BEFORE THE BEGINNING: Carlene and Bethie
The following true story happened a year or so before our younger daughter Valerie was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer. I have never forgotten it since it demonstrates the hold that memory sometimes has on time.
Dressing for Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah was hazardous duty with my two little kids around and I wasn’t sure whether or not I passed muster. Did I shave both legs?Yup.
Stacy and Valerie, ages four and two respectively, had converted our king-sized bed into a trampoline. They were jumping up and down, almost rhythmically to “The Eensy Weensy Spider,” and belted out the words like zealous songsters. I called from the hall, my arms full of freshly-washed clothes, “Stop that jumping or you’ll . . . ”. They didn’t hear me, their shouting voices too loud.
It was a typical Saturday morning.
I hollered to Ed who was in the shower, “Do we really have to go? The girls are wild. Someone’ll get hurt and I can’t find my other earring. We’re going to be late.” I was rattled.
The baby sitter was due shortly. There was time so we wouldn’t be embarrassingly late. A little late was okay. Very late was no good. But we’d go. Of course we’d go. If necessary, Ed and I would sneak in the side door of the Temple. Whether late or very late, we’d celebrate with Aaron’s family and friends. His ritual passage into Jewish adulthood was too important to miss.
Shouting at the girls to calm down, I heard some giggles, and then, for the moment, silence. I found my earring on top of the TV set, slipped on my heels and sighed. I was done. Stacy, on the other hand, was running around naked except for a pair of underpants and my bra around her waist, and Valerie . . . “Where’s Valerie? Val, where are you, pussy cat?”
She was in the kitchen. My two-year-old was sitting on the floor in front of the sink, her cheeks and hands smeared with—“Oh m’god! Eddie, something’s stuffed up Valerie’s nose. She got into the garbage can. Looks like green peas and a safety pin.” How about that for ending his shower in a heartbeat?
While Ed held a teary Valerie, I removed most of the peas and the pin which, to my profound relief, was closed. Stacy, wide-eyed, stood nearby fixated on the delicate extraction process. Why did Valerie do that? No one would ever know. She stopped crying, though, only when Leslie, our baby-sitter, arrived and brought her young charges some chocolate. She was great, thank goodness, and the girls loved her.
Immediately before leaving the house, I darted around searching for anything else that my two imps would see as fair game for weird use. I wished that Leslie had come earlier. She would have dealt with it all: the peas and safety pin and the naked one wearing a bra. Still, the kids were mine and terrifically cute. I missed them the minute I left the house although that rarely stopped me from rushing away.
Once outside, as I headed toward the passenger side of the car, I motioned to Ed to pull his car window down. As usual, there had been no time for that last important glance in my bedroom mirror. As I twirled around for him, I said, “Eddie, do I have lipstick on? Any runs in my stockings? Do I have green peas on my dress?” My husband was wonderful. He revved the motor and said, “You look beautiful.” I grinned and began to relax.
Later that afternoon, when the Bar Mitzvah service was over, one hundred and twenty-seven of us shifted into party mode, ready to make merry in the Temple’s dining room. Ed and I sat with eight others at a table that bordered the temporary dance floor while the band played music that was loud and unfamiliar. Babbling voices added to the din as the noise rose quickly to improbable heights. Yelling was the only form of communication, and disjointed though cheerful conversation resulted. It was the norm at such affairs.
Ed was seated on my left and on my right was Carlene, a fragile-looking, waxen-faced woman with short, curly brown hair. I didn’t catch her husband’s name, but he was a heavy-set, balding man and sat on Carlene’s right. His back to her, he was gesturing enthusiastically to someone across the room.
After we introduced ourselves, Carlene touched my arm and skipping all small talk began the tale of her daughter Bethie who, at five, had been stricken with leukemia and died soon after. Thinking about my two healthy daughters, I spent the rest of that festive occasion listening to Carlene’s story of her little girl’s illness and death.
I was startled to be chosen her designated listener and dismayed by the story’s content. Childhood cancer was an unknown entity for me and among those I knew, existing only in a realm far from ours.
Carlene and I were two young women, both mothers, meeting for the first time at a joyous gathering. She needed to express her sadness and on a level beyond my expectations. I was on hand, and while at first reluctant and ill-prepared to concentrate, soon became enmeshed in the brief history of her child. I started to mourn for Bethie as if I had known her. Straining to understand Carlene, I leaned forward, my eyes not leaving her face, a faint gasp here and there my only sounds. Why had her husband walked to the next table? Why wasn’t he sitting next to her, comforting her, grieving with her?
Carlene’s emotions were constrained, her eyes grounded on her plate, her words spoken in dull tones. Seldom looking up, she talked of chemo burns, IV poles, bone marrow punctures, hematomas, and more. Carlene was a nurse and I thought that might have explained her detached manner and the medical terms. How easily those complicated words rolled from her tongue. I didn’t know, then, that most parents with severely ill children, regardless of profession, talked that way. They were articulate in the science of their child’s particular disorder. I didn’t know, either, that acute sorrow displayed in a number of ways.
Ed and I danced during dinner—our standard shuffling two-step that Ed learned years ago and had no interest in refining—but it wasn’t often. As we swayed to the music the catering staff set up elaborate buffet tables. The food was luscious-looking but my appetite had vanished.
The initial discomfort with Carlene’s story had given way to its power as a mother’s lament and my wonderful husband Ed didn’t object when, after each dance, I hurried back to our table. I knew Carlene had to continue with Bethie’s story although I suspected that, for her, it was a story without end. A child may die but, for the mother, that child is never truly gone.
For me? The memory of Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah and my one-time-only friend remained stuck in my brain. It has never faded. Carlene elected to talk about her daughter that day because, I imagine, Aaron’s coming-of-age celebration gave free rein to her mourning and allowed the unbearable to spill out. Amidst all the feverish pleasure, she and an accidental stranger relived one of life’s unnatural happenings, a child lost before her time.
I never saw Carlene again although I thought about her often. It seemed odd that she saw fit to tell me Bethie’s story. She turned to me, an unknown, and took the chance that I would be a safe listener and so I was. I didn’t interrupt; I didn’t turn away; I didn’t offer advice. Carlene simply wanted to tell her story. It consumed her. And why not? It was a consuming story.
Clearly, the fusing of a ritual celebration, a nearby stranger with a sympathetic face and a mother’s urge to speak of her daughter’s life and death inspired a burst of trust. How could I forget that? For Carlene, Bethie’s story had no end. For us, it hadn’t yet begun.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein