulled from the tub: “Maman…” she looked up at me with her deeply concerned eyes peeking out from the towel, “…soon I’m going to go to school. And then my brother is going to go to school. And then…” the tears began to fall, “…you’re going to be… all by yourself!” We held each other and cried – her tears over the sadness of my impeding loneliness, mine from the sensitivity of this magical child. She then looked up hopefully: “I’m going to pray for another baby so you won’t be alone.” I was soon enjoying the company of another child, my imminent loneliness postponed for a few more years.
But this was no time for sudsy reminiscing. The first child was due back in three weeks, and after an intense year of marrying off three kids, starting a new business and the general chaos of a supersized life, we were ready to embrace the opportunity that G-d had moved heaven and earth to create.
We let the children know that this was our time to recharge, reconnect, play, and perhaps enjoy a little quiet. We then made some humble plans – we would breathe deeper, and maybe sit on the couch again. We would finish sentences, and cook small portions of food. We would put aside anything that could wait, clearing the decks for time together in the evenings.
We adventured with the children through their photos and comments posted daily on the family WhatsApp, laughing, missing them, and in awe of all they were doing. We in turn posted our own photos of biking, scouting out new places, feeding potato chips to the geese, and long meals with weird healthy foods. We were enjoying that playfulness that came with less apparent obligations. But the quiet… it never really came.
“I was thinking of visiting this Shabbos,” said a child looking forward to the opportunity to being just the three of us, and feeling a little badly that we were all alone. A sweet and tempting offer.
“Are you guys coming for visitor’s day?” said the next child who called.
There were tummy aches in Europe, advice for couples just settling in, and unscheduled calls home from camp that we needed to monitor our phones for. We would get ready for sleep and someone would need to talk. And when would our new daughter go into labor anyway? It was all the greatest privilege and we loved being wanted, involved and valued. However, alone was getting busier than… not alone.
In an attempt to regain the dream, we posted on the family WhatsApp: Emergencies only. And that’s just what we got.
After our new grandchild arrived, we decided to take a few days away, leaving our not-so-quiet, quiet home. After some boating, hot dogs, and time spent on Visitors’ Day with our son, we set our GPS to our hotel. We were routed north near where we live, and then south again to our destination. We rerouted and got the same directions. We even tried another program but could not get a direct route. Alas.
It was late as we passed near our home and we decided to stay for the night, setting out again in the morning. When I awoke, I found my husband downstairs feeling just not quite right. We decided to stay around and see where it went.
As the day progressed, so did his uncomfortable feeling. “Smile for me,” I asked him. Although his crooked smile was charming, a quick call to our doctor confirmed it, “Take him in right away.”
My husband was quickly hooked up to tubes and machines. The doctors spoke as they wheeled him out of his room, “We’re going to take him for a CT scan to make sure he’s not having a brain bleed.”
Think good, it will be good. I ran out to the parking lot to get clarity and better reception, and got on the family WhatsApp. I explained the situation to the children as clearly and gently as I could. One by one they answered the plea: “Okay, we are splitting up the book of tehillim. “I’ve got the first portion, who wants the next?” I watched as the children awoke in their different time zones and got on board with all they had to offer. They posted their father’s name on their numerous WhatsApp groups, asking for prayers and deeds of kindness in his merit. Letters went to the Ohel pleading for protection. One son found a chosson going to his chuppa, while another found a kallah to petition the heavens. One child hoping to surprise us was on her way home when she awoke to the news: “I’ll be there soon.” Those kids were a force to be reckoned with, storming the heavens while calming and comforting, building strength for us both. No, we were really not alone.
With tests reviewed and medications dispensed, we were given the diagnosis: Bell’s Palsy, an inflammation of a nerve in the face, a condition that mimics the symptoms of a stroke. He was going to be okay. Baruch Hashem! We needed to stabilize his vitals before he would be released, but a few weeks of non-inflammatory eating, lower stress, more prayer, and he would be back to himself.
I layered a warmed blanket on my husband, and wrapped myself in one as well. As I took my post at the side of his bed, I listened to the beeps of the sensors, watching his vitals stabilize and his body relax into a deep sleep. I thought about our children, grateful for each one, and all the courageous things they had done to help – the doctors, the nurses, even the GPS that would not allow us to venture too far. I thought about my husband and how grateful I was to have him in my life. We sat this way in the calm and quiet for hours, with feelings of gratitude filling the space.
“It’s a shame you and Daddy never got to go away this summer,” one child remarked. Our goal for our getaway, and the three weeks we had been gifted, was to clear a space so that we could see each other without distractions, to reconnect to the priority of each other in our lives – to reconnect to each other. What we had not accomplished in three weeks, G-d had arranged to happen in a moment.
“Would you like to join us for dinner?” we offered the child who had come home.
“That’s okay. I don’t really like steamed beets, carrots, or beans. Mind if I eat at a friend’s?”
So once again, it was just the two of us.
Excerpted from the book, “Kugel, Chaos & Unconditional Love”, by Chana Gittle Deray, a visually rich and humorous collection of stories on family life, marriage, growth, female empowerment, gratitude and faith, written by a mother of 9 children. chanagittlederay.com