I received a phone call this morning from someone I hardly
know. "Mrs. Goldberg, this is Mrs. P. I was at the Rosh
Chodesh party last night and a friend of yours brought her
photo album. There was one photo there that simply took my
breath away. A girl with red hair, sparkling intelligent
eyes, and a dark blue dress. `Who is this child?' I asked.
Your friend answered that it was a picture of your daughter.
What can I say? She's so beautiful! Happy, relaxed, pure and
put together. What a brocha!"
I gripped the receiver as I squeezed my eyes together
tightly. She went on and on.
A flashback from three years ago came into my mind's eye.
Tzivia was ten years old then and my youngest daughter,
Surala, was two-and-a-half. Surala's long black hair waved
thickly past her waist. "Come, Surala, I'll put your hair up
in the ponytail holder with the pink ribbon." Later I went
outside to check the mail. I walked into the house carrying
bills and a letter and stopped. Surala looked somehow
strange. "Where's your ponytail?!" Tzivia stood near the
window, scissors in hand. "Me not do it! Me not!" Outside the
window, on the sill, the long ponytail rested, pink ribbon
Mrs. P. finished all her praises.
"My friend at the party didn't tell you that my daughter is
mentally retarded, did she?"
"Is she, really?" Mrs. P. asked slowly.
Maybe I should have just accepted all the compliments and
said a simple thank you. Too late. Instead, I said, "I really
appreciate all the kind things you said. I'm sure that the
purity on her face, that shows even in a picture, is because
she really is so pure."
"What's her name?" asked Mrs. P.
I didn't stop there. I continued, "I have a friend in America
with a severely retarded son. She sends him to a special
overnight camp for six weeks every summer. Each time he comes
home, she goes through a period of mourning. Mourning for the
normal child that he will never be."
Mrs. P hadn't asnwered. I wanted to make her understand. To
make everyone understand. But I can't MAKE understanding
I walked around the house for the rest of the morning, a
thick lump in my throat. I straightened up, folded laundry,
cut vegetables, but the lump refused to dissolve.
In the middle of the afternoon, as I was washing the dishes,
Tzivia came home from school and rested her head on my
shoulder. She's almost as tall as I am. It was hard to wash
the dishes with her leaning on me. "Please get off me,
sweetheart," I said. She tried to hold my hand. It was even
harder to do the dishes with one hand being held. "I love you
very much, Tzivia, but now I need to finish the dishes. I'll
read you a story when I'm done, O.K.?" She nodded
emphatically and skipped into the living room. All five feet,
120 pounds of my `little girl.'
Later I went to Leah, a friend who knows Mrs. P. She looked
at me and said, "Your eyes are glistening." I lowered my gaze
and told her about the incident with Mrs. P. "Why did I feel
the need to tell her? Mrs. P and I have nothing to do with
each other. It was thoughtless of me. I didn't mean to make
her feel uncomfortable. It was so nice of her to call to
begin with. I ruined her gesture."
"It's not so terrible," Leah replied, her eyes moist as well.
She looked down at the pants she was mending. "We don't
always know what's going on in other peoples' lives.
Sometimes we ought to know that it's not so simple for the
other person, either. And Rifca, you know? Tzivia DOES have
intelligent eyes. She's always alert and curious. She notices
whenever I wear something new and she's always asking
questions, in her limited way, about every little thing."
Leah's answer comforted me somewhat.
On Succos, I had my friend Nurit over with her thirteen-
year-old daughter. We touched on the topic of Tzivia. Nurit
looked across the room at her irritable teenager who
constantly talks back. "Be thankful," she whispered to me
earnestly. A tear weighed in the corner of my eye but I
didn't know why. She had a point. Tzivia, MY teenager, was
absorbed in playing with the blocks and little plastic farm
animals on the floor, along with her three-year-old brother.
As I thought about it, I admitted that I knew where the
unshed tears were coming from. Nurit's daughter is going
through a difficult chutzpadik stage that Tzivia may
never go through. But Nurit's daughter is going through a
STAGE. A stage that will be outgrown; her daughter will, G-d-
willing, go on to be a wonderful wife, mother and loving
normal daughter. Tzivia is not going through a stage. This
`stage' is her life. My life.
Tzivia cries and screams like a little child. Someone can
stick out their tongue at her and she'll howl as if she's
been seriously wounded. She's been in the `mine' stage for
years, although when she's in the right mood, she shares
generously to the point of giving away all of our toys, which
I am seldom able to track down and retrieve.
"May you have lots of nachas from her," Mrs. P.
finished the conversation in a subdued voice.
It WAS so thoughtful of her to call. How many people THINK of
doing something nice but never get around ot it? Here Mrs. P.
DID do something nice and I felt that I had ruined it for
I used to talk to people openly about how hard it was for
me. I thought, or hoped, to get empathy, reassurance, or
encouragement. But usually, people told me, "You should be so
thankful, Rifca! There are children so much worse off." This
I know. In Tzivia's school there are children who can't walk,
can't talk. They're at much more difficult levels of
functioning. But it doesn't make Tzivia normal. So I've
stopped talking about her. It hurts too much to have the pain
in my heart waved aside as if it's nothing.
It takes my nine-year-old son a day or two to read through a
book. Tzivia comes home with the twenty flashcards that she's
been learning for three years now. "Shalom!" Tzivia
pronounces. I wonder if she knows it by rote already. "Very
good, Tzivia!" I say. "Morah!" Tzivia smiles at me proudly.
"That's terrific, Tzivia!" She claps her hands with joy at my
Later that same afternoon, I went shopping. On the way home I
saw a woman in a green dress and a large straw hat coming
towards me. As she got closer, I recognized her. "Brochy! How
are you?" She clasped my hand. "I'm fine, boruch
Hashem. I haven't seen you in ages but I did see a
beautiful picture of your daughter at the Rosh Chodesh party.
What a lovely child!"
I closed my eyes for a moment and thought of the picture of
Tzivia in her dark blue dress that hangs on my bedroom wall.
It's the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the
morning: a picture of my beautiful redhead, beaming at me.
I opened my eyes, smiled softly, and said, "Thank you."