the story of Marcia Ferstenfeld
As my daughter grew close to delivering our first grandchild, it became important to have her and her husband stay with us over Shabbos. If you’re not part of the observant community this isn’t an issue. But if you are, as she is and as I and my husband have become by extension, you understand that this one chance in seven occurrence means no phone calls can be made to expectant family members. Their staying with us meant that if Bethie went into labor on Shabbos, we would know right away.
As it so happened, during the wee hours of a June Saturday morning, Bethie did go into labor. My husband and I stayed behind while our son-in-law took our daughter to the hospital (another Shabbos restriction — only one person is allowed to accompany the laboring mother to the hospital.) We were consumed with frustrated glee awaiting the phone call telling us of the birth of our first grandchild.
My daughters’ choosing observant life altered so many of the anticipations I’d had of being a Jewish mother and grandmother. Kids and grandkids around my table Friday night, Passover Seders in our home, taking everyone out to restaurants to celebrate birthdays, good report cards, graduations. I gladly kashered my kitchen so that everyone was comfortable eating with us during the week, but practically speaking Shabbos was out. My husband and I were only occasionally willing to observe in the way that my daughter and son-in-law did — entering into a 26 hour period from sundown to sundown during which turning on a reading light, adjusting the oven temp for dinner or the room thermostat for comfort were forbidden. As Beth’s due date drew near, we were more than willing to make the accommodations.
Long before becoming a grandmother or even a mother-in-law, I had developed my own sense of spirituality and religiosity. Then, as young adults, my daughter Lisa moved towards living a frum life, Bethie following later in her wake. Amy, our middle daughter, remains committed to the Reform values she was raised with. Lisa’s and Bethie’s choices threw a monkey wrench into my devotion to ritual and observance.
If the path two of my daughters and their husbands were following was purported to be the right way, where did that leave me? Where it left me was challenged to allow them the space to live their own lives. It left me feeling like a woman in a Botero painting — huge and overblown, expanding beyond all normal parameters. And just as I thought I had made every possible accommodation to their lifestyle, my expectations of being close at hand while my daughter was in the labor room, of holding my grandchild moments after birth, now went out the window, too.
But soon enough, Arianna, in Hebrew, Emunah, was born. Beth and Riffy agreed to have a non-Jewish nurse call and leave the good news on our answering machine if we promised not to pick up the receiver — another Shabbos prohibition. We listened to the joyous news on the machine barely able to contain ourselves. Come sun down we tore to the hospital and finally held our granddaughter. All frustration melted the minute I held that tiny being; my heart swelled as I breathed in her new baby smell.
A few months after Emunah’s birth, Beth’s husband, Riffy, was stricken with leukemia. Six years before their wedding he had been diagnosed with and survived a bout with aplastic anemia. Bethie was sure he would make it once again. But it wasn’t to be. Despite our prayers, despite all the doctors’ care, despite even the bone marrow transplant from nine-month old Emunah, Riffy suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died.
We had gone to Boston that spring for the transplant. Pesach fell while Riffy was in the hospital for the procedure and during the Seder, Bethie stunned us with the news that she was newly pregnant with their second child. Their enormous love for each other and immutable faith that Riffy would recover must have tipped the scales for them to try and conceive while there was still a chance. I still see my daughter standing by her husband’s bedside, fragile, slender, beautiful, struggling to accept the most horrible truth imaginable. Just 22, she returned home from Boston to bury her husband and live nearby while she completed her pregnancy.
I don’t know if the pregnancy helped or forestalled Beth’s healing, but I know she couldn’t allow herself to dissolve into grief. She needed to persevere for the baby she was carrying and for the child she was raising. It was good that she had her mothering to do because it gave her a purpose in life. At a time when she might have doubted the purpose of living, there she was living life in every intensity — feeling the baby kick inside of her, chasing an active toddler all over the house, in the back yard and through the park near our home.
And while Bethie could throw herself into mothering to hold at bay her pain and grief, my mothering instincts were completely sidelined. If I moved to hug my daughter, she would go stiff on me. If I tried to reach out, she would shut down. I desperately wanted to scoop up my little girl and comfort her, but she would turn her face, hold her arms to her sides, and resist me.
Struggling to understand, I came to realize that if she had allowed herself to take in my comfort she would have fallen apart. And she didn’t dare. Her own vulnerability was too terrifying; she couldn’t be a daughter because she had to be a mother. She had to stay spiritually connected and hold on to the belief that this was God’s will. It took her two years to get good and angry with God. Over the years I had gotten ticked off in waves at the impediments their observance had placed in my path. In the wake of Riffy’s death a tsunami of rage overtook me. I’ve always been the family’s emotional barometer. Where is the justice, I silently shouted, in a 31-year-old man dying and leaving behind a wife and budding family?
From my front row seat I have learned that, for my children, observance isn’t about getting their own way. They do it because they are commanded to. Life is filled with loss and pain and that doesn’t stop because they are observing the commandments. I see that for them, living a frum life is a path towards attaining spiritual elevation. And for the promise of that spiritual potential, I had to give my daughter space.
As Bethie’s delivery date drew near I was faced with another “Botero” growth moment. She was determined to honor mother and mother-in-law equally by having us both be with her in the delivery room as her birth coaches. Inwardly I heaved a sigh of resignation. This was the child of my machataynister’s dead son. Who was I to complain or stake out territorial rights in my daughter’s delivery room?
And then, surprise! That which had taken away so much from me, loosened its grip and gave a little back. Shabbos. One in seven chance. Again a quiet knock at my door in the wee hours of the morning. At first I thought Beth wanted me to take over with Emunah so that she could get some sleep. But no. She whispered to me that her water had broken and she needed to go to the hospital. Now. And in a flash I realized what had just been carved out for me — the chance to be with my daughter, just the two of us — at this extraordinary time in her life. It was a gift beyond anything I’d envisioned.
All the things I couldn’t do for her for months and months I finally could. All the love and caring that had been penned up seemingly forever, flowed out. During her pregnancy Bethie had been returning to me in increments and while the hours of her labor were a very sweet connecting experience, there was still this little rivulet of caution on my part. My reserve in the face of her pain was a gentle kind of honoring her. I was wary of her fragility even as I was completely taken up with massaging her back and legs while the contractions did the work of readying her body for birth.
Finally, after hours of waiting, miles of walking the hospital halls, onto the bed for a nap, off the bed for one last trip to the bathroom, back onto the bed for the final phase, Bethie let out that cry: “I have to PUSH!” The doctor assigned me to her left side to act as a stirrup while the nurse took up the mirror position at Beth’s right side and then again “I have TO PUSH!” she shouted and all of a sudden I saw this black mushy furry top of the head through an opening of what? Four inches? And then my daughter pushed again and the head was out like that of a beautifully fashioned doll, so beautiful, so beautiful. And then the next push and a tiny bit of upper chest. Then another contraction and push and contrary to any engineering principle a shoulder, altogether too wide to ever emerge from so little a hole, squeezed forth and popped into shape like a blow-up doll. In another split second I saw those wide if tiny shoulders narrow into a slender waist. Then, like Aladdin spilling forth from his lamp with a mighty whoosh! the baby was out.
I searched around the cord to see a baby girl and felt an instantaneous awareness of the losses of that — no boy from Riffy’s seed. And all the joys — a sister for Emunah! She! She!
“Who’s going to cut the cord?” the doctor asked. I shot a look at Beth and she shot one back to me. I took the scissors from the doctor and with my right had cut the translucent lifeline linking my granddaughter to her mother. Natanya Rafaela was free in one sense, only to be bound through nursing and Bethie’s mothering for the next eighteen years.
The clean-up began. Beth’s bloody right sock was sacrificed to the cause. The baby was wrapped up and placed upon her mommy’s belly. The delivery room was alive with energy and excitement. In the wake of so much sadness and grief, the birthing room throbbed with the triumph of life.
Bethie’s observance, and before her her sister Lisa’s, had stolen so much from me. Their choices had forced me to grow past my own limitations of acceptance. I later realized that I, too, was forced through an opening so small — hemmed in as I was by dashed hopes, confusion, resentment. I had a birthing of my own to endure, cutting the cord of my expectations again and again and again.
Moments after Riffy’s death, Beth had painfully accepted God’s judgment. Barely nine months after the most excruciatingly painful experience of our lives, my daughter and I were again in a hospital room. God had taken and now God had given. Blessed be the name of God.
“Cutting the Cord” is excerpted from This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy © 2003 by Debra B. Darvick reprinted with permission of the author. The book may be ordered from www.debradarvick.com or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.