It was less than two weeks 'til Pesach, twelve days to be exact, and I was cleaning my boys' closets. I know some people hate the cleaning, but I love getting everything in order, throwing out what needs to be trashed, replacing whatever needs to be replaced, and knowing where everything is. And since I live in Israel, I was not the only person cleaning for Pesach. Not only was my apartment getting cleaned, but the whole country was going to shine.
As I worked, though, I have to admit that I was getting annoyed with the pencil shavings, eraser crumbs, and other tiny bits of dirt that I was finding in all the shelf corners. I knew none of it was chometz, but once I started the job, I wanted it done right. I decided to ask my downstairs neighbor, Chava, if I could borrow her small, hand vacuum cleaner.
Chava had moved into the building a little less than a year ago and I had liked her from the start. She's short and jolly and more than a little overweight. She's always going to start a diet 'as soon as she gets organized'. That seems to be her motto for everything; cleaning her house, making a dentist appointment, and finishing her degree. She pushes things off and then runs around like crazy at the last minute. Still, she does get things done and she always seems to be available to sit down for a cup of coffee and conversation. Not that I have a lot of time to sit. With six kids, a part time job, and being head of the neighborhood chesed committee I feel like I'm always running. When I do get a chance to catch my breath, though, I love to sit in Chava's cluttered kitchen and share some laughs and some of her deliciously wicked brownies. So I was really taken aback when she came to the door with red, puffy eyes.
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing." Chava shrugged. "What can I do for you?"
I had hoped she would invite me in for a cup of coffee; however she was obviously not in the mood. I took her vacuum but before I returned to the boys' closets I decided to put my feet up for a few minutes. I used the time to make chesed committee calls. We're having a busload of new immigrants come to the neighborhood for Pesach and I had to find places for them. Believe me, that was not easy, but that's a whole other story.
Once I did finish the closets I saw I had forty-five minutes left until I had to pick up my youngest from day care. That would give me enough time to do the coat closet after I finished returning the vacuum.
Chava came to the door with her eyes as red and puffy as they had been before. This time I could not ignore them.
"What's going on?" I entered her apartment and sat down at the table without being asked.
She just stood next to the door and shrugged. Chava has really beautiful blue eyes but she kept them focused on the floor.
"Are you sick?"
Chava shook her head.
"Are you and Naftali getting divorced?" I was grasping at straws.
Again she listlessly shook her head.
"Did someone die?"
That made Chava look up. "Thank G-d, no," she whispered.
"Then what is it?"
Chava gave a deep sigh and mumbled one word, "Pesach".
"Oh," I smiled with relief. "That we can deal with. Sit down."
As she collapsed into the chair across from me I glanced at my watch. Only thirty-five minutes left until I had to get my daughter. I would have to forget about the getting the coat closet done, but this was important.
"What has you worried about Pesach?"
"Everything," She played with the ends of her head scarf as she answered. "The cleaning. The cooking before. The packing. Going to my mother-in-law. The kids being home for," she looked at me quizzically. "How long is vacation?"
"A little over two weeks," I answered complacently.
My kids were all organized for their break. Chava's two pre-schoolers were not. I decided it was time to get my friend organized and demanded some paper and a pencil. I'm a firm believer in lists. If I would look at all that had to be done before Pesach at once, I would have a nervous breakdown. I organize everything that has to be done into weeks and then into days and then into mornings, afternoons, and evenings. I'm always a day or two ahead in case of emergencies. It's a great system and it was time for Chava to discover it.
In a monotone she dictated all she needed to do. Seeing her dejection I finally understood why the rabbis are so adamant about not confusing Pesach cleaning with spring cleaning.
"What about hiring help?" I asked cautiously. Naftali worked long hours in a family business but I wasn't sure what their financial situation was.
Chava shrugged. "I never really liked having someone else in my home but maybe it's a good idea but I don't know if I can find anybody…"
"Would you like me to ask around?" I just happened to know of a woman in the neighborhood who was desperate to make some extra money.
Chava nodded her head. We divided everything on the list into days and put a star next to everything we thought Mrs. Amamai could do.
"About the kids," I finished up. "Simi Simons always makes a day camp. I think you should sign your kids up."
"Okay," Chava almost sounded excited. Her eyes had cleared up and she had even smiled at one of my jokes. Of course, I had hoped for a chuckle.
"Oh!" I looked at my watch and saw I had ten minutes to get my baby. "I've got to run. You'll be all right now that you have your list, won’t you."
Chava nodded and I went flying. I really did not stop the rest of the day and did not think of Chava again until 6:47 the next morning when I heard a timid knock at the door. There stood Pnina, Chava's five year old, and she was crying.
"Ima doesn't want to wake up and I can’t find my shoes and Shimmy's hungry."
"Where's your father?" I called to my oldest to take care of things as I took Pnina's hand.
"He's in America." The little girl sniffled.
When we entered the apartment I went straight to Chava's room. She was sound asleep and did not respond to me calling her name. Even shaking her did not get a reaction. Then I saw the medicine bottle on her nightstand. It was a bottle of pain pills and it was three quarters empty. I forced myself to stay calm. Chava was definitely breathing but the breathing was slow and her color scared me. With my heart racing I dialed emergency. Help was on the way and I called upstairs to order the children to say tehillim. Fortunately the ambulance arrived almost immediately. I was able to give Pnina and Shimmy the attention they needed. It took a while, but I calmed them down and was able to send them off to nursery school. I called my office and told them I would be late coming in.
I wasn't sure who to call about Chava. She has no family in Israel, but Naftali is a sabra and he has enough for the two of them. I did not want to call his mother, though. She is quite emotional and I had no time to deal with that. I finally decided to call the family business. After all, that was why Naftali was out of the country. His brothers could decide who would go to the hospital, who would contact Naftali, and who would pick up the kids from nursery school.
When I'm at my work, I concentrate solely on work, but once I left the office I began worrying about Chava again. As soon as I put lunch on the table I bribed my oldest daughter to watch things. Pesach cleaning was going to have to wait. I wanted to see Chava.
I found her in a room with two other women. Although she was lying in her bed with her eyes open and focused on the door, she did not acknowledge me.
"Chava?" I went straight to her and took her hand. She had dark circles under her eyes but other than that she looked normal. "How are you?"
Chava smiled weakly. "I guess you'll have time for me now that I am one of your chesed cases."
"What do you mean, Chava?"
But she closed her eyes and turned over as if she was falling asleep. I stood by her bed another ten minutes but she did not stir. I tiptoed out feeling more than a little troubled.
Once home my oldest took off immediately. I was left with a houseful of kids and unfinished, or rather unstarted, Pesach cleaning. My husband was going to be working late. The phone rang and a friend had to cancel out on the family she was taking Seder night. I was beginning to panic out when someone rang the doorbell.
It was Tova, my upstairs neighbor and a good friend to both me and Chava. She had come to find out how Chava was doing and she ended up rescuing me by agreeing to take the family for Seder. She's one of those people who never say no and I hate to take advantage of her, but I was feeling desperate.
I was up late doing all the Pesach cleaning I had planned to do in the afternoon. It didn't matter. I barely slept for worrying about Chava and what she had said to me. As soon as I got the children out of the house the next morning I left for the hospital. Chava was sitting in bed reading a book when I entered he room.
"Hi," She gave me a real smile. "Thank you for all the help yesterday." She looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry for all the trouble."
"It's okay." I was embarrassed, too. I mean, it sounded like I was telling her it was okay that she tried to kill herself. But maybe she didn't try. Maybe it was just an accident. I did not know what to say.
"Do you want to sit down?" Chava pointed to the plastic chair by her bed. "Or are you on the run?"
"No, I really wanted to visit with you."
Chava looked pleased and that helped my confidence.
"So," I spoke cheerily. "What's going to be with you?"
"They're supposed to release me today."
"I suppose so," Chava pulled at the ends of her head scarf. "Naftali is flying back now, but I'm not going home. We're going to move in with his parents until after Pesach."
"Oh." There were at least dozen questions I wanted to ask but I did not want to pry.
Chava sighed. "No one seems to believe that I took those pills by mistake."
"I'll believe you!" It was an impulsive statement and I saw Chava's face light up.
"I was so keyed up about Pesach and I kept running lists over and over in my mind and Naftali wasn't there to talk to and I knew I had so much to do in the morning and I remembered I had those pills left over from when I had my wisdom teeth out and I took a couple."
She stopped to catch her breath.
"I guess I did it more than once." Chava blushed. "They're releasing me on the condition that I go to Naftali's parents and start seeing a counselor."
"Will you be okay staying with your mother-in-law for so long?"
Chava gave one of her chuckles. "If I'm not crazy now I will be by the time Pesach is over." It was a relief to hear her chuckle and I laughed with her. "Seriously," she continued, "Nafatali's family has always been good to me. They're great with the kids and they give me space when I want but they have time for me when I need them."
Speaking of time reminded me of what I wanted to ask Chava. It was my turn to blush as I cleared my throat.
"Yesterday you said that I would have time for you now that you were a chesed case."
Chava looked surprised. "Did I say that?"
"Yes," I nodded. "And I kind of wondered what you meant."
"Oh, I don't know," Chava laughed but it sounded like a nervous laugh to me. "I don't remember saying it."
"Well, you did," I was not going to let the matter drop. "Do you have bad feelings for me?"
"Of course not!" Chava sounded adamant. "It's just that you seem to be so busy helping people, which, don't get me wrong, is wonderful, but sometimes I feel like you don't have any time to be a plain friend."
"What do you mean?" I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach.
Chava looked uncomfortable and I realized I should probably back off. Before I could change the subject, though, she began explaining.
"Do you remember when Shimmy had his hernia operation? You arranged for someone to watch Pnina and had a hot meal waiting for us when we came home. That was great but my mother-in-law could have done that. What I really needed from you was to sit down and have a cup of coffee and some brownies with me and listen to all my fears about my baby going to surgery."
"Oh." I vaguely remembered Chava talking about her apprehension but I had not picked up on it.
"You know how Tova never says no to you," Chava continued. "If you would listen to her carefully you would know that even after five years in the country she is desperately homesick for the big family she left behind. She always agrees to host your guests so she can pretend they are her relatives. If you stayed on the phone with her a little longer you could be a sympathetic ear. She needs a sympathetic ear as much as the sick woman in the next building needs her meals organized."
"Oh," I repeated. My palms were sweaty and my stomach felt queasy. What Chava was telling me was that despite my organization, efficiency and chesed work I was missing the boat when it came to being a friend. It was a relief when a nurse came into the room to take Chava's vitals and I was asked to leave.
I blinked back tears most of the way home but as I reached my neighborhood I had an idea. As soon as I got home I would grab my cordless, start in on the laundry room shelves, and call Tova. Wait a minute, I thought. Instead of calling Tova I would stop by. That's what my emergency days were for, weren't they?
Tova was surprised to see me at her door when we both should be busy cleaning, but she graciously invited me in and poured me a cup of coffee. As we sat down she picked up the dress she had made for her daughter and continued sewing the hem. Tova is almost as efficient as I am. Of course we talked about what every Jewish woman was talking about, namely Pesach cleaning. After a few minutes, though I brought up one of my reasons for the visit.
"Do you think our families could get together and do a Holomod outing?" I asked.
Tova's eyes lit up. "I'd love that!"
I had been missing out on my family’s outings the last few years, opting instead to stay home and cook. My conversation with Chava had made me rethink things. This year I would make simpler food and have some time with my family. Tova finished her hemming while we discussed possible trips. It was time for me to get going, but before I left I broached the second reason for my visit.
"You know, with the new apartment complex this neighborhood is really getting too big for me to handle by myself. I need a co-chairman and I think you would be a great partner. What do you think?"
Tova did not say no and she looked interested. "I'll think about it and let you know after Pesach. Is that okay?"
I couldn't ask for more than that. If Tova agrees then I'll have more time, more time to be a good friend. When Chava comes back after Pesach I'll visit her for more than just a few minutes. Not because she needs me, but because I need her. Everyone needs friends.