She responded to Beverly’s greeting with shy warmth. Coming straight from Morocco to Teaneck, NJ, she looked every bit out of place as Beverly knew she felt.
Sarit was Beverly’s new neighbor. She spoke not a word of English and Beverly’s French ‘bonjour’, ‘mademoiselle’, ‘bien’ and ‘merci’, coupled with the nothing that she knew from Arabic, did practically zilch for their interaction skills. They used their hands a great deal, smiled a lot and for the most part could not understand each other at all. The children, though – they were another matter entirely. Toys, games, running and jumping – those were the means of their communiqué and they mastered it without too much problem. As time progressed, the children became the tools of communication towards a friendship that forged into a relationship as close as sister to sister.
With time, Sarit’s children adopted the English language proficiently and were placed in the neighborhood schools. They became content with their lot and reveled in the street play. Yet, standing among the others anyone could place where they came from. With their outdated, oftentimes ill-matched outfits, it was clear that their home was not ‘true-blue American’ and that money was very much an issue. How, after all, could the family afford much with the head of the household working part-time for a fast-food business at minimum wage? Indeed, how could their father find decent work not knowing a word of the American language?
Sarit put on the bravest front. Her husband was not so willing. Frustrated with the many blows to his ego as breadwinner and man of the house, his misery grew. He smiled at all attempts to communicate, went to work for pitiful few hours, paced the floors of his home, walked the streets, visited his friends from the old county in Brooklyn, NY… and gave in to accepting charitable contributions of the community so as to exist. English was a handicap too immense and far too gigantic for him to hurdle.
Sarit, on the other hand, was learning, albeit brokenly. Speaking the common language of motherhood, she mingled. The other women marveled at her heroism. As they entered her spotless home and viewed her homemaking skills, they admired. She was an accomplished lady! Mother to a big flock, she cooked gourmet meals, sewed and mended clothes, lent emotional support to her embittered husband and nurtured her children as only she could – in spite of the mountains of challenges the new country offered.
One day, Beverly stopped in to visit. As always, little light illuminated the home. Electricity was expensive. This time, however, Beverly sensed darkness detached from the physical lack of lights. A tangible aura of sadness and gloom permeated the room. Sarit smiled her welcome but her eyes mirrored anguish.
“What’s wrong, Sarit? Beverly asked.
Her answer came softly. “My husband. He is not well. Doctor say he has cancer in kidneys.” The tears flowed.
Beverly cringed at her words. Cancer? In those days it meant absolutely no hope. Beverly knew Sarit’s husband as a strong, muscular man. Lately, he had appeared pale, something Beverly thought had to do with his discontentment with the lot that had become his in this new surroundings. Now she knew it connoted something even more ominous and foreboding.
Beverly put my arms around Sarit’s thin frame and held her shaking body. Her heart ached for the woman. Trying to put the right words to her voice, Beverly gave her an insecure reassurance built on pure air.
“Sarit,” she said in mock calm, “I know it’s going to be a battle but, trust me, I’m familiar with others who had the same illness. With treatment they survived.” Beverly lied. Although she personally knew of no such case, she was sure that it did exist.
Sarit looked at Beverly in wonder. She whispered in a croak, “G-d, he will surely help.”
The following months took on a hard cruel guise. Sarit’s husband underwent treatments, hospital stays, and intense physical suffering. Sarit and the other family members – down to the youngest of barely three years old – went through intense emotional pain.
Then came a glimmer – the tiniest crack – of hope. “Doctor, he say maybe in month my husband have surgery. Maybe treatment help… ”
The entire neighborhood was ecstatic. There was hope. If only…
The day of the surgery arrived. With trepidation Sarit went along to the hospital. The neighborhood women watched the kids and prayed. They also watched the phone. That day, however, it never did ring. When Sarit returned home, her face was completely down- crest and her spirits totally crushed. The doctors had taken her husband into the operating room, opened him up, and promptly stitched him right back up. There was no hope, they said.
Beverly and Sarit looked each other in the eye, and simultaneously broke down.
In between sobs, Beverly held onto Sarit tightly and said, “Sarit, nothing is impossible for G-d. Whatever His will, you must be strong. You are holding up your family.”
“I know.” She whispered. “I know.” She cried on.
“And, Sarit, we are here for you – always,” Beverly said, this time much more passionately.
Indeed, as the neighbors futilely wished there was some kind of insurance policy in effect that would protect if the worst scenario would materialize, they tried to be there for her. But how could they shield Sarit and her children from the pain of seeing a rapidly deteriorating husband and father? How could they substitute the existence of a strong masculine presence in the home? All the good intentions in the world could not make up for that. And how could they take away the rational melancholy that drifted its ever-increasing spirit in the cracks and crevices of their home – in the hearts and souls of their beings?
It did not take much longer. The cruel long arms of the illness tightened its grip in a swift final victory. The women tried to alleviate the pain of the broken widow and her devastated young orphans during the first week of mourning, but their pain and tears ran unchecked as well.
Sarit soon rose to her calling with renewed courage. She was the mother of her children and she dared not succumb to the weakness that threatened her nerves every moment. She cooked on, sewed on, tended on.
But, in the quiet of her loneliness, when the children were away at school and in the dead of the night when all were asleep but she, the tears fell.
“I try so hard,” she would tell Beverly.
Beverly knew the memories were too bitter.
As the years passed, the children grew, and their innate charm helped heal the doom of the years preceding. One day Sarit called Beverly with a refreshing ring of delight to her voice.
“I have good news,” she said.
“What is it?” Beverly asked in cheery anticipation.
“Congratulations,” she said. “Adela is engaged!”
“Congratulations!” Beverly screamed. “Who, what, when, where?”
The excitement was so real it was tangible. The community participated in the celebrations with exceptional gusto. Beverly didn’t think she cried more for her own daughter’s wedding. The emotions that reigned at that event were not to be believed. The highlight of it all, of course, was seeing Sarit, bedecked in joy, dancing, smiling, laughing. It was a long over-due but welcome phenomenon.
As Beverly grabbed Sarit’s arms in the center of the dancers and twirled around with her in ecstasy of the moment, they embraced strongly. Suddenly, they both stopped moving. The circle of people encased them as they stood, arms locked, weeping and choking on the bittersweet tears of the past mingled with the present. Then they held on tight, moving ever so slightly to the rhythm of the music; the tears stopped. Beverly caught Sarit’s gaze, a compelling look of intense strength of character – the same strength that had pushed her to sew for other people so as to bring in a modest income and rule as distinguished matriarch of her family. As the wedding guests swayed around, the two of them laughed for the joy of the future.