We called her Tick Tock because any familiar name sounded too cruel.
My five-year old granddaughter came up with the name. Once she heard me whispering about “titkos,” meaning secret in Hungarian. I thought she didn’t pick up any of the Hungarian words I tried to teach her but this one, this one she did.
My sister called me this morning, as she does every morning. My little granddaughter sat beside me at the kitchen table eating breakfast so I spoke cryptically about visiting the hospital, worried her big ears would pick up on something they shouldn’t. I told my sister I would bring my special chocolate sponge cake with chips. It was light enough to melt in your mouth.
“Are you visiting the Tick Tock today, nagymama? Can I come?”
I reeled in shock at the thought of my little doll, my living miracle, opening her eyes on such tragedy. We were careful not to talk around her but the name, Tick Tock, stuck. I tsk-ed tsk-ed her for eavesdropping on adult conversations and smacked her on the bum before sitting her in front of the TV. It was Shabbat but she needed a distraction as I made my escape. Her parents were at work, again, so here I was 30 years after Auschwitz, puh puh, maybe its memory be erased, raising a grandchild in Canada. Toronto. Had you told me 30 years ago, when my cousins held me up in the rain during roll call, I would never have believed you.
I asked my son to order the taxi before he left for shul. He gave me a look and I shot him one back. After almost 20 years in this country, English still came begrudgingly to my tongue. The world moved to fast. My lips couldn’t keep up.
I hurried past the nurses at front desk at the Hospital for Sick Children and smiled, looking down. I didn’t want questions. I didn’t have any answers.
Tick Tock lay in her tiny cot and screamed like a tortured, exhausted kitten when she saw me. I tapped her back softly, making a soothing noise with my teeth, careful to avoid the bandages and gauze covering the exposed sack protruding from her lower back.
I sat down, exhaling deeply. The June sunlight forced its way through the window and I wanted Tick Tock to enjoy some fresh air. Children need sunlight. I raised enough kids, my own, others left behind, I should know. I pulled up my sleeves to try to open the window, the muscles under my blue tattooed numbers straining to make themselves known. Their presence irritated me. Like dirt. The window remained firmly shut.
Tick Tock watched me quietly as I moved away from the window and sat next to her cot. Her hair black as night and eyes dark blue, larger than they should be. Who did you look like, my precious Tick Tock? Not your mother. Or my sister. Maybe our father, may his name be a blessing.
“Pretty Like the Moon, you are
Bright Like the Stars
From Heaven you were sent to me like a Present.
“My mother sang that song to me? Did you know that? It’s Yiddish, not Hungarian. She would be your great-grandmother. She died when I was six, just three and a half years older than you. Then I became a little mama to your grandmother.” I hummed the song, pulling out the tiny comb from my purse to brush her hair away from her eyes. She stared silently, mesmerized. I squeezed my thick hand under her delicate face and tried to maneuver her into a seated position.
“Hungry my little girl? Here, I brought you something from home.” I reached back into the plastic bag and pulled out the tin of sponge cake, cut carefully in squares. I washed my hands in the little sink and said a blessing, before pulling a small piece off with my fingers and inserting it into her mouth. She kept staring as she chewed.
A doctor walked in briskly, more surprised to see me than the other way around. He looked at me suspiciously.
“A relative, I assume? We haven’t seen anyone here in days. This is a child, a baby. She needs to be held.” Now it was my turn to stare. The words, the words kept coming. Too fast for me to understand.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? The prognosis for this child is not good, but you can’t leave her here. She needs to go home.”
I shook my head yes, not understanding, but understanding all the same. He left, a cloud of anger in his wake. I went to sit down, his glare, and the swelling in my legs, made me shake. Tick Tock tried to follow me with her eyes, emitting a guttural sound when I moved out of sight. I shuffled two chairs closer to her cot, picking up my own legs, one by one, with my hands to rest them on the chair.
“See, my legs don’t work well either.” She looked with curiosity, I thought. Intelligence. Maybe the doctors were wrong. Maybe her mother was wrong. Maybe.
I took a deep breathe. I could see the light begin to change as it came in through the window. A nurse quietly entered, changed Tick Tock’s diaper and brought in some food. It smelled like turkey but looked like applesauce. She ignored me as she checked her tubes and pressed some buttons on a machine. She sat Tick Tock up a bit more than I had and began spoon feeding her very slowly.
“I. Can. Do. This.” I tried to speak slowly, using my best English. I wish my son were here to help me. Likely he remained at shul, drinking with friends, passively praying for redemption. The nurse looked at me skeptically.
“How do I know you’ll feed her?” she yelled, enunciating every word.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“How do I know. You’ll. Feed. Her,” she yelled again, pointing to the girl’s mouth.
“Trust. Trust.” I said, begging for the food.
The nurse stared at me from the corner of her eye.
“I’m checking later, Ok? Diaper must be dirty. Ok?”
The last part confused me but I gratefully accepted the food. The moment the nurse exited I tasted a bit and then restrained myself from spitting it out. Creamed turkey and sweet potato. No salt or flavour. It was cold.
I sat on the corner of the bed and carefully took Tick Tock into my lap, leaning her up against my chest. I tried not to stare at her angry back and worried that my coarse skirt would irritate her fragile skin.
“Open up wide little mommy, the airplane is coming in.” Her big eyes opened even wider as I brought the tiny spoon to her lips, her black pupils large like the moon.
“Pretty like the moon, you are,” I sang again.
“You know, my cousins fed me like this once. I was just a little thing, barely 80 pounds. Could hardly stand but they said, ‘open wide, little mommy. The airplane is coming. They tried to make me laugh so I’d open my mouth. Even over there, they found some humour …”
I took a deep breath.
“Even in the war, there were some good people. Some good Germans. One soldier gave me extra food in the beginning that I shared with my cousins. And at the end, when I could barely walk and they kept marching us, in the snow. In the cold. You could still find some good in people. Not everyone. But some.
Tick Tock didn’t make a noise. Other than the scream when I entered and a few grunts she seemed utterly silent. I tried to remember my kids, my granddaughter. At 2 and a half, what did they do? Could they speak? Could they laugh? Was Tick Tock’s brain not working, as everyone said, or was it simply that she had nothing to say to any of us? I wouldn’t blame her.
“You know, your mama, she’s very beautiful. Very beautiful. She lives in a nice house with her husband, your dad. You don’t remember but you spent some time there before, before she brought you back to the hospital.
“These children of ours, they aren’t made of the same stuff. They couldn’t survive the war. The camps. The starvation. The smell of death. I’m not even sure they could survive a strong wind. I wonder if we used up all our resources, my generation, leaving the next one, lacking somehow. Unable to cope. They seem so fragile.
“I felt for her, your mama. When you were born, they told her you would never walk, will never be able to go to school. The doctors said you wouldn’t survive childhood. Maybe live 3 or 4 years. Maybe 5. She broke a bit, your mama. I think it was easier for her to believe you died. Or that she never had you at all.
Tick Tock’s eyes began to close. I placed the food on the side of the cot and made myself comfortable, my legs now resting on the bed. I bent over, bringing my lips to her forehead. She smelled like hospital but her warm body felt so familiar.
The lights grew dimmer outside. I wondered if my son came home expecting lunch? Or dinner? Did my granddaughter go home with her mother after a day in front of the television? Did she sneak into the secret stash of cookies in my room that I keep only for her? I felt my eyes grow tired, too.
“Pretty Like the Moon, you are.
Bright Like the Stars.”
I shook myself awake.
“You know, Tick Tock, I was only 22 when I came back from the camps. My husband was still missing. I stayed with his sister in Prague, praying for his return. Others came back, too. Like skeletons they were. Some women were even pregnant. One friend, from childhood, said she wanted to go to America. Somehow, she found a way, to get a job as a maid. But she couldn’t take her baby. So, I watched her for a few years, until her mama came back. We called her Violet, because of her eyes. She had dark hair, like yours. Now that I think about it, she had a brace to help her walk. Vie hated to wear it but I forced her, even through her tears. And now, look at her.
“Then God blessed me with two children. Smuggled them across the border into Vienna before making our way to Canada. We drugged them, so they wouldn’t cry when we snuck across. My son was your age. I worried we drugged him too much. For a while, he wouldn’t wake up.
“In Toronto, I raised other children. Nieces, nephews. Somehow, we managed. My son says you are created in God’s image and he’s right. But he’s not here, is he? No one is. I’m an old lady now. An old lady. It’s not only my legs, but also my heart. It beats but reluctantly. I’ve felt too much in my life and used it up. How could I care for …?” I rocked her back and forth and felt her breathe on my arm.
“From Heaven you were sent to me, like a present.”
The nurse returned and eyed me suspiciously again as I rested on the cot, this tiny child in my arms. She carefully pulled her up. Tick Tock didn’t stir. Children under stress, I remember, rarely do. They sleep like death.
The nurse peaked into her diaper and nodded her head.
“Good,” she said.
I struggled to stand. By this time in the day the swelling in my legs became overwhelming. I hoped I could find a taxi in front of the hospital to take me home.
I motioned for the nurse to wait while I pulled the tin of cake from my purse.
“Cake. For the baby. I make. It’s good for baby.”
The nurse tilted her head in disbelief.
“The baby doesn’t need cake. The baby needs to go home. If you want to do something good for this child, take her home. Otherwise, don’t come back.”
The nurse could have spoken any language, German, Italian, Gypsy. I would have understood every word. I collected my bag and nodded in agreement. I tried to avoid looking at the baby as I left. We would meet again, I thought. Soon enough. In Olam Habah, God willing. The next world.
As I stepped out of the room, I heard a piercing scream coming from the cot. I squeezed my eyes shut, keeping in the tears. I lived through worse, I reminded myself. I lived through worse. But the scream followed me down the hallway, into the elevator. I swear I heard it as I entered the taxi and carefully enunciated every word of my address.
Leah launched her writing career as a journalist working for the Jerusalem Report. Her success in the Middle East led to a fifteen-year career in which she interviewed the famous and infamous alike, including Salman Rushdie, Henry Morgentaler and the Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. Leah spent seven years as a weekly, national business columnist for the Globe and Mail. She recently completed her first novel, The Never Ending.