Family Matters: Extending an Arm
When my husband was let go from his job with a nonprofit due to downsizing, we were filled with uncertainty and terror for the future. Immediately after his severance ran out, I started a full-time job with health benefits, my first in 10 years, but our income was greatly reduced. a What would happen? Could we stay in our house, near our friends and near our children’s school? Would we have to move to a smaller house, get rid of cherished possessions?
Is there anything, other than a new job, that can ameliorate the panic one feels when a steady paycheck is yanked away?
The day my husband called with his news, I was on my way to the university where I had been teaching. I called two friends as I drove aimlessly around my neighborhood.
Adrienne immediately invited me over. An emergency-room physician, she is trained to assess damage and manage trauma. She made me tea and a bite to eat and helped me write down the steps I could take to get through this. She also gave me the name of an employment law specialist who could explain my husband’s rights. The combination of sympathy and practical help was unparalleled.
The other friend I called, Jay, is one of the most aggressively verbal people I know. A professor, he likes public academic combat and speaking to large lecture halls; sometimes he seems to talk for the joy of hearing his own voice. But now he said simply, “I’m sorry, that is terrible news,” and was silent.
His silence meant that he was willing to share my sorrow and confusion. While he gave me no tangible help, nevertheless it was comforting to feel his empathy.
Soon after the initial shock, Adrienne and her husband, Adam, a successful trial lawyer, called and asked us to meet them at a park with our children. It was a beautiful Sunday and the park, which we had never visited before, had a climbing wall, an enormous sliding tube, sprinklers and a large grassy area. The adults sat at a picnic table, talking as we watched our kids play. Still, I could not enjoy any of it when I did not know what the future held.
Our friends have had their share of difficulties. Adrienne had experienced unemployment, and Adam’s first wife had passed away from cancer just weeks after his eldest son’s bar mitzva, leaving him to raise their three children on his own. The enormity of his tragedy dwarfed ours and made my anxieties seem petty and small. Knowing others have encountered adversity and soldiered on helped me understand that I, too, could get through my challenges. Being with Adrienne and Adam, enjoying family and friendship under the Minnesota sun, was a tremendous gift.
There is a story in the Talmud (Brachot 5b) about Rabbi Yohanan, described as a tremendously beautiful man, visiting Rabbi Eliezer, who is ill. To bring some light into the dim space, Rabbi Yohanan bares his arm, and Rabbi Eliezer begins to weep. Rabbi Yohanan cannot understand why he is weeping until Rabbi Eliezer explains that this arm that is so full of light will rot and be buried one day—prompting Rabbi Yohanan to cry along with him. When they weep together, sharing the aches of their common mortality, both patient and visitor are changed.
Losing a job and not having money makes us feel less worthy than those around us. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes notes, “Time and chance happen to all.” Rich or poor, we need each other to get through life’s challenges. Knowing that my friends did not see me as any less worthy of their friendship made a huge difference to me. And knowing that others had established new lives after horrendous problems helped me know that my husband and I would, too.
During this period, countless friends gave us gifts both small and large. Ilan, who had been unemployed a few years back and ended up opening a solo medical practice, took my husband for Shabbat walks to sympathize. Hadassah won free tickets to a movie and invited me along, knowing we were on a tight budget. Our friends Amy and Hana, who worked at a local federation, arranged for my husband to attend a program at Yad Vashem in Israel for 10 days; on his return, he became one of the main organizers of the community Yom Ha-Shoah service—one of the most successful ever held. At the bris for Ilan’s son, another friend, Judy, suggested that my husband become a hospital chaplain and helped arrange for him to get into a new chaplain training program; he had his interview the day it started and was accepted.
Judy also sent me e-mails about free family activities around town. Susan brought us soup, a casserole and a Trader Joe’s gift card. Miriam, my neighbor and friend, gave me multiple cups of tea and sympathy at all hours of the day and night and, despite being busy with her own children, one night took mine for a sleepover so my husband and I could walk around Lake Calhoun at sunset and discuss our options. Avi constantly e-mailed us local job listings—he even sent updates at 3 A.M. Others continued to invite us for Shabbat and holiday meals, though it was difficult for us to reciprocate. Knowing that so many friends were concerned for us buoyed us tremendously.
Eventually, we moved to Pittsburgh to look for better employment opportunities, and my husband found a job. Adam, who had been giving us legal help in negotiating with our mortgage company, kept in touch, informing us that our case was successful; he never asked for compensation. As a gesture of thanks, I called a florist near our former neighborhood to deliver a bouquet.
Adam has an unusual last name and the florist asked me to spell it. Then he said, “I used to know very well how to spell that name. Adam’s late wife was one of my best customers. I was always sending flowers for her.” I thought: What a lovely way to be remembered more than 10 years after your passing, as someone who was constantly sending flowers to others. I relayed the florist’s story to Adam; I believe that memory was a gift that Adam will treasure. And I resolved that when I can afford it, I, too, will patronize the florist—a lot.
Meanwhile, I can pass on to others the gifts that were given to me. And, at the darkest time, I can expose an arm so we can cry together.
Beth Kissileff, the author of a forthcoming anthology on Genesis, is a writer and teacher living in Pittsburgh.