The Wayward Son // Why couldn’t he bring himself to just say the words?

I was in the room the last time Mendy saw his mother.
It wasn’t deliberate, my intruding upon such a personal moment. It just happened that way.

Mendy’s mother Raizy was my eldest sister. She was in a hospice center, dying of cancer, hovering between life and death. She had made her peace with it. Her only concern, as always, was her family. She lived for her husband, Anshie, and their five children, three of whom were married. Only Miriam and Mendy were still at home, ages 19 and 17 respectively.

Miriam was a gentle soul, a child who’d grown old before her time. She’d spent hours stoically rubbing her mother’s back and trying to coax her to drink something. She had been at her mother’s side ever since that horrible day she was diagnosed, just weeks after her brother Yanky’s wedding. Raizy had been feeling out of sorts for a while, weak and listless. She went to the doctor to check out a suspicious lump she was sure was “nothing.” The “nothing” turned out to be “something,” stage four, and after two rounds of treatment the doctors told Raizy she was terminally ill. They told my stunned brother-in-law to prepare his children for the inevitable. Anshie retorted that they didn’t know what they were talking about. As long as there was life there was hope, and Raizy would live to marry off her children—and grandchildren as well.

I admired Anshie’s faith, even as I met with the doctors and reviewed the scans and sought a second and even a third opinion. In fact, making sure that no stone was left unturned became my obsession, even as Anshie stubbornly refused to acknowledge what was happening. It was I who called the children and readied them for what was to come, urging them to bid farewell to her while they still had the chance. And so they came, spending precious moments with their beloved mother, listening to her final wishes, bowing their heads for her blessings, words of praise and guidance for the future.

Then it was Miriam’s turn, and I left to get some coffee in the cafeteria. With Raizy’s condition so precarious and Anshie refusing to accept reality, I’d moved into the hospital to be with her during her final moments. When I came back to the room, Miriam was huddled into herself, her eyes wet with tears, and Raizy had dozed off. Mendy was standing by the window, sullen and brooding, his yarmulke at a rakish angle. His mother was dying and he was furious. I didn’t blame him one bit.

Mendy had always been a challenging child who yearned for more freedom and independence than his parents would give him. In yeshivah he was the proverbial square peg in the round hole who spent most of his time roaming the hallways. When he did apply himself he was a brilliant student, but he mostly used his talents to drive his rebbe’im nuts. By the time he turned 15 he’d been in three different yeshivos, but he was finally straightening out and bringing his parents belated nachas.

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