Sepia

flower
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Cora Schenberg

August 8, 2012. When I get scared, I lose my senses. I know that the walls of the clinic are acid green, but my eyes take in sepia.

“I’m glad you came in,” the doctor says. “Post-menopausal bleeding is never normal.”

Two weeks ago, my husband, son, and I were at the beach. I went into the bathroom to put on my bathing suit and found a spot of blood. I tried to ignore it. I figured the bleeding would stop by itself. When we got home and it hadn’t stopped, I called the clinic. The receptionist said my doctor was on vacation. Would I see Dr. A instead?

So here I am, bare-bottomed on crinkly paper.

“What do you think is wrong?” I ask the doctor.

“Unfortunately, I can’t tell anything from your exam. You’ll need to see a gynecologist. But I wouldn’t worry. It’s usually polyps or fibroids, which are benign.”

I had fibroids twenty years ago. Getting rid of them took major surgery and a six-week recovery. I don’t have time for this. I teach in the German Department at University of Virginia, and the semester starts in a few weeks.

Driving home from the clinic, I fall into a fantasy, where instead of undergoing a messy medical procedure, I can make time unspool, so the bleeding simply un-happens. I wouldn’t mind going back to April of this year, when our youngest nephew became bar mitzvah. The whole family was present and well. My husband Wade and I led the congregation in a favorite hymn. In a picture Wade’s sister sent, Wade, our son Gabriel, and I stand grouped around the bar mitzvah boy. Why can’t we step back into that picture?

But is that picture really where I want to end up? Gabriel, at seventeen, looks great, dwarfing all of us by at least a head and a half, his thick brown hair tousled, grin full of snark and confidence. But what about Gabriel’s parents? Mom’s got crow’s feet. Dad’s soft blue eyes show exhaustion; his once ginger hair has gone brown-grey. If we’re travelling in time, why not go back to when Wade and I met, in 1979? Or would it be better to return to October 16, 1983, when we said our vows before a rabbi? I remember how my hand turned radiant after Wade placed the ring on it. But then we didn’t have Gabriel. I wouldn’t want to live without him.

During my musing, I’ve been driving, and have now arrived at our house. I’m telling myself fantasizing won’t solve anything—besides, un-happen isn’t a word—when my teenager runs out, barefoot, to say that our friends the Smiths just called. “They’re coming for Shabbat dinner. Can you make lemon-ginger chicken?”

•••

Following Dr. A’s recommendation, I set up an appointment with my gynecologist. After examining me, Dr. B says, “I didn’t see any red flags in the exam, but let’s get you an ultrasound, to make sure you’re okay.”

A week later, she calls to say that the ultrasound tech “didn’t do a very good job,” so the picture is fuzzy. “However, it did show some fluid in the cul-de-sac between your uterus and rectum.”

“I’ve got a cul-de-sac? Like a dead-end street?”

The doctor laughs with me. But when I ask what caused the fluid, I hit a true dead end.

“I don’t know. But I’ve made you an appointment with a specialist, Dr. C. He’ll do the ultrasound himself, so there won’t be any problems.”

She gives me the date for Dr. C’s ultrasound: A month from now.

•••

The semester starts in a week. I feel exhausted all the time, and the bleeding is getting worse. I call Dr. D, my family doctor, to see if I’m anemic.

“Oh, I doubt dribbling for a month would make you lose much blood,” Dr. D says. “But sure, I’ll test your hemoglobin.” And a few minutes later, she reports, “Just as I thought—everything’s fine. And I see you’ve got an appointment with Dr. C. He’s the best.”

“But I have to wait another three weeks to see him.”

She smiles. “If he’s making you wait, it’s because he thinks your problem’s not serious.”

I’m fifty-five years old, but at this moment, I might as well be three. At the thought of contradicting the doctor, I picture myself as a pathetic, whining kid: but it hurts!

•••

The specialist, Dr. C, tells me I’m fine. “You’ve got a few fibroids, maybe a slight hormonal imbalance. But that’s not what’s making you bleed.”

“What is making me bleed, then?”

“We have to find out. I’m sure it’s nothing serious.”

Those words again. The doctor recommends a dilation and curettage, or D&C. “Very simple, a routine procedure.”

What planet have I landed on, where it’s “simple and routine” to be placed under total anesthesia while a doctor opens up and scrapes my uterus?

“My colleague, Dr. E, can do it,” Dr. C says.

•••

Sept. 16, 2012, a.k.a. Rosh Hashana, beginning of Jewish New Year 5773. At services, I stand between Wade and Gabriel. “Avinu Malkhenu, shema kolenu,” we chant. Our Father, our King, hear our prayer. A Hasidic legend tells us that on this day, the earth rises to the level of heaven. I imagine standing on tiptoes, whispering in God’s ear: “My doctors say I’m fine, but I don’t feel fine.” My belly aches and pulses. The holiday forces me to remember there’s no playing with time. We all petition God to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year. But looking around, I see empty places where friends once sat. I wrap my prayer shawl around my shoulders and sink into the baritone voices of my husband and son.

•••

Dr. E’s office calls to say they’ve scheduled my dilation and curettage for September 26. I look at the calendar, see that day is Yom Kippur, and start to ask for a different date. But then I realize that since the surgery’s not until afternoon, I can attend most of the morning’s services. I write to the rabbi, explaining my situation. He writes back, promising prayers. And the Ritual Committee offers me an Aliyah—the chance to bless the Torah before the cantor reads from the scroll.

On Yom Kippur, I wake refreshed and energized, ready to pray the old melodies with lightness and joy that I’ve not felt in a long time. After the Torah reading, my family and I wave good-bye to the rabbi as we leave the sanctuary.

•••

Dr. E reports that my dilation and curettage was unusually difficult: “Your cervix was so tight, I hardly got any tissue at all. The good news is I’m pretty sure you don’t have cancer. But I’d like to do an endometrial biopsy to be certain.”

I agree to the biopsy; Dr. E. calls a week later.

“The tissue I got looks fine. You don’t have cancer.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. Malignant cells are very prominent. When I biopsy someone with cancer, all this brown stuff comes tumbling out.”

I shudder at the complacency with which she paints this horrid picture.

“What about the bleeding?” I ask.

“That’s a mystery. Honestly, Cora, we might never find out why you’re bleeding. Let me think about your case and get back to you.”

•••

As much as I like to play with time, I make an effort not to wish my life away. In college, we tended to live from one break to the next. We’d just gotten back from winter vacation when my freshman roommate Diana said, “It’s only two months till spring break!”

I did not tell her my thoughts: following spring break, it was only six weeks till summer, and from there, just four years till graduation, forty till retirement, and just a little while before we get to die.

Now, with the pain and bleeding, I can’t help wishing away work days. Teaching exhausts me. The only part of the day I enjoy is my bedtime ritual. It starts with a bath. The warm water uncramps my gut, washes away the blood. After the bath, I plug in my heating pad and lie down beside Wade. We hold each other and watch something innocuous on TV. Often, Gabriel joins us. I’ve gotten to love the Home and Garden Channel. People choose and buy houses. Sometimes they fix the houses up. No one is sick or in pain. Often, the houses are located in lovely places, like Hawaii.

•••

A week after my biopsy, Dr. E phones. “I’ve thought about your case. You have two options.”

Option 1 is a second D&C, this time using a camera called a hysteroscope, so the doctor can pinpoint the exact location of my problem and remove the cause.

“Option 2 is an ablation,” Dr. E tells me. “It means removing the lining of the uterus. Take a few days to decide which you prefer.”

I research the web and talk to Wade. In the end, I tell the doctor I choose the D&C, the less aggressive procedure. Why rip apart my uterus when I don’t know what’s causing the problem?

“But a D&C isn’t one of your choices,” the doctor says. “It didn’t work last time!”

“But you said you’d use a camera—”

“I don’t think so,” says Dr. E. “Your options are an ablation or a hysterectomy.”

My breath stops. Could I have gotten this wrong? Yet surely I’d remember if she’d said hysterectomy. The word sends a chill through my body. How can this doctor suggest removing my uterus or its lining without knowing what my problem is? And how can I trust her with my body if I can’t trust her to remember her own words?

I have no idea what to do next. But the bleeding and cramping keep getting worse. I’ve got to do something.

•••

I hear about a therapist offering a workshop for people with chronic and/or terminal diseases. I figure three months qualifies my problem as chronic and sign up.

“You are in charge of your healing,” James, the therapist, tells us. He does not say to distrust doctors or medicine, but rather that each of us should stand vigil over our health professionals, since we are the experts on our bodies.

“Get a second, third, and fourth opinion,” James advises. “Use different types of healing. When my wife had cancer, she worked with Western doctors but also consulted an acupuncturist.”

I tell James I don’t have the strength to do what he suggests. He says that’s the hard part—no one with a chronic disease has energy. “But have your current doctors helped you?”

“Not really.”

“Then you need to fight.”

•••

I go back to Dr. D and ask her to recommend another gynecologist, and she refers me to Dr. F. I send Dr. F my chart, now two inches thick, along with a note detailing the past four months.

“How terrible!” Dr. F tells me during our consultation. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”

I heave a sigh of relief, hold back tears of gratitude. She’s the first of my doctors to express empathy.

After looking at my record, Dr. F asks two questions: “When Dr. C performed your ultrasound, why didn’t he use a contrast dye? And when Dr. E did the endometrial biopsy and D&C, she got no tissue, or as good as none. How can she say you don’t have cancer?”

“Do you think I have it?”

I remember the day I learned about this disease, in seventh-grade science.

“When a person gets cancer, some of their cells go bad and start to kill the good cells,” Mr. Ringel, the science teacher, told us. “More and more cells turn cancerous. The process doesn’t stop until the host is dead.”

Host? A host welcomes guests. How can we use the same word for a body invaded by rogue cells? And am I now harboring this illness that killed my grandparents and later struck my mother and her siblings?

“You’re probably okay,” the doctor says. “But if you were my patient and I had such little data, I would not feel safe assuming you didn’t have it.”

The doctor recommends another D&C. Since she no longer performs surgery, she refers me to her colleague, Dr. G.

Dr. G can’t see me until December 19—a month away. When he finally examines me, he concurs that my uterus is enlarged and a second D&C is warranted.

“Good. Can we do it this week?”

“Unfortunately, my schedule is packed, and with the holidays, we’re short-staffed through New Year’s. I can schedule you for January 9.”

I bristle at his banalities: schedule packed, holidays.

•••

Dec. 22. A bunch of us are grouped around the breakfast bar at friend’s Christmas party. A skinny, bespectacled guy, a friend of the hosts, says, “Did I ever tell you how I killed my first patient?”

We all prick up our ears.

“So, anyway,” Dr. Skinny-Bespectacled says, “I’m twenty-five, I’m a resident, and I’m a real idiot, you know? They’ve got me paired up with this other newbie, Fred. They send us in to—I dunno, do something to the oxygen tube on this guy—the guy was thirty years old and dying of cancer, right? A real tragedy. So anyway, no one tells us how to do this thing, we’re both falling over ourselves, then all of a sudden, Fred says, ‘I think he stopped breathing.’ It was awful. Now you’ve gotta bear in mind that this guy probably wouldn’t have lived much longer, anyway—”

In my head, something kills the volume on the conversation. All I hear are doctors’ voices: Cora Schenberg’s death was a terrible tragedy. But of course, she’d have died anyway.

•••

If offered a wish now, I’d ask for time to speed up. I want the surgery done. But time has slowed to a standstill. It creeps toward Christmas, fa-la-bleeping-la. My family and I hide away from the stores, the hysteria. Wade and I are too tired to throw our usual Hanukah party. On Dec. 31, we’re all asleep before midnight.

•••

January 8, 2013. The night before surgery, the cramping increases. It feels as if something is fighting to get out of my belly. In the morning, I’m filled with relief as we drive to the hospital.

Wade is waiting when they bring me back from the OR.

“The doctor just left. He wasn’t able to complete the surgery.”

“What?”

“He said he got in there and nothing looked like in the ultrasound. He was afraid he’d punctured your uterus and gone into a false channel.”

I don’t know whether to cry or curse. False channel. Cul-de-sac. My body is not a road!

“So what’s next?” I ask Wade.

“The doctor’s going to consult with some colleagues and call you on Monday morning.”

Dr. G does not call on Monday morning. That afternoon, I ring his office. The receptionist tells me he’s out of town. Which words to choose so that this woman will hear me and make sure the doctor gets my message?

“I was in menopause for four years,” I say. “Six months ago, I started bleeding. It keeps getting heavier, and I’m in constant pain.”

“That’s awful!”

“It would really help me to know the doctor’s plans.”

Tuesday morning, Dr. G is still out of town. I leave another message.

By Wednesday morning, I’m desperate. I’ve had to buy yet another family-size box of feminine hygiene product. I know it will just make things worse if I call and yell at the receptionist.

The phone rings; it’s Dr. G. After apologizing for his long silence, he says, “I just got your report back from the pathology lab, and I’m afraid the news isn’t the best.”

Wade steps into the room just as I repeat the doctor’s next word: malignancy.

“You’re saying it’s cancer. What kind? What stage?”

“We don’t know. It’s in your uterus or your cervix, maybe your ovaries. I was surprised there was enough tissue for them to find anything. We’re sending you to the cancer center at the University Hospital. They’ll take care of you from now on.”

I hang up the phone, run into Wade’s arms. I try to feel the warmth of his body, but I’m frozen in panic. I think of all the months wasted, going from doctor to doctor. I remember my friend Mary, who developed symptoms like mine years ago. Mary’s doctor diagnosed her with fibroids, prescribed a painkiller, and said to come back every six months for monitoring. One day, a mutual friend called to say Mary had cancer. Rather than presenting, Mary’s cancer had slunk in silently and set up camp. Free from a doctor’s intervention, the twisted cells multiplied until they pushed past the walls of her uterus and laid claim to Mary’s lungs, heart, and back. She was dead six months later.

“I hope those doctors haven’t killed me,” I say, into Wade’s shoulder. I suddenly remember a cartoon the New Yorker ran just after Mary died. It showed a doctor in a lab coat, doing a silly dance. The caption showed what the patient on the exam table was saying: “Sounds like dance? No, dancer! Cancer! I’ve got cancer!” At the time, I wondered if Mary would find this cartoon funny or think it the most tasteless thing in the world. Since I wasn’t that patient, I thought it wasn’t up to me to say. But now I am that patient, and I hope Mary laughed, because I think that cartoon’s funny as hell. I hold Wade, laughing and crying, until it’s time to leave for work.

•••

February 5, 2013. The instant I meet my oncologist, Dr. Cantrell, time speeds up. Dr. Cantrell looks no older than twenty-five. A slender woman with a brown ponytail and a big, toothy grin, she shakes my hand with a strong grip. After hearing my story, she says, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Sometimes even very good docs miss these things. Now, the first thing we need for you is an MRI.”

“When?” I ask, expecting the usual wait.

“When do you get done teaching this afternoon?”

“At two.”

Dr. Cantrell turns to her nurse, Peggy. “Schedule Ms. Schenberg for an MRI after 2:30 today.”

Noticing my expression of disbelief, she grins. “You’ll find things move pretty fast around here.”

A week later, Dr. Cantrell calls with my results.

“Your ovaries and cervix are fine; the cancer’s in your uterus. I recommend a hysterectomy. Can you clear your schedule for surgery on Tuesday?”

“I’ll call my boss now. How much bed rest will I need?”

“Most people go back to work in a few days.”

“How–”

“In most cases, I make a couple of tiny incisions, about a quarter-inch long, then I can remove the uterus vaginally. It comes out like a baby.”

No! I want to protest. Not like a baby. My baby filled me with awe. My baby did not try to kill me.

“Now, sometimes,” Dr. Cantrell continues, “the uterus gets enlarged from inflammation. If it’s too large to remove vaginally, I’ll have to make an incision. That recovery can take four-to-six weeks.”

I say nothing to this, my head still swimming

Before hanging up, Dr. Cantrell teaches me three new words: Endometrioid. FIGO. Clear cell.

After surgery, she’ll order a pathology report. If I have endomitrioid, FIGO grade 1 or 2, my tumor will be classified as slow-growing and non-aggressive, and require no treatment beyond the hysterectomy. However, if clear cell cancer—grade 3—is present, I’ll need chemo and radiation, too.

“Clear cell,” I repeat. These words sound so innocuous. But on second thought, clear cells would be the undetectable kind that sneaks up on an unsuspecting host.

•••

Gabriel joins Wade and me in our bedroom as we watch television.

“Mom,” he says, “I know you don’t want to make this cancer thing public. But is it okay if I talk to my really good friends?”

“Of course,” I tell him. “I’m taken care of. You and Dad need all the support you can get.”

•••

February 12, 2013. The orderly wheels my stretcher into the operating room, where Dr. Cantrell, already wearing her mask, greets me with a hug. Waiting for the anesthesia to work, I place my hands on my lower belly, murmur a silent good-bye to my womb.

I wake to whispers. Someone repeats one word several times before I realize it’s my name and look toward the speaker.

“Your surgery went well,” Dr. Cantrell says. “It looks like stage 1—no sign that the cancer spread. I’ll get your pathology report back in a week or so.”

“It hurts.”

“Unfortunately, I had to make an incision. It’ll take a bit longer to heal, but you’re in great shape. You’ll be fine.”

Flowers, care packages, and cards are waiting when Wade brings me home from the hospital. Gabriel hands me a stuffed penguin he and Wade got me at the hospital gift shop. Friends from the synagogue tell me I’m on the prayer list and ask when they can come by. My sister Kathy arrives to visit and shop and cook for us.

A week later, Dr. Cantrell phones.

“Cora, I’ve got your report.”

“Good news, Doctor?”

“Remember I told you about those three kinds of tumors? I’m afraid you’ve got clear cell–a grade-three.”

The room turns sepia. I struggle to find my voice. “What happens next?”

“We’ll give you time to heal, then, if you agree to it, we’ll start chemo and radiation.”

“How come I need both?”

“This is all based on studies. The latest ones show that when the cancer returns, it usually comes back to the same site. So we radiate that area, to kill any cancer cells the surgery might have missed.”

“And the chemo?”

“The chemo will get any cancer that might have spread into your system. I know I’ve given you a lot to think about. Take a few days to decide what you want to do. Call if you’ve got questions. I’ll support any decision you make.”

Wade, Gabriel, and I sit around the table, not speaking. I try and fail to feel the warmth of their presence or register the soft light from the lamp above the table.

•••

Dr. Cantrell teaches me more new words. The radiation she prescribes is called brachytherapy–placing the radiating source near the former site of my tumor. She explains that with the radiation confined to a small area, I shouldn’t expect side-effects. Yet what I hear in the sound of “brachy” is “break” and “broken.”

I have to train my mouth to get around the words Carboplatin and Paclitaxel, the chemo drugs Dr. Cantrell would use. Their syllables feel arbitrarily thrown together, like bad architecture. Dr. Cantrell does not hide the fact that chemo is poison. While it kills cancer, it also attacks other fast-growing cells, like those in the stomach lining and hair follicles. It wipes out both red and white blood cells, disabling the immune system. I’m reminded of generals who hire mercenaries—thuggish louts who wreak havoc, but get the job done. I sign off on both the chemo and radiation.

•••

February 25, 2013. I’m off from work for at least another month. The chemo and radiation won’t start till April. Meanwhile, healing takes place in the silence that fills our house when Wade and Gabriel leave for work and school. I depend on my body to tell me when to eat, sleep, poke my nose outside for air, and sleep again. From my rocking chair in the living room, I take in butter-yellow walls, a glass-fronted bookshelf holding our favorites, and three cats asleep on the sofa.

I don’t yet know that in September, when my family and I join the congregation for Rosh Hashanah, I will be pain-free, my scar a faint line. That Dr. Cantrell will call me her star patient and say to come back in four months instead of three, since everything looks so good. For the moment, I’m content not to know this. To let time to do what it does, without expanding or contracting, speeding up or slowing down. I’m grateful to rock in my chair, as the winter sun strengthens.

Note: Some names and physical characteristics have been changed to protect privacy.

•••

CORA SCHENBERG’s work has appeared in Brain,Child, Utne Reader, the Delmarva Review, C-ville Weekly, and The Hook; she has also read essays on WVTF radio (NPR Roanoke) and had three plays produced in Charlottesville’s Live Arts Theater (Summer Shorts Festival). She holds a Ph.D. in German literature from the University of Virginia, where she currently teaches.

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End of the Road

wings tattoo
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Dina L. Relles

The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.

The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.

“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.

•••

There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.

Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.

•••

A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.

An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.

One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”

He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.

He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.

We had nothing in common.

We fell in love.

I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.

•••

Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.

It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.

St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.

•••

I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.

But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.

The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.

Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.

Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.

•••

I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.

“Daddy made this for you.”

Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.

Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.

Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.

•••

I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.

We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.

•••

One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.

Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.

My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.

“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.

•••

By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.

Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.

“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.

•••

It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.

My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.

Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.

I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.

An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.

•••

I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.

Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.

I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.

“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”

His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.

•••

Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”

Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.

It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.

In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.

And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.

I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.

I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.

•••

We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.

Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.

•••

I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.

New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.

In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.

He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.

•••

DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.

Killing the Magic

santa
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?

My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.

And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.

Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).

Permeating the entirety of the festive season was my mother’s Santa Doctrine, enforced with the rigidity of a decree from the Vatican:

1. Santa Claus exists.

2. Doubters: button those lips. If you can’t believe, pretend.

3. Santa alone fills the stockings.

4. Never thank someone in the room for a stocking present. It came from Santa!

5. Befuddled by an item in your stocking? (A not uncommon occurrence in our house.) Mom will interpret. (“I’m pretty sure Santa would say that’s a do-hicky to put your tea bag on.”)

6. Questioning the existence of Santa is tantamount to Killing the Magic.

I don’t know when, exactly, my mother formulated her Santa Doctrine, but my siblings and I absorbed it early, along with the rest of the holiday rituals, each yearly repetition enshrining our customs deeper into the family bedrock. And it worked. Just as my mom had planned, Christmas was indeed a time of festivity and magic for us kids (who, thanks to my mother, believed in Santa longer than was really quite seemly).

But marriages crumble, and children turn into sullen, cynical teenagers, no longer wonderstruck at the sight of the Christmas tree, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. My mother figured that our holiday traditions were one element of family life that she could keep the same for us. But everything else had changed, and Santa couldn’t make up for that, not really.

Mom remarried eventually, to a tolerant man who knows better than to suggest alien rituals of his own at Christmastime. We kids got on with our lives. But no matter how much we’ve changed over the years, it’s made clear to us each December that, if we come home, there will be no deviation from the holiday of our childhoods, not now, not ever. When it comes to Christmas, my mother adheres to Tradition! with the fervor of Tevye the Milkman.

Which is ironic, considering that these days, when December comes around, I’m on Tevye’s side of the fence.

•••

Like my mother, I was a solitary, bookish child. Like her, I loved books set in “the olden days.” But while Mom was eager to shed the Episcopalian shackles of her stuffy WASP upbringing, I had a secret hankering for religion, a topic so resolutely avoided in our home that I felt a subversive thrill whenever I encountered it in my reading.

I trace the birth of my Jewish identity directly to fourth grade and the copy of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family that I found on the school library shelf. Here were my two fascinations, the olden days and religious ritual, united in the delectable story of five turn-of-the-century sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Enfolded in that middle-grade novel was a year’s worth of vibrant Jewish life: Mama, praying over the Sabbath candles in their gleaming brass candlesticks, Papa blessing his daughters; congregants chanting Torah at the synagogue; the Passover Seder (unusually somber when scarlet fever strikes the family); and Purim, with its costumed revelry.

Why, I wondered, was this entrancing world closed to me? My father was Jewish, after all. Why didn’t he do anything about it? His silence made the idea of Judaism all the more tantalizing. My friends all belonged to one faith or another. “What are you?” they used to ask. “Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian?” I could only answer: “Nothing.”

My own kids, I vowed, would be something.

•••

By the time those theoretical kids arrived, I had been a member of the Society of Friends for years. I loved the deep, living silence of Quaker Meeting, the concern for peace and justice, the gentle fun we poked at our rivals, the Unitarians. And I still felt Jewish enough to appreciate that the “inner light” of Quakerism doesn’t mean the light of Jesus, if you don’t want it to.

“So we’ll raise the kids Quaker, right?” I said to my husband.

“Sure, sure,” he replied absently, distracted by graduate school and the fog of sleep deprivation that had descended with the birth of our first child. My husband had grown up in a Conservative, kosher home. He no longer practiced, but he had a strong cultural affiliation with Judaism, the kind acquired automatically when your entire extended family hails from Brooklyn. Still, the Quakers were okay by him.

The Quakers were okay by him right up until our first child was four and I was set to enroll him in First Day School, where every Sunday he would learn about George Fox walking in the glory of the inner light.

“The Quakers are great, with the anti-war and the social justice and all,” my husband told me then. “But they don’t have—well, enough tradition.”

The product of Quaker summer camps, Quaker high school, and Quaker college, I knew that the Society of Friends has plenty of traditions. Much like Quakers themselves, these traditions are plain, not easy to spot. But I wasn’t about to argue the point.

“You want tradition?” I said. “Dude, you come from five thousand years of tradition.” (I married a surfer, a move that results in sentences like this.)

My husband gave me a look. “You’re saying you want to raise them Jewish now?”

“I’m saying I want to raise them something. Jewish works for me.”

“You do realize that we would have to join a synagogue. And actually go. And celebrate Shabbat and all the rest of it.”

“Yup.”

We visited the progressive, Reconstructionist shul, where the rabbi assured my husband, who balked at the concept of a deity, that he himself thought of God as the cosmic force of the universe, rather than, you know, God. That my own Judaism came from my father, not my mother, troubled the rabbi not a bit. Did I consider myself Jewish? Did I plan to raise my kids that way? Fine.

And just like that, we were all Jews.

Except for yearly visits at the High Holidays, my husband hadn’t spent much time in a synagogue since leaving home. But when we started attending services, I watched it all come back to him. He knew the melodies, the prayers, and, impressively, he could read Hebrew, a skill I knew he possessed but had never seen in action.

Yet despite my own lifelong pull toward the faith of my forbears—well, half of them—I couldn’t help an initial sense of detachment. I rose with the congregation when the rabbi took the Torah out of the ark, but inside my head a tiny anthropologist was busily taking notes. Observe the tribe ceremonially processing with its totemic object! The language was unfamiliar, the alphabet was different, and while the customs here were intriguing, they felt decidedly foreign.

In other words, I soon realized, it was a situation made for a former Peace Corps volunteer.

With the zest I’d once brought in Morocco to learning Arabic and the proper way to prepare couscous with pumpkin, I now dedicated myself to learning the ways of my people. I signed up for a class in beginning Hebrew (for the record, much easier than Arabic). My toddler in a backpack, I experimented with challah recipes, ultimately achieving a golden, braided loaf that is reliably more photogenic than I am. Self-consciously at first, I lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights before dinner, experiencing a quiet satisfaction that for my young children, listening to me sing the blessing was simply routine.

I was surprised at first, and a little chagrined, by how easily I’d abandoned the Friends and taken up with the Jews. Just how committed a Quaker had I really been all those years? On the other hand—and I elected to view it this way—my speedy switcheroo was certainly a testimony to the “many candles, one light” theory of religion.

That was over ten years ago. The tiny anthropologist tossed out her notebook long ago and moved in with the tribe, embracing its rituals and community, its scholarly dedication to seeking contemporary meaning in ancient texts and traditions. The holidays that entranced me in All-of-a-Kind Family back in fourth grade have become my family’s, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, my own: Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey; the solemn introspection of Yom Kippur; Passover’s festive seder, when we welcome the stranger among us. And in December, the arrival of Hanukkah, with its latkes and candles to warm the winter nights.

Of course, we all know who else arrives in December.

•••

When my boys were little, I gave them the lowdown on Santa, that jolly imaginary fellow, who even grown-ups like to pretend about. Never tell another kid that Santa doesn’t exist, I instructed. Believing in Santa is very important in lots of families, and it’s not your place to say otherwise. This, I thought, was the respectful approach. Unfortunately, I neglected to include my mother in the category of people whose belief in St. Nick must be preserved. And when one of the boys innocently mentioned the words “Santa” and “pretend” in the presence of Grandma—well, the reindeer poop hit the fan.

It was useless to protest that my little band of Jews shows up at her house every December 25th. To remind her that my husband orders the Christmas morning breakfast croissants from her favorite bakery, that I make my share of the cookies, help decorate the tree, stuff stockings. My mother is painfully aware that, really, I’d rather avoid the entire holiday, and my siblings aren’t crazy about it, either. She knows that my family participates only because we love her and she lives seven blocks away. (What are we going to do, stage a boycott?) Nothing could have illustrated this more sharply than my flagrant violation of the Santa Doctrine.

“You actually told them there’s no Santa Claus?” my mother said, her voice rising in disbelief.

“Mom, the kids love celebrating Christmas at your house,” I said. “The presents, the stockings, all that. But I’m not going to tell them Santa is real, or pretend to believe in him myself, anymore. I’m just not.”

“What’s wrong with letting them use their imaginations?” she demanded, adding darkly, “I suppose you tell them there’s no Tooth Fairy, either?”

“Mom, the Tooth Fairy is not associated with the birth of Jesus.”

“Neither is Santa Claus!”

I gave her a pointed look.

“Well, not in our family, as you know perfectly well.”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” I said. “Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa. It kind of goes with the territory, don’t you think?”

My mother fixed me with a bitter eye. “You’re just hellbent on killing the magic for those boys, aren’t you,” she said.

•••

A framed passage from Khalil Gibran hung on the wall in my mother’s house when I was growing up. “Your children are not your children,” it read in elegant calligraphy. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” I doubt my mother was pondering this sentiment as she orchestrated her Christmases back then; as she carefully cut out those cookies, grated cheese for fondue, told the stories behind the ornaments. She was establishing a beloved tradition for us. That her children would grow up to reject it must have been far from her mind.

Last year I watched my oldest son stand on the bima at his bar mitzvah. In confident Hebrew, he led the morning service, singing the psalms of praise and blessing. Then he chanted from the Torah, his voice rising and falling in the ancient rhythms. Watching him ritually take his place in the community, I knew that I had given my children what I always wanted for them, even before I knew their names. Not faith, which isn’t the point in Judaism—a good thing, for my little atheists—but identity. Whether they practice its traditions or not, they’ll always have a place, a people, a sense of belonging.

That’s what the Santa Doctrine signifies to my mother, I know. Her Christmas rituals are bound up in family and belonging, too. Now that I’ve strayed from the script, she can’t help realizing that it’s all going to end. Years from now, when she’s gone, there won’t be Christmas Eve fondue, or stockings, or a tree, not in my family. I’ll always make the Viennese crescents in December, but we’ll go out for Chinese and a movie, like the rest of our tribe. I wish that my mother could accept that, instead of fighting it every year, using Santa as a proxy for what really saddens her. I wish she could recognize that she’s given me things I consider far more valuable than Christmas: a love of books and literature, the shrewdness to hunt for a bargain, her piecrust recipe. And if, one day, my kids convert to Catholicism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m able to greet the news with equanimity—well, in a roundabout way, I’ll have my mother to thank for that, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.