Tuesday, May 12, 2009
I Won't Say A Word
Place: Chattanooga, TN
We called her Tante (Aunt) Bessie because there is no Yiddish word for step-grandmother. My paternal grandmother died before I was born. I never saw Tante Bessie as a replacement. She was my grandmother. Whenever we visited my grandparents, she squeezed my cheek and offered me mandel bread.
My maternal grandmother’s name was Tessie. So, my grandmothers were Bubbe Tessie and Tante Bessie. BT and TB. This doesn’t have anything to do with my story; I just thought it was funny.
When Tante Bessie was in her eighties, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She received chemotherapy that weakened her to the point that she slipped into a coma. Her family gathered by her bedside, knowing there was little chance she would ever come out of the coma.
Zayde and Bessie were both widowed with families of their own when they got together. Zayde loved Bessie very much, so this was very hard on him. He was watching his second wife slowly slip away.
I was not among the family members hovering around Tante Bessie in her hospital room. My father was. He is the one who told me this story.
Days crawled by while Tante Bessie’s family waited for either a miracle or the eventual. Tante Bessie’s oldest daughter, Betty, was there with her husband. He had some business to take care of in Florida. After much coaxing, he convinced Betty to come with him. He explained that they would only be gone for two days. Tante Bessie’s condition had stablized and was not expected to change one way or the other any time soon.
Zayde didn’t care much for Betty. I only saw Betty a few times and from what I remember, she was a pill. Her leaving for Florida gave him an excuse to bitch about her.
“How can she leave at a time like this?” Zayde groused to my father. “Her mother is sick and she just leaves.”
“Now Pop,” Dad said. “She’s only leaving for a couple of days. There’s nothing she can do sitting around here.”
Zayde waved off Dad as if he were an annoying fly and continued grumbling.
Late that night, Tante Bessie came out of her coma. Everyone, but Zayde, had gone home for the evening.
“What time is it?” she asked Zayde in Yiddish.
Before he could tell her, she slipped back into her coma. A few hours later, Tante Bessie died.
Zayde called Dad. Dad called our Rabbi. Dad and the Rabbi rushed to the hospital to help Zayde make the necessary arrangements for Tante Bessie’s burial. Dad called family members to tell them the news, including Betty in Florida.
Along with all the details that had to be worked out to get Tante Bessie to her final resting place, there was one detail Zayde wouldn’t leave alone.
“Can you believe that Betty?” Zayde said. “She abandoned her mother when she needed her the most.”
“What abandonment?” Dad argued. “Bessie was in a coma. She never really regained consciousness. There was nothing Betty could have done.”
It wasn’t that Dad particularly liked Betty. He thought she was a pill too. Dad just couldn’t stand it when Zayde let his emotions take over logic. Also, Dad was hoping to prevent Zayde from saying something inappropriate to Betty.
“You’re right,” Zayde said. “There’s nothing she could have done. I know she loved her mother very much. She is suffering now, so I won’t say a word.”
“Good,” Dad said.
Like a teapot with a steady flame, it wasn’t long before Zayde got steamed up again.
“But can you believe the nerve of that woman!” Zayde said. “She runs off to Florida while her poor mother is in a coma and isn’t even here when Bessie died. But I know she’s suffering, so I won’t say a word.”
“Good,” Dad said.
Each time Dad thought the subject of Betty’s flagrant betrayal of her mother had finally expired, Zayde would breath new life into it. After each outburst, Zayde would end with the same promise that he would not say a word about it to Betty. The woman was suffering enough.
When Betty arrived at the hospital, she was a wreck. Her lips quivered. Her eyes were wet with tears. Anyone could see that she was one step away from a complete emotional breakdown.
Betty grabbed Zayde’s shoulder and asked him in a strained whisper, “Did she suffer?”
Zayde sadly looked into Betty’s eyes and said quietly, “She asked for you all night.”
Dad’s mouth dropped open in shock. He couldn’t tell Betty, who was sobbing loudly, the truth. It was too late for that. And besides, Zayde had done exactly as he had promised. He didn’t said a word to Betty about how angry he was at her.