Becky listened to the oxygen forcing its way along narrow tubing into her nose and then down to her lungs, filling her with enough air to tell her husband Barry what he had a right to know about that night, twenty years ago, when she and Rabbi Finkelstein met to wrestle with a leadership crisis in the religious school.
Barry had handed the phone to her quickly then excused himself to get coffee. Usually he welcomed callers as a diversion from their hospital existence. But this time he had disappeared for half an hour, leaving Becky alone to converse with the intruder from the past.
Becky reached for her husband’s hand through the metal bed railing, felt only air, then noticed his hands were tucked in his pants pockets. It was the first time he hadn’t physically been there for her since she had awakened one week ago with unstoppable coughing. Even as he called 911, his free hand had clutched hers, assuring her that help was on the way. In the ER as she had struggled to catch her breath and fought the nurse’s effort to position an oxygen mask, Barry had calmed her, “Becky, let them do it. It’ll help, Babe.” And when the doctors told them yesterday that she had a tumor devouring her heart that would in two or three weeks cut off her ability to breathe, and that sadly, there was no treatment when the tumor was this big, at least no treatment that would appreciably extend her life – even then Barry had made her feel in his enveloping embrace that nothing truly bad would ever happen because he was here.
Just as she started to whisper “I love you,” so as to erase the voice of Rabbi Finkelstein, her children and their spouses descended upon the room with an overstuffed bouquet of hydrangeas and artificial laughter. Then ensued the discussion of where to put the puffy flowers – on the nightstand filled with a box of tissues and a vomit bucket – or under the hanging hazardous waste box on a counter already cluttered with wilting daisies from her book club and a stiff arrangement of roses from the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth Israel and drooping daffodils from someone (she couldn’t recall who). No more flowers, she wanted to scream.
Margie, her oldest, was directing the placement of the flowers and the medical accessories, as if to achieve the feng shui most amenable to miraculous, spontaneous recovery, her voice reverberating like a Sousa march. Jayme, the middle child, focused her brown eyes on Becky as if death would snatch Becky away immediately if she didn’t monitor her mother’s every breath. Like a Yiddish lullaby, Jayme’s voice said, “Mom, you don’t need to worry. I’m worrying enough for us both.” Andrew, the youngest, who was in the midst of an exhausting divorce, sank into Becky’s wheelchair. From him there was no sound, only a silence that told Becky how much he needed her and how afraid he was to express that need, as if it might accelerate her death.
“Guess who just called?” she heard Barry ask amidst the tumult.
“Don’t know,” Jayme answered, “’cause just about everyone in existence has already called – even people I didn’t know were still alive.”
“That’s a dumb thing to say, considering the circumstances,” opined the older daughter, who always had something to say about everything.
“Rabbi Finkelstein. That’s who called,” said Becky between coughs, trying to head off a sibling confrontation.
“Rabbi Finkelstein?” asked Jayme. “Wow, that’s a name I haven’t heard for ages. How many years has he been gone from Beth Israel? Fifteen?”
“Twenty,” corrected Andrew, who suddenly sat forward in the wheelchair. “I remember because it was my Bar Mitzvah and he left so unexpectedly that we had to hire a temporary rabbi who didn’t even know me.”
“Well, it was no loss, if you ask me,” announced Margie.
“Enough,” said Becky, wondering why Barry had even mentioned the phone call. Was he signaling that he knew the import of that call? “Enough about Rabbi Finkelstein. He heard I was sick,” Becky managed. “He did a mitzvah. Forget the man’s shortcomings.” She turned toward Barry, but he averted his eyes.
After her daughters and their spouses and Andrew and eventually even Barry had left her room, after the nurse’s aide had removed the hospital dinner tray with its congealed, tasteless food, after the bustle of the evening blood pressure checks had subsided, Becky lay alone and contemplated the shortness of her days. Two or three weeks, they had said yesterday. Which was it? And how did they know? Did her heart have a digital timer? The doctors’ guess could no more measure her remaining days than measure the fullness of the years preceding the diagnosis.
At sixteen Becky had imagined a life of traveling and creating soaring music in concert halls and making love with iconoclastic men of various ethnicities. But choice by choice, she had constructed a life that, while not identical to her mother’s unexceptional domesticity, resembled it in ways that would have pleased her mother, who had endured Becky’s condescending comments.
Still, Becky regretted few choices – certainly not the choice of Barry, a dependable man, who anchored her life in Northwest Baltimore and the Jewish domesticity she had disparaged. Her exotic travel had consisted of cruises to nondescript islands. Her creation of soaring music had morphed into teaching music in the religious school. Her lovemaking with assorted iconoclasts had been limited to love making with one man, her husband. With the exception, of course, of Rabbi Ezra Finklestein.
And what was she to do with the two or three weeks, or maybe, G-d willing, even more that she had left on this earth? What did she owe her children, her husband, herself – before her family shoveled dirt to fill the hole?
A medical monitor next door bleated. No feet scrambled down the hall to answer its urgent call. Were the nurses understaffed or just desensitized to the implications of the bleat? Or was the shofar-like sound calling her?
The loud bleat had ceased, the problem attended to, no extra bustle signifying a code red. But sleep evaded Becky. In the shadows of her funereal room, she thought she saw the face of Rabbi Finkelstein. Not the lined face of a man in his sixties, but Ezra as she had seen him that night – his eyes ablaze, an almost Asian look to his brows, which created an exotic lure.
“Rebecca,” he whispered.
She closed her eyes. She would not be seduced a second time. But Ezra’s face lingered.
Again, he whispered, “Rebecca,” this time more urgently. “Rebecca, my special friend.” The same words he had used that night. How many other women had he used that phrase on? But she could never ask, not even after their wisp of an affair had ended, because to ask would be to admit. That night, she had seen herself as the only one among his congregants who could understand his burdens and provide him peace.
For months she had blamed her infidelity on Ezra. If he had not brushed his hand across her knee, she would have dreamed of him but never acted on that dream. But she, too, had brushed her hand subtly against his knee as she leaned over to pick up the papers she had dropped. She remembered, too, reddening when he told her how lonely he was, how his wife had little sympathy for his struggles when he returned home late after yet another rancorous board meeting. And then she had said, “Rabbi Finkelstein, you deserve better.” As she had said it, she had thought of her bland life, her fractious children, the lost elasticity of her skin, and Barry, who had become as familiar as an old sweater.
She was not surprised when Ezra leaned in to kiss her forehead, like a benevolent father. She didn’t push him away. When he tilted her chin in his hand, she could have stood and offered any one of a dozen excuses for a quick departure without making a scene. Instead, she had parted her lips.
Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein had sins to atone for. But he had not forced Becky to lie with him on his pastoral sofa beneath the shelves of Torah commentaries. Even now, in this horrible room, she felt the thrill of his taut, unfamiliar body.
When they had both come and she remembered who she was, she had covered her body with her winter jacket, collected her clothes, and dashed into the ladies’ room to scrub her body with the pump soap and paper towels set out for congregants. She had not said goodbye, had not wanted to see Rabbi Finkelstein pulling up his pants. Grateful that Barry was out of town on business, she had showered three times at home, shampooing her hair each time, and had thrown every article of clothing into the washing machine at the hottest temperature – even her new woolen slacks.
When Rabbi Finkelstein called the next day regarding a meeting on what he said was “a critical matter,” she had feigned illness. And when he called two days later to meet about the musical program for Purim, she had said that they could just talk on the phone.
But for years, long after Rabbi Finkelstein had hastily tendered his resignation due to family concerns and moved with them to the other side of the country, she had remembered the scent of his skin and the tenaciousness of his lips.
Much to everyone’s surprise the doctors announced in the morning that Becky would be discharged the following day, after arrangements could be made for a hospital bed and hospice care at home. The doctors had no more tricks in their repertoire.
When Barry wheeled Becky up the hastily erected ramp to the porch of the home they had shared for forty years, the October air invigorated her. Blazing red leaves dressed up her aging home, concealing the drain spout in need of paint.
“Home,” she said to Barry as he rubbed her neck.
“Home,” he replied.
Margie sprang into action, rearranging the living room furniture, positioning the hospital bed to give Becky privacy while including her in the family bustle. Barry guided Becky from the wheelchair to the bed, gently repositioned the oxygen in her nose, and fluffed the pillows so she was propped upright like a queen. Meanwhile Jayme dashed to the kitchen to reheat frozen chicken soup, leftover from the family’s Rosh Hashanah feast. Only Andrew was missing, off at some important meeting with the lawyer to untangle the finances of his disintegrating marriage.
Surrounded by her framed wedding ketubah and pictures from the weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs of her children, Becky felt like a fraudulent woman of valor.
She recalled her own mother’s death, when the whole family had encircled her mother’s hospital bed while the women in her mother’s prayer group had chanted Hebrew psalms. Slowly her mother’s breathing had subsided until she was gone. The holiness of the moment of her passing and all the days leading up to it testified to the goodness of her mother’s life. Becky’s own life did not deserve a holy end.
“Mom, I bought a juicer and a cancer cookbook. I’m going to juice up some broccoli and asparagus and kale for you,” Margie called from the kitchen.
“Mmm,” said Jayme. “How delicious. Raw vegetable juice and chicken soup.”
Becky heard the hum of the juicer, probably Margie’s response to her sister’s sarcasm. “My friend’s mother is still alive on this diet, two years after the doctors gave her six months at most,” Margie shouted over the juicer.
“What’s this all about?” Becky whispered to Barry, slightly nauseated at the thought of raw vegetable juice for lunch. “I’d rather have Thrasher’s fries.” She could smell the sizzling oil of the classic Ocean City fries mixing with the fragrance of suntan lotion and the briny ocean breeze.
“She’s holding on to you, Beck. She wants you here for her kids.” Then Barry laughed, the first laugh she had heard from him in a week. “I could go for some fries, too. Maybe after Margie goes home to pick up the kids, I can sneak out to the mall and bring some back.”
“And I’ll take the blame if her nose detects them.” He kissed her, and she closed her eyes. She was back on the beach at Ocean City in her two-piece suit – not quite a bikini – and she was twenty, and he was twenty-one, and they were on their first big adventure together. He was kissing her and the sand from his hands coated her face and then his sweet lips and then hers. She felt his cushiony body against hers, already comfortable, as if G-d had cut her from his side, then fit them back together.
She opened her eyes, and he asked, “What made you smile?”
“You,” she answered. “And the thought of Thrasher fries.”
After they had consumed a bucket of fries reheated in their oven, and before the children and the spouses and the grandchildren returned for movie night, Becky and Barry cocooned themselves in the afghan her mother had crocheted for them decades ago, inhaling their life together imbedded in every wool fiber. Satiated by their indulgence, they fell asleep on the sofa, head touching head, as they did so often on Saturday night.
That’s how Margie found them when she returned with her husband and children and a grocery tote loaded with organic vegetables. “I smell fries!” she said to her husband. “He gave her fries! Why am I even bothering?”
“It’s their life, Margie.”
Becky, roused by the sharpness of her daughter’s voice, kept her eyes closed but poked Barry in the rib. He poked her back, as if to say, “Ssh.” In their shared charade, they listened to Margie analyzing their recklessness; “early Alzheimer’s,” she called it. When she could take it no longer, she thrust the afghan aside, opened her eyes, and announced with as much force as she could muster, “Yes, it’s our life, Margie.”
“You sneaky eavesdropper!” Margie shouted. “I’m only trying to do my best for you, Mom.”
“We know,” said Barry, sitting up straight and stretching. “But …”
“But it’s her choice,” Margie finished.
Later, when they had all gathered – the two daughters with their spouses, the five grandchildren, and Andrew – Jayme put in the DVD of Fiddler on the Roof, a film they had watched together so many times as a family. As the film family gathered for the Sabbath, Becky floated above her real family, admiring the prickly love they felt for one another, more invigorating than the saccharine cinematic love.
In a shadowy corner of the living room, near the étagère, she saw a gray-haired man tapping his knee impatiently, as if he were waiting for her full attention. Ezra’s jowls were wobbling, and puffiness eclipsed his once exotic eyes.
“So?” he demanded. “When are we going to finish our conversation? It’s late.”
“There’s nothing for us to talk about. What’s done is done,” Becky replied to the apparition.
“I asked for your forgiveness, Rebecca, my special friend. Are you denying me that forgiveness on your deathbed? Even G-d forgives.”
“It is not for me to forgive. You did nothing that I didn’t welcome.”
“Then have you asked forgiveness of us both from your husband?”
She shuddered. “Who are you to direct my life? Since when am I your spokesman to my husband? Go back where you belong.”
“I belong many places, dear Rebecca. And one of them is in your heart.” He laughed dryly.
“Not so!” she insisted. But she knew that the first cell in her heart that had now multiplied and exploded until it throttled her ability to breathe had a name, and its name was Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein. She pounded her heart in a two-fisted distortion of the Yom Kippur confessional. “Go. Go. Go,” she shouted.
With each cry, Rabbi Finkelstein faded away until all she could see were two beady eyes. Then the eyes were replaced by the worried faces of her husband and children and grandchildren and his dry laughter by their cacophonous sounds of alarm.
“Mom, mom, what’s happening? Mom, do you hear me?”
“She wants us to let her alone. Get the kids out of here. They don’t need to see this.”
“Nana, why are you crying?”
“Beck, calm down. I’m here. I’m here.” A familiar hand stroked her face until her eyes closed and she drifted asleep.
The next morning, after the hospice nurse had adjusted the narcotics dosage and verified oxygen levels, Becky asked Barry to roll her to the lake. The first frost of the season lingered on windshields, but the sun, unimpeded by clouds, warmed her face. They rolled past her neighbor’s petrifying chrysanthemums; the wheelchair crunched the blanket of leaves already shed by the first trees beginning their winter rest.
A recently widowed neighbor in her fifties, who had lived on their street for a decade, paused her dog walking to chat. “Becky, I’m making you a casserole for dinner. Glad to see you out and about.” Becky studied her fit figure in her velour jogging suit. She was vigorous enough to start again, but mature enough to understand loss. A good companion for Barry after the rawness of his grieving subsided, Becky thought.
“Nope,” Barry said, reading her mind. “Don’t even think about it. I’m a one-girl guy.”
But whom would he talk to at night in a half-filled bed? And what comfort would he find when he awoke to only the hum of the heater?
The lake shimmered in the morning light, capturing the two of them in one image. She in her blue fleece jacket and leather gloves, tubes tethering her to an oxygen tank on the wheelchair. He in the charcoal Tommy Hilfinger jacket she had bought him last Chanukah, his hands massaging her shoulders. No Rabbi Finkelstein. A whoosh from above signaled a flock of birds picking up their strays to head south for the winter.
“Now,” she told herself. “Now is the time.” She arched her face upward to the cloudless sky, seeking strength from whatever lived beyond the azure sky and the circling birds. She turned to Barry and formed the words, “I’m sorry.” But no sounds emerged. A vacuum sucked her from her chair. Frantic, she reached for Barry, but her arms stretched out and flapped like the wings of a migrating bird. Her tubes, set free, fluttered in the breeze.
Again she struggled to form the words “I’m sorry,” but she was far above the man in the lake, so far away that even if she shouted, her words would sound like the cawing of a crow. Into the eternal blueness she flew with her unspoken confession.