Mrs. Malka* Hartman has a secret. Her daughter was born with numerous developmental delays, but she has kept this fact hidden since Tova’s birth. The other children are sworn to secrecy, a difficult burden for anyone, especially young children. Every knock on the door is evaluated – usually Tova is whisked upstairs, upsetting her in the middle of dinner or playtime. When a neighbor asks to borrow a cup of sugar, she expects to follow her friend through the house to the kitchen, chatting as the requested item is poured out. Instead, Malka politely asks her to wait, closes the door, and returns with the sugar. Let her neighbors think she’s odd; she doesn’t care. Or she just won’t answer the door. It’s easier.
The Hartmans have applied for services for Tova, and the therapists must enter through the side door, and never – ever! engage with the neighbors. Even when they see their speech therapist going to Shira, across the street, they won’t acknowledge her.
Now Tova is five years old, and she is starting a special school program. Bussing is provided, but Mr. Hartman takes great pains to change his schedule so that he can bundle Tova from the side door into the garage and drive her. No one should see her being wheeled from the house onto a bus that loudly proclaims its purpose.
Malka’s parents encourage her secretiveness, but her husband’s parents don’t approve. The elder Hartmans insist that Tova should not be kept locked up, and it worries them that their children and grandchildren live under constant tension. When Zaidy and Bubby visit, though they’re expected, the family furtively peeks out the windows, before opening. Ridiculous, Bubby opines. Her daughter-in-law is near collapse. She should allow the local Bais Yaakov to send girls to help. Her offers to take Tova to the park are rejected, so Bubby Hartman takes the other children out, while Tova begs to join.
Malka attends the mandatory conferences at her daughter’s school, but eschews the group get-togethers that the other mothers organize, with the administration’s support. And they have another suggestion.
“Project Refuah,” explains Tova’s teacher, “offers respite to families with children like Tova. The children go on overnight getaways, while the parents and sibling get to relax and recharge. Project Refuah takes such good care of the kids! Look, Tzippy’s mother sends her, and …” but Malka closes her ears. Tova cannot be exposed.
A month before Chanukah, Malka must undergo a medical procedure. It’s not serious, but will require an overnight stay in the hospital, and, more concerning, a week’s recovery on strict bedrest. They make arrangements to send the children to grandparents and aunts. Bubby Hartman offers to take Tova.
“But you work,” Malka protests. “Who will watch her when she comes home from school?”
Bubby Hartman doesn’t flinch. “I’ll hire an excellent babysitter. I know someone, warm, experienced…” But Malka won’t accept.
Having no choice, Malka calls Tova’s teacher for Project Refuah’s number. Morah Rivky sighs with relief and provides the number that will change the family’s life. Arrangements are made. Malka is impressed by the kindness of the Project Refuah staff. Her repeated insistence that confidentiality must be maintained is met with assurance. Feeling secure, she packs Tova up and sends her off.
A week after her operation, Malka is regaining her strength and her children arrive, happy to be home for Shabbos. Project Refuah offered to keep Tova for Shabbos, and Malka has accepted.
Shabbos without Tova is…eye-opening. They don’t sit for hours, feeding, coaxing Tova to eat. Little Avrumi hesitantly requests, and is granted, permission to invite a friend to play. Everyone is surprised – the parents, the kids and the little guest. Both parents catch a long nap after bribing the children with plenty of Shabbos party.
Motzei Shabbos, after treating everyone to pizza and ice cream, the Hartmans pick up their darling Tova. At the respite home, Tova is beaming, also having had pizza for Melave Malka. She is surrounded by friends and loving volunteers, who have played with her, made projects with her, and cared for her down to the very last detail – tonight they bathed and changed her into pajamas. Her parents have only to hug her and put her to bed, where she will dream happy dreams of a place where she is loved and cared for while her parents and siblings, too, can rest and rejuvenate.
The head volunteer warmly tells Mr. and Mr. Hartman that they will be organizing a special Shabbos Chanukah respite camp next month. Would they like to send Tova again?
Tears pouring down her face, Malka nods yes. She has emerged from the darkness and found a beacon of light and hope. For herself, her daughter and her family.
*All names have been changed.