From Sunday, December 9, 200710:00:00 PM EST
Dec 02, 2007
The Hanukkah Party
By Rina Friedman
Hanukkah was finally here.
After the doldrums of school, homework and report cards, my kids and I (being a teacher, I suffer from many of the same school ailments that my kids do) were looking forward to a real “Hanukkah” treat . . . a meal out in our favorite Chinese restaurant.
As my family and I opened the door and entered the restaurant, we anticipated a real treat.
After all, it was Hanukkah, a time for celebration, joy and oily foods. Besides, China Palace was our favorite restaurant. We had been coming here for almost fifteen years.
Once inside, and sitting at our favorite table, we were in for a shock. First of all, after waiting for at least twenty minutes, and after waving wildly at every waiter (and being totally ignored), we were all cranky and starving.
This was a celebration! Soon my kids would want me to go home and start frying up a storm. (Heaven forbid!)
Second, all the action seemed to be centered at the opposite end of the restaurant, in the party room.
“I’m going over there,” I said to my husband. “I want to see why they are getting served, and having their party, while we’re waiting here, dying of starvation.”
My husband, who knows how much I hate waiting for service, said, “No, let’s just leave. Obviously Hanukkah is the wrong time to go out.”
He grabbed my arm to restrain me. “After all, we can always go home, and you can make latkes. . . .”
I knew it! Desperation motivated me to say, “I don’t want to leave yet. Let me at least go to check it out,”
I protested, loosening his grip.With a sigh, he let me go.
I walked to the other side of the room . . . and what a sight met my eyes! Balloons, gold dreidels, and sparkling menorahs were festooned everywhere . . . at least fifty people sat at various tables. There was a big sign, with a picture of an elderly, smiling couple, propped up on a table, with the words “Happy Hanukkah . . . Celebrate the Miracle” written in gold pen, which each guest had signed.
The thing that made the deepest impression on me was how happy these people seemed. The love was palpable in the air. I knew Hanukkah was a time of joy, but they were really excessive . . . smiling, and hugging, especially over in the corner, where the celebratory couple (whom I recognized from the picture on the table) sat.
I remained standing there, all hunger forgotten, as guest after guest went up to this couple, hugged and kissed the woman, and left beautifully wrapped presents on a side table, already piled high with previous gifts.
Suddenly, a feeling of terrible black envy filled my heart. I thought, You know, it’s not fair. . . . I will never have a Hanukkah party like this, with that many people. You see, my extended family is very dysfunctional, and I would have given anything to be part of such a family gathering. Sure, I always celebrated with my husband and kids, but never grandparents, uncles, cousins. . . .
Why her and not me? I wondered darkly.The black, cold feelings enveloped me, and I literally had to sit down as I felt self-pity overcome me.
I could at least watch the party, even if I’d never have one like it, I thought. Then, a wild impulse entered my mind. Why not go over and wish this woman Happy Hanukkah?
After all, I could sort of be a part of the celebration that way. I got up and walked over to the table, which was still a beehive of activity.“Uh . . . You don’t know me,” I began awkwardly . . . feeling like a fool. “But, I saw how lovely your party is, and I felt I just had to go over to you and wish you a happy Hanukkah.”
The woman looked at me and smiled, but I could see by the way she was gazing into my eyes, she sensed that something was awry.“One minute, Sy,” she turned to an elegant-looking man seated at her left. “I want to talk to this young woman.” She took my hand and began walking away from her table.
“Oh, no,” I protested. “I didn’t mean to disturb your party. Please, go back and sit down . . . please . . .”
“In a moment,” she said in a quiet voice. “But first, I need to tell you something. . . .” She placed her arm around my shoulders and led me to a quieter corner of the restaurant. “You see, I saw you staring at the party, and I knew that you were wondering what was going on. Maybe you even wished it was yours. Isn’t that right?” she asked.
How could she possibly know that? I wondered. Hot shame, like a high tide, filled me. I could feel my cheeks burning red hot.
I nodded, looking at the ground.She reached out her hand and lifted my face, her kind eyes gazing into mine. “I want to explain to you what this party is all about, and then you’ll see that you have nothing, nothing at all, to envy.”
I looked at her in disbelief. Not envy the attention . . . presents, people who obviously loved this woman. I truly doubted that anything she’d say would make any difference to me.
“First, do you know what this party is for?” she asked me.
“I assumed . . . a Hanukkah party,” I stammered.
“The reason all these people are here is because this is a very special Hanukkah for me. So you are correct, this Hanukkah is special because a few months ago the doctors told me that I’d never live to see it. . . .”I gasped in shock, my mouth gaping open.
“Yes,” she continued, “I have no family left either. . . . The ‘guests’ you see here are the nurses and doctors who saved me from my heart attack. Over there,” she pointed, “is my private nurse, whom I have to have with me at all times, and there,” she pointed to the corner table, “is my husband. He was my teenage sweetheart, do you know that? I never would have made it back without him. He’s the only family I have.”
She held my hand as she resumed her sad tale. “There is also a dietitian at the table, to make sure I eat only what is on my special diet. . . . No latkes for me, I’m afraid.” Then, she smiled sadly at me.“Another reason my husband is giving this party is because I probably won’t make it to next Hanukkah. But he doesn’t know that I found out, and that’s such a heavy burden to carry alone, all the pretending. For his sake . . . that’s why I had to tell someone.”
She gave me a fierce look.“Do you have a family, dear?” she questioned then. Speechless, I raised a very shaky finger, and pointed to my husband and kids, patiently waiting at our table.
“Oh yes,” she nodded. “So sweet, so young and healthy. You see, my dear,” she said, “it is you who are the lucky one.”
She gave me a tremulous smile, straightened out her shoulders, and walked slowly and with great dignity back to her party.
I turned away, my eyes blurred with tears . . . choking sobs rose up in my throat.I felt so mortified, so low.
How could I have forgotten what was really important? Health, a wonderful husband, great kids, a wonderful home. Now I understood everything, the solicitous attention her “family” was giving this woman, the waiters’ attentiveness. How could I have envied her, even for a moment?I returned to my table, a much wiser woman.
“You were gone so long,” my husband said. “So when are we going to have some service?”
“You know what?” I said, reaching for his hand and covering it with my own. “We can wait a while, it’s okay,” I smiled, my heart aching, remembering. “After all, it’s Hanukkah, right? A time for families to be together.”
“Right,” he affirmed, gripping my hand and squeezing.
I regarded him with new love in my eyes, then turned to gaze at my children. Having them in my life is a miracle, indeed, I thought. I truly am blessed. Truly blessed . . .As I looked around the table, there was only one thing I could say, and this time, I finally understood its true meaning.
“Happy Hanukkah, everyone . . . ,” I said.
Reprinted by permission of Rina Friedman (c) 1998 from Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul
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