Mrs. Etty Bloom’s second child, her son whom she waited five long years for, was born retarded. The delivery room, slightly familiar from the birth of her daughter many years earlier, was both comforting and stifling – the nurse whose hand she squeezed tightly with each contraction, the voice of someone loud, assertive, hypnotic – Push, Push, Push! She pushed, sweat beading down her forehead, running fast down her back, her breath held and building as she pushed and pushed through the pain. While she struggled through each contraction, she thought of sweet baby fat, high pitch wails, tiny nail beds, she thought of this and pushed with all her might. She was ready. She had waited so long, too long to do this again. And she had lost deeply along the way. She was ready. She knew motherhood with a ferocity, she longed for it, prayed for it. She was ready. One more push. But with the sudden rush of release, she felt the air stiffen, the moisture on her skin grow cold, the whole room transcend from anticipation to thwarted horror. Between the spilling out of her birth and the piercing cry of her infant, she recognized the change.
It’s a boy!
A nurse rushed the crying baby to Etty’s arms, a towel carefully wiping off the afterbirth. She tried to glimpse his face, pulled her hand at the nurses, stopped the towel and stared. There it was. Classic physical features; flattened facial structure, a small nose, upward slanted eyes. There was no denying the evidence. Her son was retarded.
“He’s beautiful!” Etty said through tears. He was ugly. Bald with telling features. His skin was red, his fingers wrinkled, his cheeks already covered in baby acne. Her heart pounded solidly inside her. How could this happen to her? To Etty Bloom? President of three charity organizations, modest, pious, a passionate prayer, meticulous adherer to all 613 mitzvos, a lover of Torah, a woman of valor.
Sometimes, she would fantasize about her death, a sudden tragic accident, cancer or a stroke, she would imagine the throngs of people filling the synagogue to listen to the Rabbis eulogize, telling of her greatness, her kindness, her great love for her children. Would they talk of her love of her retarded child? Would this defect on her life bring her greater praise? Would it better her? Would she walk the streets one day holding this child’s hand and collect the awe full eyes of her neighbors, her friends? How after five years of childlessness could this be her reward? After all those many days walking passed the empty crib with nothing to fill it with but sanitary napkins, after all those years listening to her daughter ask for a sister or a brother. How, after all her heartache, could G-d give her a retarded baby? There had to be an explanation, an oversight, a sin. She kept looking at him, but was forgetting him just the same.
“Mrs. Bloom, would you like to nurse your son?”
Etty didn’t answer the nurse. Instead she swept open her hospital gown and expertly latched her son to her breast. No one was saying anything. Shouldn’t the doctor, the nurse, shouldn’t someone say it. Aloud. Everyone wanted to. Everyone wanted to talk about the elephant in the room. The elephant sucking at her breast. She could feel them holding their breath, feel the tension in their muscles as they busied about the delivery room. The angst was chipping at her. She waited, she looked at her baby and waited. But the doctor kept busy and the nurse was fidgeting with a clipboard and everyone was quiet. Etty reached to pull a strand of curly red hair from her face, as she did, she realized her head covering had come off during delivery. She only now remembered her husband, Benji.
“Benji, my snood! My snood fell off.”
She noticed now how her husband stood, like a scolded child. Big oversized shoulders, his gut hanging over his pants, his beard crawling to the tip of his white collared shirt. His dress pants baggy on the back side and fringing on the cuffs. He had big lips and small eyes and not once in the twelve years of their marriage had she ever looked upon him with attraction.
She had once thought of herself as beautiful; soft, rosy skinned, voluptuous chest, slim calves and always well dressed. She put an effort to rouge her cheeks and press her blouses, her lipsticks shades perfectly selected to enhance her complexion and her red hair was always expertly curled with glass bottles each night. She had once considered herself a catch. But no one wanted her. No one would marry her. Her mother blamed the color of her hair. Both her parents were brunettes, it was an enigma how their only daughter was born with a head of fire. Her mother used to make her sit in the sun with lemon juice in her hair to lighten the red, her father used to talk to her of the most famous biblical red head, Asuv, his malicious heart and overdriven id. She was plagued by her parents’ disappointment with the color of her hair.
Etty loved her hair, loved how she stood out in a crowd of Bais Yaakov girls, loved the weight of it on her shoulder and took great pains to keep it tame and attractive. The matchmakers never mentioned her hair, they were focused on Etty’s other faults. They would throw their hands up in the air, tell Etty’s mother that Etty should not talk so much on the dates, should not drum her fingers on the table, should never send her food back to the kitchen and should certainly not brag about her teaching certificate. Etty tried. She tried to be subdued, she tried to be docile like her friends whose stomachs already bulged with second and third children while Etty was still meeting with matchmaker after matchmaker. Once, when Etty was already 25 years old and spending most of her day staring at her naked ring finger, her father was certain he had figured out why they were all plagued by Etty’s inability to attract marital proposals. One evening during a silent dinner where forks and knives scraped lonely against cheap china, Etty’s father stopped chewing and looked passed Etty at her mother. I think I know why we are all in this predicament. It was the snowballs. And as suddenly as he had spoken in the middle of a quiet meal, he had stopped and returned to his meat and soggy green beans. Etty grew more and more desperate with each passing winter as snow would fall thick on the ground and she would remember both her haunting singularity in the world as well as flying snowballs. And then finally, Benji Bloom was called upon when Etty was 27 years old. Mr. Binyomen Bloom of Borough Park, son to a fishmonger and a Pre 1A teacher. Three years younger than Etty and with even fewer matchmaker proposals than Etty. His comical attempts at being learned, his clothing stinking of fish and the wet salty sea, it was all so insulting. Etty wanted to refuse the match. She had sat in the matchmaker’s office, her tea growing cold in front of her, crossing her arms and pressing her lips firmly together. She was strong and would not cave. She would wait a little longer, for a better match. She would not go to bed each night stinking of salmon and trout. But then the matchmaker had stroked his beard and sat back deep in his leather chair and told Etty something she remembered each morning as she applied her eye cream – with each passing year, she became less and less desirable.
“Benji! My snood, Benji! Get my snood, my hair is uncovered.”
Benji didn’t move. He only stared, focused solely on the small person attached to Etty’s breast. He looked like a bull in a china shop, the way he stood obtrusive, imposing, almost offensively. She hardly remembered his presence in the room as her contractions ceased her, as the doctor measured her, and as the nurses prepared her for delivery. For all she knew, she had been in on this alone the whole time.
“Etty, don’t you see? Don’t you see our son?”
Etty reached out her hand. She always had large hands, never dainty ones like her mother and friends. Fat fingers which required large rings and leather watches to be worn on the first hole, hands she tried to feminize with pink lacquer and long nails. She reached out that big manicured hand and grabbed a hold of Benji’s sleeve, his shirts always tight around the stomach and loose around his arms, the shirts she herself picked out and ironed early in the mornings. She pulled him down right to her level in the hospital bed. Got his face close to her narrowing eyes.
“Get my snood.”
What she wanted to say was that their son was beautiful, perfect and they would love him regardless of a silly extra chromosome. But she didn’t say that. Because he wasn’t perfect. He was retarded. And she couldn’t love him.
Benji handed her a black snood, a terribly unflattering hair covering that Etty liked to pull down to the middle of her forehead. She enjoyed piety, thrived off of it, wanted everyone to know what kind of a careful person she was by how far down her forehead the elastic of her head covering went. Now, her forehead was pulsing. She felt the doctor still between her legs. There was tearing and stitching now, a nurse was asking Etty for her son, for her retarded son, to measure, to weigh, to smear ink all over the bottom of his retarded feet and stamp them on a paper so she could forever remember the size of his toes at birth. Etty acquiesced, allowed them to take her child and sank deep into the damp pillows supporting her back. She felt thirsty, she felt like she may actually die if she did not have a diet soda, with lemon.
“Benji, please, run over to the cafeteria, get me a lemon lime soda, and see if they have fresh lemon slices too.”
Benji stood there like an oaf. Etty felt explosive, she felt raging. She yelled, louder than she had intended, A LEMON LIME SODA! The nurse looked up from the baby, the doctor looked up from between her legs, the nurse looked at the doctor and Etty looked at everyone.
“Just say it already! You think we can’t tell!” Etty burst into tears, she was certain her whole body would flood with them. Finally, Benji moved. Etty watched the door open and close and prayed her husband was leaving her, not just to the cafeteria to fetch her soda.
“Are you in pain, Mrs. Bloom?” The doctor spoke softly as he kept working.
“Please, just say it.” Etty said through tears.
“I’m just about finished here. I have another patient who is ready to deliver and then, after that, I will come by with the pediatrician and we will have a nice little chat.”
Etty closed her eyes. She could hear the baby wailing. Soon they would bring him to her again, he would crave her touch, her maternal warmth, he would want to eat, to suckle, to sleep in her arms against her chest, the beats of their hearts synchronizing in anatomical unison.
When Etty was a little, there was a girl in her class who had a retarded brother. Every day after school, her brother would wait for her at the corner to ride the public bus home with her. He was much older, a dumb boy with a goofy smile and his presence made the school children rage with wildness. They would throw their trash his way, sing songs about his crooked teeth and his lumpy weight, sing-songy, rhyming songs that sometimes Etty and her friends would chant while they jumped rope or skipped cracks in the sidewalks. One day, the same day Etty wore her new pale blue pea coat, the one with a matching hat and muff, she watched as some of the school children began to shower the retarded boy with snow balls. They came fast and furious, white balls of ice smashing against the poor boys cheeks, showering down on him, turning him into a walking snowman. Etty had laughed. She had even bent down to pick up some snow and balled it up, she was ready to aim and toss and join the fun. It was important to Etty to stay on top of the social hemisphere, to not join in meant social suicide and with the abundance of compliments she had earned that day in her new coat she felt high on fine wool and intended to make the most of the day. Just as she reached back to propel her snowball, a firm hand grasped her forearm.
“Drop it.” Her mother’s voice sent a cold down her spine that was more frigid than the winter air around her.
Etty lost her new pea coat. She was made to give it to the retarded boy’s sister. Her mother made her deliver it herself. She had to wear last year’s coat for the rest of winter, the juvenile one with large buttons and a small tear in the armpit. Her mother had gone back to the second hand clothing store down the corner to buy it back from the owner. She had made Etty wear it home from the shop and insisted that Etty still carry the second hand shopping bag all the way home, where Etty had to carry the bag in shame passed her friends playing in their front yards. And if that shame wasn’t enough, Etty also had to endure a lengthy lecture over dinner, her chicken and potatoes growing cold as her father listened to her mother’s list of faults. Her father stroked his short beard and looked his nine-year-old Etty in the eyes. “God will remember this heinous act, Etty. And you will too.”
The nurse brought the baby back to Etty. He was wearing a blue cotton hat now, pulled down snug around his head and he was wrapped in a thin blanket with small blue stripes printed on it. If you looked quickly, at just a glance, you may think he was a normal healthy baby, but Etty knew he would get showered in snowballs one day. She wondered what Sarala’s friends would say when she brought them over to look at her new baby brother. Would they snicker? Would they laugh? Would they try to suffocate him with a ruffled pillow? Maybe children were kinder now. The 50’s were different, no one tolerated strangeness back then when Etty was growing up, but it was the 70’s now, strangeness was all those flower-loving hippies were talking about. But her Sarala was far removed from that kind of life, tucked safely into the streets of Borough Park. Besides, she was a quiet girl, at seven years old she already resembled the elderly and decrepit more than the bright and sunny girls she would bring home from school. Sarala walked like she had stones in her shoes, dragging her feet, her face always sullen. It was a shame that her auburn braids hung limp on her shoulders because Etty could tell there was real beauty beneath those sun spot freckles, that if Sarala would just put a bit of effort forward she could easily be on a matchmaker’s coveted list some day. All she needed was to infuse a little life in her, a bit of a bounce in her walk, a smile to brighten her face and maybe to befriend the principal’s daughter who was in her class. But if she kept bringing home mediocre grades and never participating in the school choirs, she would find herself in the same dreaded position that Etty had – married off as an old maid to a fish smelling boy who would leave her a bout of childless years only to reward her with a retarded son.
The doors of the delivery room opened and Benji returned with a lemon lime soda.
“They didn’t have lemons.” Benji handed Etty the can. It was warm.
“I can’t drink this Benji, where is the ice? The lemon?”
“Don’t you think we should speak with a doctor?” Benji asked without paying any attention to the warm soda.
“Please, can’t you get me some ice chips at least. I just had a baby!”
Etty sometimes wondered about Rabbi Ruben’s son, the one she had gone out with one evening ages ago when her skin still glowed. He was a tall thin boy, only twenty years old. He barely spoke the whole time they sat in the hotel lobby he had taken her to. He had brought her a coca cola and when he placed the can on the table, Etty had asked for ice. Her mother wept weeks over this mistake. There was the sheer idea that she would dare to insult the boy but the grander insult, that she was willing to take ice from a non-kosher glass. Etty had not even thought of it at the time. It was her first date, the first time she was even sitting in a hotel lobby. Who drank a soda without ice? He married a 17-year-old girl from the class below her whose father spoke no English at all. They had nine children Etty had last heard, and already were marrying off their eldest. But here was Etty, 39 years old, only delivering her second child and still without ice for her soda.
“I didn’t know any children like this when I was growing up, did you?” Benji said quietly, now sitting in a chair he pulled up so he could be level with his child.
“What does that mean? Of course I didn’t know any retarded children. I am an only child, Benji. What about you? You have more brothers and sisters than Sarala has freckles. Perhaps you know a retarded person?”
It was definitely more likely that this was Benji’s fault. He was a simpleton. A fool. He looked more at home with a children’s Parshah sheet than with a beautifully printed Gemarah. His words of Torah were always simple at the Shabbas meals and sometimes it was their own Sarala with rocks in her shoes that would correct her father’s basic biblical mistakes, mixing up names or details of the building of the holy Temple. Perhaps he himself was retarded. Etty laughed at this, yes that would be the icing on the cake, the matchmakers “Aha!” moment, when he realized what to do with the fiery red-headed Etty Greenberger.
“Mrs. Bloom, I’m just going to step out for a few minutes and I will return very shortly to talk with you and your husband.” The doctor left, his white coat disappearing into the hallway.
Etty sat, her son buried against her chest, her husband next to her, his head in his hands. When Etty gave birth to Sarala, her mother was with her. Benji had stayed in the hallway saying Psalms. Now, her mother was buried in the Mount Hebron cemetery. Her father waited at home, stroking his beard most likely, drinking hot water with honey and lemon and reading a newspaper printed in Yiddish. She should call him, tell him he finally has a grandson, but he would want to ask if the baby is healthy, he would want to come to her home and hold the baby, want to be present at the bris, at his grandson’s upsherin at three, at his bar mitzvah at thirteen. Etty began to cry. She would have to say it aloud, would have to call her father and tell him that his grandson has Down syndrome, tell him that it is because she wanted to throw a snowball at a silly looking boy thirty years ago. Etty’s crying hardened into deep sobbing. Next to her, her husband sat, silent and weeping as well. Around them the nurses hustled, they filled the room with busy noise and mundane life. Etty was thankful to them, hoped they wouldn’t leave her and Benji alone in the room with this child.
“It will be okay.”
Etty’s eyes were closed, but she took those words spoken and glued them to her soul. She realized she was repeating them, over and over in her head like a prayer. She wanted to beg Benji forgiveness, his words were just the ones she needed. She felt a soft feminine hand on her shoulder, That’s right, dear, it will be okay. The nurse was standing over her, squeezing her shoulder, her voice so comforting. Benji still sat next to her dumbed to silence. It was the nurses’ prayer and Etty found her hate again.
“Leave us, please.” Benji finally said. The nurse nodded and the door swung shut behind her. “I will need to tell my parents.”
“Tell them. Of course, tell them we gave birth to a son tonight, that he is 7 pounds and 4 ounces, and that it looks like his hair will be red.”
“Etty, please don’t.”
“Tell them that, Benji, and nothing else.”
“Etty, it will need to be said aloud.” Benji straightened his back. He was 6 foot 1, but Etty, at 5’1, always stood taller than him.
“Say it aloud then, say aloud that we have a son, that we gave birth to a son after five years of nothing.”
“Don’t “Etty” me. You can blame me for this if you like. But do not blame him, do not hold him responsible. You call whoever you like to call, but you breathe one word about this and I will leave you in the middle of the night childless and lonely in your bed.”
As Etty spoke through gritted teeth she felt her son suckle at her harder, more fervently, as if her words were sweet molasses to his mouth. She knew now, with Benji’s dripping disappointment, that she would be this boy’s champion, that she would not forsake him, that she would not ever allow a harsh word or look to be thrown at him like balls of ice. She would endure this because Etty Bloom knew one thing for certain, she was a mother and she had a debt to pay.
Talya Jankovits earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in “The Citron Review,” “Recovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing,” and her short story “Undone” in “Lunch Ticket” was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters and is working on her second novel while seeking representation for her first.