The Plague of Gingy

This short story appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Tulane Review and Issue 9 of Serving House Journal (www.servinghousejournal.com/sturmplague.aspx). 

 

The Plague of Gingy

Dovid Raviv had never intended to bring any sort of shame to himself or his family. On the contrary, he had always believed himself to be the kind of person who would one day be known as a man of honor and wisdom. From an early age, he used his intelligence and skills of persuasion to win the esteem of both adults and peers. His teachers at the Bait Avraham Yitzchok Yeshiva in Jerusalem often called his parents to commend them on raising such a fine Ben Torah. His grasp of the Talmudic texts was exemplary, and the questions he posed showed great promise, the signs of true scholarly potential.

At the age of twenty-two, he began dating with the intention of finding a wife. Unlike most of his friends, he was accustomed to speaking with girls. All through his adolescence he had surreptitiously participated in flirtations with young women, meeting them on the public buses or on the curb in front of the cinema as they waited to view films that in his circle were considered off-limits. He told jokes to make them laugh, attempting to convince them that he was not the straitlaced Orthodox boy he appeared to be. Occasionally he was able to convince a blossoming, wide-eyed innocent to grant him a kiss on the cheek or a parting embrace, and this he viewed as a victory. These girls giggled and batted long eyelashes as they stood admiring his sapphire eyes, which smiled quizzically as he spoke. But then the bus would arrive at a stop or the ticket holders’ line would move inside, and he would be left alone, with a waft of strawberry musk cologne and a longing that made his body ache.

At twenty-three he chose his wife, a stunning dark-haired nineteen-year-old with smoldering chestnut eyes and a figure so shapely that it could not be hidden beneath the modest clothes she wore. She was not the wealthiest girl to be suggested to him, nor the most highly educated, but she was by far the most pleasing to the eyes, and certainly of a kind temperament. “I’ve got brains and education enough for both of us,” he told his mother of his decision, “and if need be, I could leave the yeshiva and work some day, but where will I ever find a blossom so pleasant and gentle. As the Talmud says, what is inside is like the outside—and with Malca, both are beautiful.”

Less than two years later, it was hard for him to recall what wind had extinguished the flame. The youthful light that used to fill her eyes had been replaced with something flat and empty, and her melancholy seemed to seep into every crevice of their life, coloring it a charcoal gray. While he had always been adept at charming young women, Dovid now felt impotent when it came to Malca, for nothing he did brought laughter to her eyes or a curl to her lips.

Never being one to share his troubles with others, he began taking long walks, hoping for a solution to manifest. One summer day as he meandered through the winding paths of Mount Hertzl, a solution appeared at his side. In Israel they would call her a gingy, but Dovid believed this buxom strawberry blonde from Baltimore who smiled easily and laughed too often must surely have been heaven-sent.

“Why are Orthodox men all so conventional?” she mused.

“I must be honest and say that I find them difficult myself. It’s not easy to live in a small religious community. Even in Jerusalem, sometimes I question whether it’s worth all the sacrifice to be cloistered with the closed-minded.”

“Exactly!” She beamed up at him, gently brushing her long ginger mane back off her shoulders, a few stray curls falling against her freckled nose. She suggested they sit down for a moment on a bench in the shade. “Hope,” she said, and he looked puzzled. “My name, it’s Hope.”

He laughed out loud and extended his hand. “Dovid,” he said, waiting to see if she would shake his hand, or if even this was not something that was done in Hope’s world. To his delight, not only did she extend one hand, but she used both of her hands to hold his own in a jolly embrace that he had seen only in pictures of American politicians.

She leaned back against the bench and stretched out her legs, exposing the bare skin of her calves beneath a denim skirt. When the gentle Jerusalem breeze sent several strands of hair into her eyes, she smoothed it behind her ear, exposing a line of five silver looped earrings that ran up her earlobe.

“I’ve never seen these sorts of earrings, at least not up close.” He leaned forward and glanced down the immodestly low-cut blouse into a hidden treasure of white lace. “They look great on you,” he whispered, almost touching her ear.

Hope saw his hesitation. “Oh, you can touch them if you’re curious. It won’t hurt me. I’ve had them since my identity crisis in college. I left Judaism behind for a summer and lived on an Ashram in Massachusetts, doing yoga and meditation, eating a vegetarian diet—and I pierced my ear. I actually used to have a nose ring too, but my mother made me take it out. Here…” She pointed to a spot on the right side of her rounded nose. “You can still just about make out the scar.”

Dovid leaned in toward Hope, examined her nose, and then ran his trembling fingers up along the row of silver loops. When the row ended, his fingers traced the rest of her ear. As his hand met the flesh of her neck, she exhaled deeply, and he knew that he had found the answer.

Things progressed rapidly after that. He offered to drive her back to her hotel, and she invited him up to her room. Once he knew that Hope was definitely going to take him to her bed, he was impatient to have her. He found himself pulling the buttons of her blouse with such force that one flew across the room.

“I’m on the pill,” she whispered. “I don’t suppose you brought condoms.”

“No,” he said, placing his mouth over hers so that she would say nothing more. He didn’t bother removing his own clothing or even her skirt—he was a married man there on urgent business, and once he made his way inside of her, he paid little attention to whether or not she was also enjoying his movements. When her high-pitched moans began to reach him behind his wave of motion, he could contain himself no longer.

Once finished, he sat up on the edge of the bed smiling broadly. Hope wrapped her legs around him and kissed the back of his neck. “I’m here for the rest of the week if you’d like to do any more sightseeing.”

“Oh, just until the end of the week?” A look of disappointment fell across his face. “I’m leaving tonight for Eilat; it’s really a shame.” It was a lie that flowed like honey from his lips.

That night as his wife served him his dinner, she leaned in close and mouthed, “Tonight is my mikvah night.”

He knew that according to Jewish law, the mikvah visit should never be postponed or delayed, and it was always followed by marital intimacy. He anxiously considered whether or not he would be able to perform yet a second time in the same day, but then brushed the worry aside. He was a star pupil, an overachiever; of course he’d be able to perform. He remembered the sweet mikvah nights of their first year, when his young bride was eager—trembling at his touch, waiting with anticipation as he chose his mouth’s next point of contact. That night as Malca and Dovid performed the marital act that was expected, Dovid tried desperately to block out the memory of the freckled nose and orange locks that seemed to be mocking him in the darkness.

It was five days later that the symptoms began. Dovid noticed a burning sensation on Shabbat and attributed it to the fact that he hadn’t bathed that day. After reciting Havdalah, the candlelit ceremony bidding farewell to the Sabbath and welcoming in the new week, he excused himself to the bathroom and showered beneath a pounding spray of hot water, soaping and re-soaping his genitals in an attempt to wash away his discomfort.

In the morning he walked groggily from his bedroom to the kitchen and was jolted awake by the itching and pain in his groin. His heart began pounding as he realized that this ailment could very well be his punishment, a plague to teach him the error of his ways. He had never experienced such discomfort and had no friends in whom to confide his symptoms and ask advice. He pounded the counter with his fist, furious—first with Hope for carrying such a disease, and secondly with himself for not thinking to take the proper precautions.

Panic set in as he realized that he might very well have passed his affliction on to Malca. In that case, what would he tell her? How could he possibly explain his actions? Could there be any other explanation for his discomfort? Would the medical clinic tell her the truth? What then?

He stood in the kitchen staring at the sink, his mind racing, perspiration gathering on his face and neck. When Malca padded into the room, he nearly jumped out of his skin. “How are you feeling?” he asked with lowered eyes.

“Fine,” she responded as she set a kettle of water on the stovetop and pulled a loaf of bread from the cupboard.

Dovid tiptoed around his wife, afraid that his actions might alert her to his condition, or worse—that she would show signs of it herself. His day passed painfully slowly as he hoped and prayed for healing—healing that was elusive.

Waking the next morning with the same symptoms, he made his way to the neighborhood medical clinic. With each step he felt the inseam of his pants scraping against his manhood, sending a burning sensation through him. He stopped several times to try to rearrange himself to create less friction, but there was no escaping his clothing. During his prayers that morning, he had again asked God to bring him healing, but thus far his prayers had not been answered.

As he walked into the waiting room chewing nervously on a fingernail, Dovid found that he was not alone. Both his wife and his kindhearted neighbor, Nate Horowitz, were at the far end of the room. The two, seated across from one another in orange plastic chairs, were engaged in a serious conversation, and neither one glanced up as he entered.

He noticed Malca shifting uncomfortably in her chair, arranging and rearranging the beige twill skirt beneath her. He knew then that his worst fear had been realized. She, too, had contracted the disease and would now question him about the source of their plague. His heart pounded against his rib cage, and he was about to slip back out of the clinic’s front door when he observed something unusual in his neighbor’s behavior.

Nate moved uneasily in his chair, rubbing the inside of his left thigh and pulling on the fabric of his black pants as if he were attempting to free himself from the polyester fibers.

Dovid’s eyes widened with understanding. If Dovid’s curse had come courtesy of Hope, and if he transmitted it to Malca on her mikvah night, then Nate must have caught it from… Was it possible? His Malca had been unfaithful? But that would explain everything. And it would also mean that this terrible situation was not even his fault! After all, his affair was only a desperate search for comfort in response to her infidelity, her sin! He had only been reacting to his wife’s desertion. It was all beginning to make sense. Or perhaps Malca had contracted the plague from Nate, and Dovid had gotten it from her! Then his infidelity was totally inconsequential!

Dovid cleared his throat loudly, causing them both to turn. Each one took the opportunity to squirm against the orange plastic that cupped their bottoms.

“How did you know to find me here? Is something wrong?” The lines of worry that had begun to settle across Malca’s forehead seemed to deepen with each word.

“Your questions are ones that have Talmudic depth. Who knows why the Holy One brought me here to this clinic at this particular moment, to find the two of you squirming in your chairs, pulling at yourselves as if you’ve both been visited by a Russian whore.” Nate rose from his chair and tried to interrupt, but Dovid simply raised his voice. “Nate, is this why you couldn’t eat lunch with us last Shabbat? Was it too uncomfortable for you to sit at my Shabbat table and eat my food when you had intimate knowledge of my wife?”

“Have you gone mad?” Malca was on her feet, standing between the two men. Her chestnut eyes burned with outrage. “There’s nothing between Nate and me! We happened to arrive here together, and I was just talking with him about his wife’s migraines—she gets them like me—that’s all!” Turning to face Nate, she said, “Please forgive…”

Dovid interrupted. “He should forgive? You’re looking the wrong way. I’m the one from whom you need to seek forgiveness! Your behavior is grounds for divorce!”

“Dovid, please! Lower your voice. Whatever problem I am here for,” she blushed crimson, “I can assure you it has no relationship to Nate. I am a religious woman. How could you suggest such a thing?”

He pushed Malca aside so that he could look into Nate’s eyes. “Nate, tell Malca why you’re here; then maybe she’ll understand.”

“Fine. If this will settle it. It’s a bit embarrassing.”

“I bet,” spat Dovid.

“Last Shabbat I went with my family to visit my sister-in-law who lives in Safed. That is why we were unavailable. We took a long walk in the afternoon, down the rocky slopes, and I foolishly slipped and scraped my legs on some rocks and thorns. I thought nothing of it, but as the days wore on, I noticed there was an infection. I need antibiotics. It’s truthfully quite uncomfortable.”

“Hah! What a story,” mocked Dovid. “Let’s see it.”

“What?” Nate was incredulous.

“Malca, avert your eyes. I want to see it.”

“Dovid, you and I have been neighbors for several years, but I’ll not stand here in the clinic and lower my pants for you!”

“Why not! If you’ve got nothing to hide and if it will clear my wife’s good name, then I see it as your duty. The Talmud says you should run to help your fellow Jew.”

“Unfortunately I think the best way I could help my fellow Jew would be to drive you to the psychiatric hospital.” Noticing Dovid shaking his leg and fingering his inner thigh, he added, “Tell us why you’re here again?”

Infuriated, Dovid began pulling at the waistband of Nate’s slacks. The two struggled for a moment before Nate freed himself and then in total exasperation raised his hands in the air. “If this is the only way to end this foolishness, then what do I care.” In one fluid motion he unbuttoned his pants and lowered the zipper, releasing his trousers to his ankles.

Malca couldn’t help but look, as she had never seen a man, other than her husband, in his underwear. Both Dovid and Malca recoiled in disgust. The infection on the outside of his right thigh and the inside of his left was hideous to look at.

A nurse with short, bleached blond hair and a lab coat sauntered into the room and chuckled at the scene. She shook her head and said, “This is something that regretfully was left out of my Jewish education. Rabbis, are you trying to make a determination about whether or not a female nurse can treat such a wound?” She eyed the infection on Nate’s legs. “I’d say yes. What do you think, madam?” she asked, glancing at Malca.

Malca covered her mouth to prevent the others from seeing her smile. Nate’s legs were paler than anything she might have imagined, and they reminded her of the partially plucked chickens her mother would toss into the sink for Malca to de-feather before transforming them into a rich Shabbat stew.

Nate quickly raised his pants, muttering, “I have a crazy man for a neighbor,” and followed the nurse down the corridor toward an examination room. He paused midway down the hall, turned on his heels, and addressed Malca. “I’m sure that the reason he is here, his plague, it has nothing to do with you. You have my sympathy.”

Malca bit her bottom lip and averted her eyes. She didn’t want him to see the depth of her sudden understanding of the situation. She eased her way back into an orange chair, and Dovid struggled into one directly across from her. He realized that leaving and giving himself time to think through what had just been revealed would be most prudent, but the discomfort in his groin kept him solidly in the seat.

In that moment Malca felt old—old enough to have a husband cheat on her, old enough to recognize the dark shame in his face. “Who was she?” she asked so softly that both of them had to wonder if she had actually spoken.

The Barred Window

This short story is an excerpt from my novel, LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE. It was published in the Spring 2014 Willow Review and merited a fiction award.

The Barred Window

Outside the barred window, a teenage boy called to his friend on the Newark streets and an ambulance bleated its siren through the muggy summer air. Tahisha peeked out from behind the curtain to make sure no one on her block lay bleeding, and then returned to where she had been sitting on the lilac carpet of her grandmother’s bedroom. She played with a pair of socks her preschool teacher had transformed into hand puppets, mumbling to herself in mock anger as the puppets began hitting each other with bobby-pin bats.

It had been almost two years since she had seen her mother, Maizy, and Tahisha’s memory of her was fading. She could recall a soft cheek that liked to press up against her, and dark eyes that seemed always ready to cry. But that summer afternoon, as she was lifted up into smooth caramel arms, squeezed against a bony chest fragrant with talcum powder, and kissed by a cinnamon-gum mouth, Tahisha remembered.

Maizy gave her a firm hug, and Tahisha threw back her head in laughter. She studied her mother’s slender arm, a shade lighter than her own, as it reached into a blue and white striped vinyl bag. When her hand reemerged from its fishing expedition, it was grasping a brand-new doll in clear plastic wrapping.

“It’s from the South,” Maizy said, as if this conferred upon it some unique and special meaning. Tahisha held the gift and her eyes widened with the shock and joy of it. In the past, she had been given dolls by her aunt or the church ladies who smelled like mothballs. These were used and abused toys with knotted hair, missing articles of clothing, or dirt smudges on their limbs. She had never been given a new doll; never even held one because her grandmother would shout if she so much as touched a new toy at the corner store. But this one she clutched to her chest, her heart filling with awe and reverence, as if it were Judgment Day and she had been deemed worthy.

“It’s a Topsy-Turvy doll: it changes,” said her mother, and then the girl saw that it was true. When she held it up one way, it was a black woman with a long red and white polka-dot dress, white apron, and matching red and white head scarf. When Tahisha lifted the black woman’s skirt and turned the doll upside down, she was fair-skinned with two blond braids, wearing a light-blue dress and matching bonnet. It was love at first sight for both the doll and her mother, and Tahisha tried not to let either one move too far from view.

Maizy cooked up a large pan of fried fish and a potful of potato salad that she said was prepared in the special Macon, Georgia, style, and over dinner Tahisha asked question after question about her mother’s life down south.

“The weather? Well, it’s much nicer than here—warmer and sunnier. The sky is clear and blue, and the air smells like magnolias and cornbread. The summer seems to last right on into November.”

“And where you live at? With who?”

“I lived with a friend. We do have some family there, but I lived with a friend. Everyone is real warm and cordial in the South, real polite like. No one would dare cuss in public…least not when a lady is present.”

Tahisha’s grandmother started to chuckle. As she lifted her dirty plate from the table, she muttered, “And who that lady be? ’Cause she sure as hell ain’t you.”

Tahisha seemed not to hear the cutting remark. She touched her mother’s arm as she spoke, wanting to confirm that she was real. Her eyes caught sight of a trail of scars on Maizy’s arm that marched like tiny footprints from her wrist to her heart. She touched one and felt the rubbery bounce of the wound before Maizy shifted herself out of reach, signaling that the scars were off-limits. Tahisha plowed forward: “And what was yo’ house like?”

“The house? It was small, but pretty, with flowered curtains on the windows and a dining room with a big window that let you look out at a few old apple trees we had growin’ in the yard. Georgia is known for the peach, you know. But we had those apples instead. They didn’t look that beautiful, but they was sweet and tart all at the same time. There was a little piece a heaven in each bite.”

“Oh, I ain’t a big fan a regular ol’ apples, but did you bring any?” Tahisha’s delicate fingers were now on her mother’s back. Moving her braids from side to side, she wondered when she’d be old enough to get long braids like that.

“Well, they’d a gone bad on the trip—got banged up and such. But what I liked most to do with ’em was bake ’em into pies. They made the best apple pie you ever tasted!”

Tahisha’s grandmother was leaning against the sink observing the two and shaking her head. “You bake them pies? With your own two hands?” When no one in the kitchen responded to her, she whipped the dish towel down on the counter and announced, “Maizy, when you’re done with your fairy tales, clean up the kitchen. I’m goin’ to watch TV.”

Climbing onto a kitchen chair she’d shoved up next to the sink to stay close to Maizy while she cleaned up, Tahisha asked, “Mama, how did you pay for such a nice house? You had a good job?” Since her grandmother was always talking about money or the lack of it, it seemed the most natural question to ask, but she heard her grandmother make a guttural sound, which usually meant that she was angry.

“It wasn’t really that great a house: it was very small; I had a roommate; it was a sweet little place. My friend worked; I had…a little business. We managed.”

“Uh-huh.” Her grandmother’s voice again expressed her disapproval; of what, Tahisha was unsure.

“What kind a business?”

Hearing Tahisha’s question, her grandmother rose from her chair in the next room and filled the doorway with her wide frame. “Hisha, you need to take yo’ bath now.”

“Oh, but I’m helpin’ Mama with the dishes!”

“Distractin’ her is more like it. Go on, get yo’ behind up in the bath now. I can see the dirt on your knees!”

“I want Mama to read to me!” Her face pleaded her case.

In response, Maizy dried her hands on a dish towel, gave Tahisha’s back a stroke, and bent down to her ear. “We’ll read together after the bath, when you’re all ready for bed—okay, my Hisha?”

How could it not be okay? How could anything her mother said that included a caress and the words “my Hisha” not be okay? She padded off to the bathroom happily swinging her arms. While the tub was filling, Tahisha pressed her ear up against the door to hear the adult conversation.

“How long you here for this time?”

Tahisha heard the dishwater go silent. “I’m here for good… I’m not going back.” Maizy’s voice was soft and thoughtful. “I just can’t go back.”

“Uh-huh. State pay for your rehab?”

“What does it matter?”

“You plannin’ on takin’ this child so you can get some more money?”

Maizy raised her voice, so Tahisha didn’t even have to lean against the door to hear it. “What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m not here because of that! It’s not about the money; how could you think that!”

“Maizy, one thing I’ve learned: With you addicts, it’s always about the money. That much I know.”

“The hell you do! You don’t know me. You’ve never known me! And besides, I ain’t an addict, not anymore… I mean…I’m not usin’. It’s not about the money for me, so stop saying that.” She paused. “And especially don’t say that in front a Tahisha.” Her voice seemed to soften. “I can’t believe how much she’s grown…how beautiful she is.” Tahisha heard the scrape of the kitchen chairs moving against the linoleum floor. “Tell me about her. She does okay in school so far? She has friends?”

“Yes, she does seem kind a smart; least that’s what her preschool teacher said. And she plays nice at school, but I don’t go runnin’ her around to people’s homes and such to play with other little ones. I don’t have time for that. She’ll play in school and with the kids at church and she’ll be just fine.”

“You think?”

“Well, there ain’t no way a knowin’, now is there? I thought I done all the right things in raisin’ you and look how you turned out.”

Only when her grandmother shouted at her from the kitchen did Tahisha realize that the water was about to flow over the lip of the tub onto the floor. She released the plug and waited as it drained down. By the time she stepped inside the bath, the temperature had cooled and she sat shivering as she dragged a soapy washcloth up and down the length of her body. “Good enough,” she said to herself and began to towel off and then tugged on an undershirt and cotton pajama bottoms over her still-damp skin.

With her hair dripping, she charged out of the bathroom and barreled into her bedroom, praying that her mother would be there—and to her great amazement, she was.

“These all the books you got?” asked her mother, holding a small pile in her hands.

“Yeah, that’s it. I’m kind a tired of ’em.”

“I bet. They were here back when this room was mine.” Tahisha’s mother sat down on the bed and began flipping through pages.

The young girl climbed up next to her and pressed her shoulder against her mother’s side as if her mother’s body were steel, and hers, a magnet. Her mind was swimming with more questions she wanted to ask. Chief among them were: “Why did you leave me? And if you leave again, will you take me with you?” But these were questions she dared not ask, at least not yet.

After Maizy read her a picture book by Margaret Brown, Tahisha wondered out loud, “Where are you sleeping?”

“Right here with you, baby. I just have to brush my teeth. You go to sleep. I’ll be right back.”

“Uh, uh, I’ll wait for you.”

When Maizy returned to the bed and squeezed in next to her daughter, Tahisha snuggled into her side, tucking herself beneath her mother’s arm and holding a fistful of braids in one hand. In the other, she clutched the doll: the special one from the South who, unlike most people around her, had the ability to change.

For thirteen dreamlike days, Tahisha moved through life at her mother’s side. She discovered an old bottle of nail polish in Maizy’s striped bag, and the two took turns as manicurist and client. Her mother didn’t even complain when Tahisha painted her cuticles and even got a spot on the knuckle of her right index finger. In response to the child’s worried frown, she simply wiped it away with a paper napkin and smiled, saying, “See, no big deal.”

Tahisha and Maizy breathed in the midday air scented with automobile exhaust fumes and Caribbean shea butter as they strolled to the library. When they arrived, sticky and overheated, the two had no trouble fitting into a well-worn upholstered chair meant for one. Maizy read to her from Hans Christian Andersen’s version of “The Little Mermaid”: the one where the young mermaid doesn’t get the prince, but instead sacrifices herself, turning into sea-foam in order to save her beloved’s life.

On the way home, Tahisha picked a bouquet of dandelions from the weed-infested grass that passed for a lawn in front of the local elementary school, and Maizy accepted the gift with the gratitude as if they were roses. She pulled a package of cinnamon gum from her pocket, offered Tahisha a stick, and they both happily chewed, Tahisha’s mouth tingling with the sweet and spicy flavor that was her mother’s.

During those enchanted days, when her grandmother would return from work and question the pair about their activities, Tahisha tried not to look in the direction of the older woman, for fear the magical spell might somehow be broken. She caught her grandmother’s critical scowl as she brushed past the two huddled together on the concrete front stoop. She turned away from the head-shaking response she gave to her mother’s declaration “I’ve changed,” and walked away from her grandmother’s choruses of “Uh-huh” in reply to just about anything Maizy said.

It was almost two weeks after Maizy’s return that the call came in on the housephone. Tahisha could hear the voice on the other end of the line, deep and sad. She heard the man say that Levon had died, and watched as her mother crumpled onto the kitchen floor, her flowered skirt spreading wide against the cold linoleum. He said that Levon had come out of the coma briefly before having a massive heart attack and being pronounced dead. “I’m sorry, Maizy, but maybe it’s for the best. Least now he won’t be beatin’ on you no more.”

“Hollis,” she whispered into the phone, “I think I might a killed him.”

“Baby, heroin done killed him.”

“But what I gave him…it was too much…I…”

“Maizy, don’t be sayin’ that and don’t think it neither. He went out like he lived and now you’re free, so go figure. It’s the Lord’s will. Don’t be sayin’ that shit to no one. I mean it. Just let it be. You’ll figure out what to do with your place. Funeral is on Thursday.”

She squeezed out a high-pitched “I gotta go” before turning off the phone and allowing the long-held sobs to shake her shoulders, her tank top and cotton skirt becoming damp. She tucked her knees up against her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked back and forth.

Tahisha slipped herself onto her mother’s lap and wrapped her arms around her center. “It’s okay, Mama…you’re okay.”

Maizy kissed the top of Tahisha’s head, held her for a few moments, and then came to standing. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose on a paper towel, and gave her daughter a feeble smile. “Thank you, baby. I just got some bad news about a friend. But I’m all right.”

“Levon, he died?”

“Yes, sugar, he did.”

“Who was he?”

“Just someone I used to care about…back in the day.” As soon as Tahisha’s grandmother returned from work, Maizy announced, “I think I’ll take a walk.”

Tahisha felt the small hairs on the back of her neck prick to attention. “Can I go with you?”

“No, Hisha, not this time. I’ll see you later.” Maizy was almost out the door when she tossed back, “Don’t wait up.”

Tahisha awoke with a start, to the sound of angry shouts, not long before dawn. “I knew you’d never change! Why the hell did you come back? You think bein’ a mama is some game you can play at?” The older woman’s voice was sharp and bitter. “You think you can just stroll in here, sit your scrawny bottom back down in our lives, and then sneak out to the streets chasin’ a good time!”

Tahisha, sitting up in her bed, began chewing on the bottom corner of the white cotton undershirt she wore as a pajama top. There was a long pause. The piece of fabric dropped from her mouth. “Answer her, answer her,” she whispered into the night. “Tell her it ain’t no game. Tell her…” The rest of the sentence, you love me, was left to silence.

Finally, Maizy spoke. “Chasing a good time. You think that’s what I do? Why don’t you ever ask me instead of just assuming the worst?!”

“What good would that do? I’ve heard enough of your lies over the years to last me a lifetime! Why don’t I just ask you? You must think I’m a fucking fool!”

“Mama, I never said that.”

“You’re right: I must have been, to let you back in through the door!”

“Please, listen to me just a minute…” Her mother’s voice trailed off, and Tahisha jumped from the mattress onto the thinning carpet and moved toward the door, pressing her ear against the dark wood trying not to miss anything.

“What did you do to get it? What did you do?” Her grandmother’s voice broke into a moaning sob, releasing a pain so deep it seemed to shake the house.

“Answer her, answer her,” Tahisha offered in a frightened whisper, hoping her mother might receive her message. She had never heard her grandmother cry, never seen her show weakness or despair. She was afraid to move; afraid that anything she did might bring the ceiling crashing down or something worse: her mother running for the front door.

Then came a horrible sickening sound: leather meeting flesh, whipping the air and then meeting its target. Primal groans were followed by the sound of kitchen chairs scraping against the floor and then toppling. Over it all was her grandmother’s chorus of “Out! Out! Out!”

Running back to her bed for safety, Tahisha huddled beneath her wrinkled pink bedsheet and whispered a rhythmic response to her grandmother. “No, no, no,” she muttered, as if they were in church and the two were doing a responsive reading.

Then everything was still. Tahisha’s bedroom door creaked open, and her mother entered the room pressing her palms to the wall for balance. Tahisha lowered the sheet from her head and stared.

“Hey,” said her mother, not looking at her. Instead, her eyes were scanning the floor for the blue and white striped bag. When she found it, she took her few belongings that had been piled on top of the dresser and placed them inside the vinyl case.

Tahisha now realized her mother had never even unpacked. As she moved unsteadily around the room, occasionally the hallway light came to rest on her long, graceful arms and the fresh track mark—red and wounding. Even at five, Tahisha knew this was not good. “The sign of the devil,” her grandmother had said as they maneuvered around a junkie passed out in the lobby of her aunt’s apartment building.

 When Maizy had returned her few belongings to her traveling bag, she found her way to the bed and unsteadily seated herself on the edge. She lifted Tahisha’s smooth chin with one hand and stroked her short pink and white beaded braids with the other. “Be good,” she whispered.

“Where you goin’?”

“Be good, baby.”

“Where you goin’… Mama?” Tahisha tried to draw her closer, but her mother had already slid off the bed.

“Shit,” she murmured, struggled to her knees, and then used the dresser handle to pull herself back onto her feet.

“Mama!” Standing on her bed, her hands instinctively reached forward toward her mother’s shoulders. “When you be back, Mama?”

Her mother’s drugged eyes lifted and took in the girl, and as her lips began to form a response, the bedroom door banged open.

Her grandmother’s wide form filled the entryway, blocking the hallway fixture and swallowing her mother in the darkness. “Get the fuck out! Get the fuck out my house and don’t come back! You ain’t never gonna change! I must a been a fool to think you could. Garbage—that don’t change. You can dress it up and make it smell good, but when you open the bag, you just got garbage. I ain’t got time for your lies, and this child don’t neither!”

Tahisha’s mouth fell open, ready to shout “I got time! I got the time for you! Take me with you!” But something primal inside stopped her, as if she knew, without knowing why, that Maizy would not be able to care for her. Instead, she placed the corner of her undershirt in her mouth and began chewing wildly, and her hands groped through the tangle of pink sheet and frayed yellow blanket for the doll. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the sweet scent—the scent of her mother. Tahisha watched Maizy shuffle across the living room. After more declarations of pain and rejection, the steel front door clicked open and shut. Leaping out of bed and running to her bedroom window, Tahisha caught a glimpse of her mother’s narrow back and the blue and white striped bag before both disappeared into the shadows of the early morning.

 

More Talk, Less Text

This was published in the June 20, 2013 issue of the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange.

Occasionally I find myself walking through Maplewood Village or Memorial Park shortly after school has ended, encountering gaggles of adolescents clogging the sidewalks or seated in clusters on the benches and fields. After spending six hours in classrooms, where their ability to communicate is highly regulated, they are finally emancipated and able to express themselves freely and openly. So there they are, engaged in lively debates, passionate arguments and animated conversations — but often not with each other.

Instead, each has a smartphone drawn and is rapidly texting, thumbs flying in a rapid staccato over letters and emoticons. Through some strange cultural shift, the preferred mode of communication in our society has increasingly become the text message, not just among teens, but for many adults as well. While I appreciate that I can now text my daughter to let her know that I’m on the carpool line at school and my husband can send a text letting me know when he’ll be home from work, I believe there is an argument to be made that the majority of what we are texting should be returned to the spoken word.

Texting has changed the way we process our emotional lives. Psychotherapists report that it has become common for individuals struggling in their relationships to produce cell phones during a session and begin reading from lengthy records of text-messaged conversations — the incontrovertible evidence of their mistreatment. During couple’s therapy, clients will often recite aloud texted arguments scrolling across tiny LED screens, a record of their mutual hostility forever stored in cyberspace. Once the acrimonious feelings behind the text messages are expressed and defused, the anger may abate, but many find it difficult to delete the hurtful words, instead storing them both literally and figuratively in their front pockets for future use.

The question of whether partners should be allowed access to each other’s cell phones has become widely debated among couples. When one partner maintains, “my phone is private and none of your business,” the other is often left pondering distressing questions: Is he hiding something? Is she bad-mouthing me to her friends? Whom does he keep texting? Why won’t she let me see her phone?

Today we often express feelings via text without anticipating the ramifications of the message’s permanence or recognizing the potential for misinterpretation. While there was once a lot of “he said, she said,” and the salving effect of fading memories to help us move toward forgiveness, the cell phone leaves no room for memory loss, and simultaneously eliminates the nuance of intonation and facial expression. I’m sorry, but “LOL” or a smiling emoticon does not transmit the same multilayered message as that conveyed by the curl of his lip, the sadness in his eyes or the hesitation in her voice.

Feelings are often shared in text messages without sufficient thought, without filter and without reflection. Texting makes it too easy to respond impulsively, and quite difficult to recant caustic words later. Thumbs fly over the phone and people are hurt, sometimes unintentionally, as we keep texting even when we’ve consumed more alcohol than we intended, are too tired to think clearly, or are under tremendous stress.

Here are a few lessons I have learned about texting that may be worth keeping in mind:
• Never text anything that you’d be embarrassed to have your family and friends read. There is no privacy once it reaches cyberspace.
• If you are in a committed relationship, there should be nothing on your phone that is off-limits to your partner. Privacy should be respected, but secrecy leads to mistrust; part of our commitment should include helping our partner feel secure.
• If you are angry: speak, don’t text. You will be able to share your emotions more thoughtfully and fine tune your words more effectively based on a greater breadth of information. If the other person apologizes, it will be much more satisfying to hear the words directly; if you need to offer an apology, it will carry more weight if delivered in person.

One final guideline that may sum up the rest: If you want to share a shopping list, send a text. If you want to share your life, use your voice.

There is a New Psychiatric Bible – But Don’t Panic

This was published in the June 6, 2013 issue of the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange.

When I first moved into Maplewood and met my new neighbors, I was surprised to learn that at least four of them were psychotherapists. Now, almost sixteen years later, homes on my block have been sold and even resold, and yet that number remains constant. Given the preponderance of mental health professionals in our area, it is understandable that many of us have been following the controversy over the latest edition of the so-called psychiatric bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 5, which was published earlier this month by the American Psychiatric Association. We are not alone: Most major newspapers, news magazines and public radio stations have been caught up in the frenzy over the impact the changes in this manual, which is used to diagnose and inform the treatment of mental illness,  will have on professionals and patients alike.

Like many of my colleagues I dutifully registered for a course that highlights the major changes and have read the articles and listened to the interviews which range from panicked mothers who fear their children will lose their special services in school now that Asperger’s has been incorporated into autism spectrum disorder to psychologists bemoaning the fact that grief, a normal response to losing a loved one, can now be labeled a psychiatric disorder.   Others worry that the new childhood diagnosis of disruptive mood dysregulation disorder will label children with a tendency toward throwing tantrums beyond the preschool years, as mentally ill, while other new diagnoses such as binge eating, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and caffeine withdrawal might lead us to conclude that perhaps we all should seek treatment. 

This fear mongering promotes provocative headlines and creates good fodder for bloggers and pundits, but the reality is that the DSM-5 will have little impact on either the psychiatric professional community or the clients that we treat. Here is why; unlike most other areas of healthcare, in psychiatry, psychology, clinical social work and counseling the treatment of clients is determined by the symptoms they present, not by their diagnosis. For example, if a sixteen-year-old girl presents with a pattern of extreme anger and irritability as well as periods of depression she will be given the same treatment, regardless of whether we use the old childhood bipolar disorder or the new disruptive mood dysregulation disorder diagnosis. Disruptive mood dysregulation was created to move children away from the bipolar (a serious mental illness) label, into another category of illness that may or may not ultimately develop into adult bipolar disorder. For diagnoses such as binge eating or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, the labels are new, but clients with these symptoms have been presenting themselves for treatment for quite some time – we just haven’t had precise diagnostic language until now.

When it comes to receiving services through the schools, I can only speak from my experience as a parent in the South Orange – Maplewood school district and as a therapist who has worked in schools and attended numerous Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings. This experience has taught me that many school districts, including ours, look beyond the diagnostic labels and strive to provide students with all the services they need. Reports written by psychologists and psychiatrists, requesting services for children, are typically very detailed and descriptive and go far beyond a cursory checklist of diagnoses. These professionals recommend specific interventions, accommodations and services that will benefit the child. The Maplewood-South Orange school district has a reputation for being particularly committed to working with parents in finding the right accommodations for their children, and there is no reason to believe that new DSM language will have any impact on the services they provide. Similarly, there’s no reason to anticipate any changes in insurance coverage based on these new diagnoses.

The biggest impact of the new DSM-5 may be on those individuals who feel bonded with their diagnosis. What will happen to the self proclaimed “Aspie” who no longer has Asperger’s? How about the bipolar teen who is now disruptive mood dysregulated? Will the Aspie be distressed that he is now labeled as autistic? Will the bipolar teen now feel optimistic about her new milder sounding mood dysregulation? Grappling with a change in diagnosis is not always easy and may take some time.

Perhaps the most important lesson that those of us who love and or support and treat those with mental illness can take away from all this change is that no one should be defined by their diagnosis. While a psychiatric illness may at times place limitations on life, it needn’t become one’s identity; for we and our families and our clients and our neighbors are so much more than any one illness, we are so much more than any one diagnosis, we are so much more than anything that could be described in a few paragraphs in any one book – even the DSM-5. 

               

                 

Live Life Now

This was published in the 5/16/13 edition of the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange

Love enough people and you’ll end up spending some time in the Emergency Room – supporting them that is, and reassuring them that everything will be okay. My family has managed to avoid several trips to the ER by phoning our very generous Maplewood friend, an Emergency Room Physician, who always agrees to see us in her home when we need her and on one occasion when we were on vacation and my daughter dislocated her elbow, actually talked me through the procedure for re-setting the joint.

This Mother’s Day I found myself sitting with a family member in the Fast Track waiting area in the Saint Barnabas Hospital Emergency Room. Through the thin curtains drawn around our examination area to offer a modicum of privacy, I was able to hear other families’ conversations; a woman phoning her mother and wishing her a happy mother’s day, adult children offering humor and words of encouragement, a patient telling her grown daughter about her plans to take better care of herself.

The nursing staff and doctors were upbeat and friendly, their words laced with comfort, their tone confident and optimistic. On our side of the ER were the milder injuries and illnesses that had positive prognoses. Still, for people like me with a tendency to worry, every Emergency Room visit is fraught with some fear and gives me pause and time to consider the “what ifs.”

Last week I received and email with a list of the top 5 regrets of terminally ill patients. These were compiled by Bonnie Ware, a palliative nurse in her book, Top Five Regrets of the Dying. They were, in order of prevalence:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Perhaps one of the positive side effects of considering, “what if me or my loved one were seriously ill,” is the recognition of life’s fragility and the need to live life fully so that we won’t be left with feelings of regret and mourning what we could have been or should have done.The greatest regret, according to Ware, is not living life true to one’s self. Every once in a while it is useful to step back and ask, what were my greatest dreams? What have I always wanted to do? How can I still make them happen?

Often we yearn not for the attainment of some goal, but to be involved in the process of something we love. For example, my father was always a history buff, and truth be told he would have liked nothing better than to stand in front of a high school or college history class and share his passion. Unfortunately, that was not to be, for in his own words, “boys from Brooklyn who were good in science became doctors.” Now in his retirement, he does research and lectures at the local history club and other organizations. He has realized his passion and is sharing it with others.

The second of the great regrets is connected to the one of the biggest sacrifices we make for work – namely, cutting back on family time. Finding that balance between work and family can be one of life’s great challenges, but few things are more important in the bigger picture. Finding the time, making the time, carving out time; often we feel helpless to do these things, but perhaps the larger goal is that of “being present” when we are with those we love. Spending three hours with family on the weekend doesn’t mean much if we are checking our email every few minutes, or talking on the phone with a colleague or texting or looking things up on the internet. These days spending quality time means disconnecting from our phones, Ipads and laptops so that we can connect with the people in the room around us.

Next on the list of top regrets is perhaps one of the most difficult; having the courage to express feelings. This applies to both positive and negative feelings. Saying things like, “I love you”, “you hurt me”, “I miss you”, “you’re important to me” or even “I’m angry”, can make us uncomfortable, but holding onto anger, bitterness and pain can easily lead to both unhappiness and to health problems, and not sharing positive feelings often leaves us with unanswered questions like; “did he know I loved him?” “did she know how much I appreciated her?” Finding the words and the courage can be difficult, but even if it comes in the form of a letter or email, sharing feelings is critical. Last year I was at a birthday party for a close friend, and her husband got up to make a speech. He is someone who is always quick with a joke or pithy remark. But in front of this crowd of people, he turned to his wife and declared, “you make me a better man.” It was a very tender moment, and the courage of his statement made a deep impression.

Similarly, staying in touch with friends is an obvious necessity, but it requires sustained effort and is often neglected in the bustle of life, and the final great regret; allowing one’s self to be happy, seems a bit mysterious. According to Ware, many didn’t realize until the end of their lives that happiness is a choice. We can choose to remain steeped in bitterness and focused on what’s wrong with our lives, or we can instead look for reasons to be happy and allow recognition of what is positive in the world around us. It’s interesting that so many came to these realizations at life’s end when clarity of vision tends to bring things into perspective.

You needn’t wait for a trip to the Emergency Room. Be true to yourself, make time for family and friends, share your feelings and let yourself laugh. If we live life now, perhaps we will come to realize the gift in every new day.

Guns and Youth – A Deadly Combination

A version of this column appeared in the 4/21/13 edition on the News-Record of Maplewood and South Orange.

Last week several tragic stories made national headlines. One involved a four year old in Tennessee who found a loaded gun resting on a bed and accidentally shot and killed a woman at a cookout. A second occurred closer to home in Toms River, New Jersey. In this case the victim was a child. While playing in the backyard with a neighborhood friend, a four year old boy shot and killed his six year old playmate. Seeing pictures of the Toms River street where this tragedy unfolded – the quiet, leafy suburban streets not all that different from our own here in South Orange and Maplewood – I felt not only sadness, but worry. Could the same thing happen again? How can we prevent it?

Despite the media attention given to these types of stories, the greatest danger in having guns available to children and adolescents isn’t accidental shootings or even intentional homicides. The statistically overwhelming danger is that our children or young adults will kill themselves. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in our overall population, but it is the third leading case for young people ages 15 to 24. Also, this demographic is more likely than others to use firearms to end their lives. In fact firearms are used in more than half of all suicides, and the availability of firearms in the home is one of the leading risk factors for suicide according to the listed by the National Institute of Mental Health. Here is the latest grim statistic: more than 38,000 people in the United States take their own lives every year. This is more than twice the number of homicides.

The majority of these people suffer from depression. Today almost 7 percent of Americans suffer from major depression and for teens that number can rise above 10 percent. Depression is actually the leading cause of disability for those between the ages of 15 and 44 and mood disorders are pervasive in our society. While it’s not unusual for severely depressed people to have thoughts of ending their lives, and some do take the next step and make suicide attempts, those who use firearms are usually successful. Other methods allow time to reconsider. Unfortunately, with firearms there isn’t time for second thoughts. It’s important to know that interviews with survivors of suicide attempts show that they are almost universally relieved that their efforts failed. Since adolescents and children are more impulsive than adults, they are more likely to act on negative feelings rather than waiting them out or asking for help. That is why every expression of suicidal thinking made by young people has to be taken seriously.

In the recent debates on gun control, much has been said about protecting the public from the mentally ill, but I’d like to see more of the discussion focused on protecting those with mental illness from themselves. Given proper treatment, most severely depressed individuals do recover and go on to lead satisfying lives. Twenty thousand Americans ended their lives with a gun in 2012, and our society can and must do more to lower that number in 2013.

Several years ago one of my children attended a local private school that asked all parents to sign an agreement stating that if there were firearms in the home they would be kept under lock and key. It was also suggested that ammunition be stored separately. We weren’t required to sign the agreement, but the list of those who had signed was available to all parents. Simply asking parents to consider the issue was an important step in raising awareness about the need for gun safety at home. Creative measures like these should be considered in our discussions about keeping our kids safe.

What can we as a local and national community do to protect our vulnerable children, adolescents, and young adults? The gun control debate is complex and fraught with conflict, and as the two sides become more polarized it seems that a compromise is more elusive, but keeping our guns safely locked away from young people should be something on which we can all agree. At least that is my hope.

Bring More Love

This Op-Ed appeared in the 1/31/13 edition of The New Jersey Jewish Standard.

It was no surprise that when my grandmother died, her last words to me were “I love you.” These were her parting words for as long as I could remember. They came right after, “Be well, don’t work too hard, don’t worry about anything,” and “enjoy every minute of your life.” That was the kind of lady my grandmother was; quick to give advice and blessings, praise and kisses. “Whatever you wish for yourself – God should grant you, you should have only nachas.” So of course she would part from me with love on her lips.

Recently, as a clinical social worker, I’ve begun to work with people who are ill and sometimes even dying, and I’ve been surprised by their last words to me. Last year, I became involved in the case of a highly regarded engineer at the pinnacle of his career who was unfortunately stricken with cancer. When I first met him, he was most interested in ascertaining what my role would be in his care, and why exactly I was sitting with him in his living room on that particular winter afternoon. On my second visit, he gave me a hug before I left and thanked me for coming. At our third and final meeting, just a few weeks before his death, his speech was nearly gone and he was bed ridden. Still, before we parted he took my hand and spoke softly the words, “I love you.” These seemed to be among the last words he was able to locate and vocalize.

 Around this same time, I took over a modest case load from a therapist who specialized in eldercare. Many of my new clients struggled with depression related to memory loss or losing their independence. Some I saw on a weekly basis and we developed strong therapeutic relationships. One particular gentleman, whom I’ll call George, was wheelchair bound and showed some signs of dementia right from the start. George had been a fiercely independent man who never married. He was an air force veteran who had worked for the government, enjoyed sports, and loved his large extended family. He had a face that looked like a boxer’s and always had a twinkle in his light blue eyes. After working with him for over a year, his memory had deteriorated as had his physical condition.

On the morning, a few months ago, when George’s mind was surprisingly clear and we were able to discuss his failing health, tears streamed down his face and he told me a story, one stored in some compartment of his mind still accessible. As a child, he had attended a local fair with his aunt and some cousins. There they saw a family with many children, all looking longingly at the rides, too poor to purchase tickets. He said his aunt gave him all of their tickets and told him to give them to the destitute mother for her children. “That was the way I was raised, to always care for others,” he concluded. Before I left that day he asked if he could kiss me and I placed my cheek against his scared face, his gnarled arthritic hand in my own.

Two weeks later George was hospitalized and I visited him for the last time. He looked small and frail but his eyes were still shining. Before I left I took his hand in mine and he said, “I love you.” “I love you too,” I replied and waved goodbye. George passed away about a week later.

Then just yesterday, I went to visit another elderly client, whom I’ll call Anna, who is currently hospitalized. She had led a rather reclusive life, had never married and had no children. Anna had been a journalist, but since retiring rarely left her apartment. Even at the assisted living facility where she resided, Anna never went down to communal meals and spent most of her time in bed, curled up with her furry companion – a noble golden alley cat she’d rescued from the streets of her old neighborhood.

 A few weeks ago Anna took a fall and required complex surgery to repair her fractures. A wisp of a woman, once hospitalize she ate less and less and her body began to waste away. When I entered her hospital room I was shocked by her condition; she twitched and shook and mumbled disconnected words to herself. I called her name and she gave me a half smile. After getting her an extra blanket and after a few futile attempts to get her to eat, I finally just sat down and took her hand. “What can I do for you?” I asked, leaning in close to hear her response.

Anna’s answer was both audible and clear, “Bring more love into the world.”

That was not at all the answer I was expecting. I felt helpless; I wanted to do something practical. After a few minutes I repeated my question, hoping to learn of some action I could take to help her feel more comfortable.

This time she raised her voice slightly as if she was annoyed that I hadn’t understood her the first time. “I said; bring more love into the world!”

Okay, I thought, I understand. In the end – the very bitter, deteriorated, demented, trembling, wasting away, hopeless end; there is only love. Since I have heard it from a Jewish grandmother, from an engineer, from a government worker, and from a journalist I have come to believe it is true. I know not whether these words are being expressed because these people already have one foot in the spiritual realm or if they are simply part of a final realization of what is most important in life or if perhaps both explanations are accurate.  

In honoring the wishes of Anna who remains hospitalized, I share her message with you and urge you to heed her words and “bring more love into the world.” If there is a single method for performing Tikkun Olam and healing everything in our world; then perhaps, just perhaps, this is it.