Author Archives: Johanna Berkman

The Waiting Room

Back when my mother had cancer I would go with her to Sloane Kettering’s midtown outpatient facility for her chemo. A handsome blonde doorman in a blue gold-buttoned coat who looked like he belonged at Bergdorf’s would always greet us as we entered. “So nice to see you!” and, “Welcome back!”

But upstairs, inside the gynecological department, there were no luxury goods worth dying for, and my mother and I would simply take our seats in the large but crowded waiting room, listening to piped in QXR and amusing ourselves with trips to the mini fridge for complimentary child-sized cans of ginger ale and unlimited graham crackers while we waited for her name to be called.

“Goldberg, Lois. Lois. . . . . Gold-berg. . . . .”

“Feldstein, Dorothy. Dor-o-thy . . . .Feldstein. . . .”

Despite the fact that my mother and I were both chatty, inveterately curious people, we rarely engaged with the women around us because we didn’t want to hear their stories. My mother’s was sad enough, and the only thing worse than hearing someone else’s cancer story would have been my mother being forced to share hers, a story which we knew, nine times out of ten, would be far worse than the one she had traded for. She was going to die and soon. It didn’t make for casual conversation, not even here.

“Bucholtz. Ca-rol Bucholtz. . . . . ”

“Weissman. Frie-da Weissman. . . . .”

Waiting for my mother to be called into the “infusion suite,” I often felt like I was sitting in the office of a synagogue which had invited any Jewish woman in the New York metropolitan area sixty years of age or older to come in for a free adult Bat Mitzvah class. Or perhaps I just wished it to be the case. But try as I might I could never quite get the reality out of my head. The waiting room we were in was the absolutely worst kind of waiting room and no amount of free ginger ale or graham crackers could cover it up. We were in death’s waiting room and the guard outside, always happy to lend a hand finding taxis, might as well have just stripped down to a loincloth and admitted who he really was: Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

Occasionally, my mother and I would overhear whispers among the nurses of a patient who hadn’t “been seen in a while.” Death was everywhere and so the word was never used.

And then they finally called for her.

“Berkman. Judith. . . . . ”

It has been nine years since my mother died and every six months I visit an imaging facility on the Upper East Side which thankfully has no doorman. The waiting room has no free food, only a water fountain, and nearly as many male patients as female. CNN blares from a TV and the patients, a large percentage of whom are disease free but merely checking up on something due to a symptom or injury, or, as in my case, the vague genetic threat of family history, are secure enough in the belief that they’re going to be around for a while for today’s news to hold no interest. Instead everyone stares into their i-phones and when called upon, books next appointments for many months into the future. Still, despite all this healthful arrogance, death still looms around the edges. It’s not uncommon to see at least one wheelchair and a couple of canes, or a home health aide who has come to assist. It is not so much death’s waiting room as the room before the room. Death’s anteroom, death’s foyer.

Each time I come for my breast and pelvic ultrasounds I seem to get a different sonographer. They are always women, but some are younger than me and some older, some friendly and some not, some deeply concerned about my comfort while others masochistically seem to relish their role, brusquely smearing gels and wielding their sonographer’s wand as though I were some kind of sunken vessel and they were digging inside me for treasure. Of course I prefer the gentle ones but there’s really only one thing that matters to me, and that is that I get the kind of sonographer who is willing to break the rules and give me an off-the-cuff interpretation of my results rather than make me wait days to receive the complete report which needs to be approved by a doctor.

Luckily at my appointment last week, I had just this kind of sonographer.

“You’re all good,” she said, as I lay there in a gel smeared gown, a small platform uncomfortably wedged under my lower back.

“For now.”

Yes, she was one of the brusque ones and yet all the same, I put my hands in prayer position, and bowed to her as she left.

When I finally got back outside, the sunny day had turned cloudy and cold, the skies dark, rain clearly on the horizon. Nonetheless I felt so happy to be alive I decided to forego the bus and take a long walk home through the park. They hadn’t called for me.

Not yet.

The Guest Who Never Comes To Dinner

They say people miss their dead family members most around the holidays. But somehow I never thought this applied to me. And then today happened. It wasn’t until after I overslept, yelled at the kids and then had a brief verbal altercation with my son’s nursery teacher (a first, in twelve years of being a parent) that I realized what was really going on. I was in the back of a cab, rushing south down Broadway to Gracious Home to get a few last minute things for our Chanukah party, when it hit me. I was having twenty three guests. But it didn’t really matter if I was having 23 or 2300. Or if I was having the most perfect, elegant and yiddishkeit-filled Chanukah party the Upper West Side had ever seen. My mother wouldn’t be coming.

“I always come back.” I must have said these words to my kids literally thousands of times since becoming a mother. But now, on the first night of Chanukah, more than nine years after my mother’s death, it’s the inverse of them that breaks my heart anew. It’s been so long without her that I actually have to work to conjure her image. I can see the soft lines of her cheeks, the intense twitchiness of her liquid brown eyes. And I can just barely make out her voice. “I–” And she hesitates. She doesn’t want to say it but she has no choice. “I never.”

The Mother Whirl

novelThere’s strength in numbers so perhaps that explains why now that I have three children I have so much more mother guilt than I ever had when I had one. Back when my oldest was an only I picked him up just one day a week from nursery. Instead of going to pick-up, I would sit in some nearby café and work on my novel — not yet then a source of guilt either — as though that pursuit required as much stay-at-your-desk face time as my former job at Goldman Sachs.

Sure I was misguided, but back then it didn’t even matter, because at the end of each day I would simply come home and my son would have my full attention. After a while my husband would join us and we’d all have dinner, then play games and read stories till bedtime. We were a perfect little troika. We had a perfect little life. And then we dared for more.

You could say we had two more children as a means of self-justification – both my husband and I are third children – or simply because we wanted a larger family and all the fun and chaos which that entails. Or maybe we were just naïve. But now, eleven years into the mothering game and the (still as yet) unfinished novel, I can finally see not just the positive, but also the negative, side of the ledger. There has been a cost for my betrayal of our Mother-Father-Son trinity and the cost is this: I have turned into the very sort of mother I used to hate.

I have turned into a Mother Whirl. A Mother Whirl is the sort of mother who runs around town trying to do everything for everyone though of course it’s impossible and wouldn’t even necessarily be constructive for her children, let alone herself, if it were. She misses her kids if she doesn’t see them at the end of their school day, cares deeply, way too very deeply, about what they ate for snack and lunch, and can tell you more than you would ever want to know about what her kids are learning, or would be learning, if only she were in charge of curriculum.

But there’s one big problem inherent in this take-no-prisoners approach toward motherhood. The harder a Mother Whirl works to please her children (and believe me, she works hard), the more, not less, her children want her, a fact which seems to countermand the whole point of the enterprise. For what is the goal of motherhood if not the production of self-sufficient, outward looking children? I know this, believe it to be true and yet nonetheless. . . . . I seem to have gotten lost on a path strewn with far too much mother guilt and far too many farflung afterschool activities.

Take yesterday for example. After spending the whole afternoon running with my children (quite literally at times) back and forth crosstown from school-to-pediatrician-to-ballet-to-tutor-to-baseball, by the time I finally got all of us home for dinner I was so exhausted and embittered that I was whirling right into becoming a post-millennial Mommy Dearest. We ate crappy, overcooked food. Tantrums ensued. And I’m not talking about the children. While any good mother worth her whirl would quickly issue abject apologies all around and reassure her kids that never again would she subject them to such emotionally scarring behavior, I was finally too tired for all of that and instead surprised myself by reverting to what my own mother used to do in similar situations back in the ‘70s. I put on the TV, poured myself a glass of wine (okay, were I really impersonating my mother I’d drink gin) and hid in the kitchen ignoring the mess around me while catching up on old New Yorkers.

About a half hour passed blissfully by and then I heard shrieking which made me jump up and run into the den ready to break up a fight or perhaps hightail it to the emergency room. But all I found were my three kids smushed up tight together on the couch like best friends, howling with delight at some misbegotten reality show’s misbegotten slapstick humor. And right then it occurred to me that perhaps our decision to expand our family out past its perfection zone was not nearly as imperfect as I’d thought. For what had my children become if not a holy trinity of their own?

And though we all fell multiple steps behind in the carefully calibrated march toward bedtime, my kids seemed so happy and playful and well, kidlike, at the end of the day that after I tucked them in I not only had enough energy to clean my kitchen, but I finally finished those old New Yorkers.

Its That Time Again. . . . .

My youngest is now three years old and that means its that time again — time to get pregnant. When my first son turned three I did it. Then when my daughter turned three I did it again. And now that my younger son is three well. . . . .How could I not do it?
My husband has zero interest in a fourth child, so there’s that, plus truth be told I am only just now starting to enjoy my freedom, or at least that little bit of it that comes from having all of one’s kids squared away in school by 8:45 in the morning.
But. And yet. Standing in the lobby of my son’s nursery school this morning tightening my sneakers before heading out for a run all I could think was, I wish I had a baby waiting for me at home. No one’s waiting at home. Of course when I had babies I would often go running in the morning when they were asleep, while I was gone they would inevitably wake up and so they would be quite literally waiting for me, or at least my milk-filled breasts, when I returned, the whole thing a bit of a pressured hassle as I remember it. 
But. And so. Tell me one thing in life that’s worth doing that isn’t a bit of a hassle. 
Pretend I’m a baby, says my three-year old, practically reading my mind when I meet him this afternoon for his swim class. Hold me like a baby, he commands, as together we slip into the pool. And though my neck and shoulders are sore from carrying him for much of a hike we took this weekend, I scoop him up close in my arms. Oh baby, I whisper, you’re my special and before I can say baby again he wrestles himself free and dunks right under the water.

Let Us Go And Make Our Visit

Saturday, after eight hours spent in the car with a baby who’s still nursing and a four-year old who got so car sick she vomited bile, I entered the dining room at my son’s camp and began frantically scanning the tables. But before I could find him, he found me, running toward me in a haze of golden hair and too tanned skin, bare feet, yogurt-stained shorts and a misbuttoned blue and white oxford. “You’re here!” he exclaims.

“Your son’s very independent,” his counselor tells me. At home, my son cannot tie his shoes, be trusted to put his dirty clothes in the hamper and asks for a massage every night at bedtime. “That’s nice,” I say quickly, dismissively. “But I hope he’s not too independent. I mean, I think it’s nice to have close friends and not be so independent that–” “He’s healthy,” she says, interrupting.

This woman knows from healthy. She is thin but not skinny, has dark brown hair punctuated by a few stray grays, and has a no-nonsense way about her which makes sense once you learn that she is a lacrosse and field hockey coach during the school year — “I like sticks,” she tells me – and went to Miss Porter’s – “I’m a boarding school person.”

Later, while we wait to be dismissed to Evening Activity, I ask her what she’s been reading. “There’s this big bookshelf on the way to the bathroom,” she says, “and every time I walk past I simply. . . . .” The bathroom? I had meant what she was reading as the bedtime story to my son and his tentmates but all I can think now is: has my son been able to go even once since he got here?

This is just one of the many things that I did not think about at all till coming to Visiting Day. My son’s teeth look a little gray; has he been brushing enough? His hair smells like something died in it. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I don’t have lice.” Lice?! Who said anything about lice? He tells me he needs a thirty-two ounce water bottle to go on an overnight. Overnight? You’re already here, I feel like shouting, isn’t this overnight enough?! And why is he wearing yogurt-stained shorts when I know, as per his camp packing list, that he’s got four other pairs to choose from? “Because I can,” he tells me.

We swim together in the lake and though I too once swam in lakes I am surprised to see this through my now-mother eyes, how dark, the water, how deep. “Mom, do the high-dive!” he calls as he jumps off a seven-foot ledge plunging mercilessly into the water.

Later, after the square dance, the sun will set in a hot pink orangey sky whose colors have nothing to do with pollution. “Can my Mom tuck me in?” he asks his counselor, and my heart soars. There is his longing, who knew, the twin of mine, and then the prospect of the thing itself, to tuck him in, and here!, in a tent under the stars. It is just the thing we need, I think, a new memory that will carry us forward through these next three weeks apart. “Too disruptive,” his counselor chides. And much as I envy, and even resent her right then, I also can’t help but acknowledge the truth: My son is managing well enough without me and isn’t that the point?