Yankele, Come Home

“Mommy? When do you think I can come home? I miss you!”

The voice was a mixture of terror and restrained sobs. I clutched the receiver, struggling to come up with words of reassurance, but all I could think of was, “I know, Yankele, I know, but you know you have to be there now….”

What hollow words. Of course, I know and he knows; we’re all aware — as we have repeated to ourselves and our child countless times over the past few weeks — that there was no real choice involved in this excruciating separation. I murmured some more endearments before a cold click signaled that our time was up. I clumsily jabbed at the off button and stared at the phone, as my mind filled again with the chilling memory of the day it had all started.

“Yankele? What is going on here?” Tension surged through me as I watched my child perform in the most bizarre show I had ever witnessed. Ten-year-old Yankele roamed my kitchen, flinging open cabinets and ransacking their contents. Once neatly stacked cans clattered across the gleaming counters and onto the sparkling floor, joining a heap of pots and containers. The eyes that usually sparkled with good-natured wit and intelligence were now glazed with a mask of dull befuddlement. My mature ben yachid had turned into a roving bulldozer intent on demolishing every semblance of order in my kitchen.

Brothers hold swords at each other’s throats. Mouths spew venom, hearts stew with vengeance. A glorious city ravaged by her own inhabitants…

Horrified, I remained frozen as Yankele finished hurling the cabinets’ contents onto the floor. He started for the fridge. At that, the image of two five-course Shabbos meals urged me on. I lunged towards him and threw myself in his way, blocking the door. My son stopped and looked me up and down with a stranger’s eyes. Then, with a sudden swift movement, he lifted his leg and delivered a powerful kick to my shin.

I fell back against the refrigerator handle. The vitality drained out of my limbs, leaving me limp and trembling. Yankele watched me for a moment, then lost interest and slunk off to his room. It took a full five minutes until I moved to go after him. I opened his bedroom door, my heart wildly thrashing about, and forced a quick peek. He was lying on his bed in his usual sleeping position. Safe for the meantime.

On tottering legs I turned and stumbled toward the kitchen. I stared at my unrecognizable domain before slowly bending to pick up the first can. I couldn’t think. My movements were mechanical, devoid of their usual vigor.

An hour later, a sudden dread seeped through my insides as Yankele’s footsteps approached in the hall. His face appeared in the doorway. I held my breath and looked up. His eyes had reverted to their familiar gentle gaze. Straightening up, my rigid muscles relaxed slightly.

Yankele surveyed the room and squinted, scrunching his forehead. “Mommy, what happened here?”

Speechlessly, my glance flew from his face to the cluttered counters and floor. Superfluously, I squeaked, “Oh, Yankele, you’re up?” My brain flew into blessed action.

“We had a little accident here, so I am cleaning it up. Come help me a minute, and then we’ll have supper.” He willingly skipped to my side.

“The Mishnayos contest is in only three days.” He turned a suddenly glowing face to me. His voice rang with the natural desire to shine. “I guess it’s not really important who wins,” he continued philosophically. “The main thing is learning anyway, right?”

I smiled, yet felt a void in place of the rush of nachas that usually warmed me upon hearing his wise remarks. But I dutifully answered. “You are right, Yankele. Tatty and I are so proud of your geshmacke learning, we don’t need you to win. Hashem has much better prizes for you than the winner will get.”

He grinned. I usually savored these private exchanges with my son, yet now I found myself nervously looking and listening for nuances of discomfort. It quickly became clear that Yankele had no recollection of his earlier behavior.

A delightfully heady fragrance mingles with sweet melodies of stirring beauty. Priests in pristine white attire perform their duties with awed precision. Above, He looks on in disbelief. Shall the hands that spilled My sons’ blood offer Me sacrifices? Shall the mouths that wreaked destruction sing My praises?

That night, I shared the day’s absurd events with my husband. As he listened, his face gradually lost its color. “How can it be that a normal ten-year-old boy should suddenly act so strangely, without any warning?” he asked.

I had no answer.

Together, we decided to sit tight and see what would occur. I felt as if I were living at the edge of a cliff while still going about my regular activities. Every time Yankele entered the room, my back stiffened in fear, until I ascertained that he was his normal self.

Two weeks later, I was violently shoved off the cliff, helpless to keep from falling down into the abyss. When I poked my head into Yankele’s room that morning, I felt myself grow cold with terror. The mask was back, the unfocused stare that rendered him unrecognizable. Yankele got up and began to pull his room apart. Drawers were yanked out and overturned, the linen pulled off the bed and the closet emptied. I fled, wise enough not to get in his way.

Standing in the hall, I felt my heart jump with every thud and bang. My composure withered to a convulsive panic that left me helpless in the face of the attack. Yankele was back to himself an hour later, once more with no memory of his actions. I wished I could say the same for myself. In retrospect, I would never again occupy the ordinary plane of existence. Mine became an unpredictable one that tossed me from day to day in a sea of fear and sorrow.

The attacks kept recurring. Each time they broke me apart and shattered my very being. Our lives became brutal torture. Many failed attempts and dashed hopes followed us in our search for help. At last hope brightened our existence with the appearance of Dr. Arthur Collins.

“The bad news is that your son suffers from a rare but severe disease which will get progressively worse if left untreated,” he delivered calmly.

We exchanged a glance of unspeakable horror.

“However, there is good news as well. There does exist a coordinated regimen of therapy that has cured several other people with your son’s condition.”

I will scatter you among the nations; your land will be desolate, your cities in ruin!

“But this process is a delicate one, and any physical contact between the patient and his immediate family would doom this program to failure.” Dr. Collins averted his solemn face from ours.

“So, what would that mean practically?” My husband’s voice was gruff and slightly unsteady.

“It means that if you are interested in your son’s recovery, I recommend he be transferred to a specialized facility for the duration of his treatment. Family members will be prohibited from visiting.”

The question burst from me. “But doctor, what about us, his parents?”

“His parents especially. The most that can be allowed is a short monthly phone conversation. I’m sorry, but this is the only option.”

I stammered, “How long will this treatment take?”

“The predicted duration is approximately three years, depending on the patient’s progress.”

The patient. That was my son he was referring to so casually, the piece of my being he was threatening to tear away. Three years. An endless desert of misery stretched before me.

“My children, what have you done? You forced me to send you away. There was no other way to cure your insanity….Now I can no longer meet you face to face. I cry for you every morning: ‘Woe to the children who have been sent from their Father’s table because of their sins.’”

Every day of the enforced separation, I felt my spirit being trampled into dust all over again. The monthly call was an ordeal I dreaded wholeheartedly, yet I awaited it with unbearable anticipation. Each one was identical to the one before, tearing me apart all over again.

Yankele’s tormented voice would travel down the line.

“Mommy, I know I have to be here, but it is so hard. Isn’t there any way I can come home? These people are so horrid to me. They make me do impossible things, and they don’t care if I tell them it hurts. Can you come visit just once? Please, Mommy…”

I choked with the overflowing wellsprings of motherly pain and compassion. I could barely manage to whisper my faint comforts. “You know you have to be there, Yankele, there is no choice. I know it is so hard, but remember that we love you so much.”

Invariably, at some point the conversation petered out into a mutual sobbing spree, with his unrestrained cries mirroring my muted weeping.

At the waters we sat and we cried. Father, we miss You! How can we go on with life?

Please take us home. We want to feel Your sweet embrace. We need to be led by the light of Your guidance. We are wandering in the dark, without the warmth of Your

Presence…….

I cannot pinpoint when the change occurred. Although Yankele continued to cry and beg on the phone, as the months progressed I sensed a weakening in the intensity of his desperation. I could feel a slowly growing acceptance of the situation in his manner.

As the first year ended, Yankele’s tone had changed as he continued to ask the same questions. The tears seemed to have vanished, and even the pleading in my son’s voice had disappeared.

A few phone calls down the line found Yankele chattering about the interesting activities his therapist prepared. He spoke of the caregivers he had grown to trust despite their cold treatment. I gently hinted, “Yankele, we miss you. Don’t you want to come home?” The bottomless depth of anguish in my words was met with trite reassurances.

“Of course I want to come home, Mommy. But it’s not really so bad anymore.”

Suddenly, I found myself consumed by a desperate yearning for those tear-filled phone calls, when my heart had felt the powerful tug of my son’s longing. I had been broken by the emotions, but nothing could compare to the shattering, unbearable agony of the severed bond.

My son was settled where he was. He didn’t notice the lack of his mother’s embrace anymore. My child did not really feel desperate to come home.

Father, we really do want to come back to You. We don’t always say it and we don’t always feel it. We don’t always remember how wonderful it was to be with You. Please help us awaken the feelings, the intensity in our pleas during our phone calls home.