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Pillars of Strength

May 9, 2009 | by

A wheelchair-bound couple draw on faith and a positive outlook in raising twins.

Spend a few days with Stuart and Rebecca Klein - he's quadriplegic, she's paraplegic - and they'll nearly have you convinced that their biggest challenge as parents of infant twins will be reducing the speed on their motorized wheelchairs, as they have vowed to each other they will, once the boys start to crawl.

"The speed of the wheelchair will be on low always," promises Stuart. "If we want to back up, we'll have to call out to each other and ask [where the twins are]."

The notion that they might have to slow themselves down a bit - they're practicing now to get used to the idea - reflects the Kleins' world view. They take their challenges in stride, despite the hurdles they face just getting up and dressed, let alone taking care of their fraternal twins Yaakov Aryeh and Yosef Netanel born in July.

Call Rebecca, 27, on the phone and suggest "You must be busy," and she replies, "Yes, thank God."

Press a bit and Stuart, 42, tears up for a moment when he mentions his sadness at seeing other fathers cuddling their newborns - the "holding and the bonding" that he couldn't do - but then his mood quickly rebounds as he notes that other things can compensate.

"You talk to them, you tell them how much you'll love them throughout their lives and that you'll be there for them," he says, his blue eyes beaming at Yaakov as Rebecca gives him a bottle. "And you know that right from the beginning, they're hearing you somehow."

The Kleins are Orthodox Jews and their strong religious faith provides an anchor and inspiration for their lives. They get plenty of support from family, friends and strangers who lend a hand, whether it's chipping in to buy the baby paraphernalia they need in duplicate or their 10-year-old neighbor's dropping by at dinner to play with the twins.

But their challenges run beyond the physical. They struggle financially and must brave suggestions that they're not up to the task of parenting. People on the street occasionally make disparaging comments when they see the Kleins rolling down the sidewalk in their wheelchairs, she holding the babies in both arms or now, as they're getting bigger, pushing their double stroller with a specially equipped side handle.

"I learned in life that whoever has a negative comment, to feel sorry for them. They don't even know me or my husband."

Some strangers have told them that having the twins - whom the couple say were conceived naturally, not in vitro as most people assume - was not responsible. "They say, 'These are your kids? How do you plan to raise them?' " Rebecca says. "We say, 'Just like you do. God forbid you'd lose your balance and fall down.' I learned in life that whoever has a negative comment, to feel sorry for them. Why do I need to remember what they said? They don't even know me or my husband."

Indeed, studies have shown that children of those with paralyzing disabilities do as well as children of able-bodied people, says Scott Richards, a University of Alabama psychology professor who works with paralyzed people. "It makes it more difficult to physically manage being a parent, but there's nothing else that should be a hindrance."

Now that the twins are getting more expressive and bigger - at nearly 20 pounds apiece - people on the street "ooh and ah" at blond-and-roly-poly "serious" Yaakov or darker and "more flirty" (his mother's words) Yosef. But several can't resist adding, "you're going to have your hands full," or "it's going to get really hard when they're older" - comments that perplex Stuart.

"Why say how hard it's going to be?" Stuart says. "What's the point? If they say it in a certain way, and then say, 'OK, we'll come over and help you out,' that's one thing, but otherwise, what are they suggesting?" Then he adds a characteristic joke, "Should we put them up on EBay now or wait till they're older?"

Special accommodations

The Kleins rely on government assistance to pay many of their bills. Stuart tutors schoolchildren as much as he can in the afternoon and evening. A part-time aide comes to get Stuart up, washed and dressed each morning, then returns in the evening to help him back to bed. A live-in nanny helps Rebecca do the housekeeping and care for the babies six days a week.

Now that they're a foursome with a live-in nanny, they are bursting out of their $1,600-a-month apartment in the Pico-Robertson area. The Kleins sleep in the master bedroom, giving their nanny, Hilda Gudiel, the other bedroom. The living room couch and computer desk now fight for breathing space with the two specially designed cribs that open from the side (enabling those in wheelchairs easier access to the babies); a play mat atop what once was an exercise mat for Stuart; a double stroller and assorted other gear, along with another set of manual wheelchairs for the Sabbath, when mechanized equipment is not supposed to be used.

Rebecca drives the family around in a specially equipped van that her father bought a few years ago. Stuart, who can move his wrists and hands slightly, manipulates the lever on his electric wheelchair and backs it up into the van, maneuvering it into a wheelchair anchor on the floor where the passenger seat would normally be. Then Rebecca rolls in, using her arm strength to hoist herself into the driver's seat. Even with a cushion, her tiny legs (she's about 4 feet 11) dangle only halfway to the floor.

The couple finally persuaded the city to designate a space in front of their apartment building for the disabled; however, they often return home to find other cars parked there, a big problem because their building's elevator doesn't descend to the garage level. If they opt to park in the garage, they face a steep climb up a ramp.

Those who know the couple well say they've rarely, if ever, seen the Kleins' optimism waver.

When possible, they prefer to roll to places themselves. When premature labor put Rebecca into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for two weeks before the twins' birth (by Caesarian section), Stuart would ride over from the Fairfax district (where they were temporarily staying with Rebecca's parents) every day in his wheelchair, each day trying to find the fastest and least-bumpy sidewalk routes. He brags about trimming his one-way time from 35 minutes to 20. That beat taking the government-funded van for the disabled, which requires advance booking and has little flexibility if doctors or appointments run late.

Those who know the couple well say they've rarely, if ever, seen the Kleins' optimism waver. Neighbor Dave Jaffe, 75, who has known Stuart for 15 years and attends the same synagogue, notes, "If I were in his shoes, I think I'd be a lousy guy. But on the outside, at least, he's a super guy. I struggle more than he does, I think, as far as attitude."

Blessed, in their own way

Stuart was paralyzed in a bizarre fall - from a couch - as a senior in college 20 years ago while on a ski trip. Ask how he dealt with it and he'll note that he "obviously wasn't a happy camper" initially, but then adds how "fantastic" it was to regain sensation after some bone chips were removed a few months later, describing the "incredible blessing" of being able to feel a touch as well as pain "down to my toes."

Though his wrist movement is very limited, Stuart can still type about 30 to 40 words per minute (with one finger), using a sort of rubber-tipped pen attached to a brace. He can use a computer mouse and crudely manipulate a fork or spoon between his first two fingers to eat. He keeps a cordless phone on his lap, hooked to a headset.

Rebecca's bout with polio as a toddler in Jerusalem (because of a skin condition that persists today, doctors thought it better not to immunize her) left her mostly immobilized from the waist down. She compensates by using her arms and upper-body strength to do daily activities like bathing and cooking; she's able to lift, change, dress and feed the babies. In the kitchen, she typically switches over to a more bulky wheelchair that can thrust her up high enough to reach the stove, countertop and sink. She keeps food and often-used dishes in the lower cabinets for easier access.

Stuart and Rebecca sometimes get calls out of the blue, a sort of "dial-an-inspiration." Karen Liebman, Stuart's sister, who lives on Long Island, recalls overhearing her brother a few years ago telling a caller about being strong when life gives you challenges. When Stuart hung up, she asked him who it was. "I'm not really sure," he replied, telling her the man was despondent and about to enter the hospital. "A friend of a friend suggested he call me."

The couple so inspires Aaron Nourollah, owner of the nearby Glatt Mart, a kosher Middle Eastern emporium full of exotic fruits, vegetables and flatbreads around the corner on Pico, that when he learned Rebecca had given birth to twin boys, he offered to pay for the bris. The Kleins didn't know what to expect; they didn't know Nourollah well, although Stuart tutors his nephew. The couple accepted, but privately worried that there might not be enough food to go around, because the ceremony is open to anyone, and after all, these were twin boys born to unusual parents.

The Kleins were delighted - and very touched - when Nourollah laid out an elaborate feast of bagels, assorted fish, salads, danish and cake for the 200 people gathered at the nearby synagogue hall (where his brother Moshe is the rabbi, and which the Nourollahs had also decked out with blue balloons).

"They are a very lovely couple," says Aaron Nourollah, who notes that the Kleins are in marked contrast to the many couples that bickered their way through his grocery aisles, before the store burned down in a fire on Dec. 27.

"All the couples, with all their health, are not as happy as they are," he says. "I watched the way they appreciate each other and they talk to each other…. other couples come in and the husband doesn't trust the wife even enough to pick the wine and vice versa and sometimes they end up with one bottle for each of them."

A blind date

Although they seem to finish each other's sentences now, it wasn't love at first sight for the pair, who met on a blind date, arranged by friends, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. She worried about their 15-year age difference but recalls how inspired she was on their second date by how Stuart was able to manipulate his fork while eating dinner at the kosher Milk 'n Honey restaurant - something he learned at a rehab institute in Hungary.

"I saw his disability and I was in awe," Rebecca recalls. "When I came home, I had tears in my eyes because I never appreciated how much I had."

Though she had dated able-bodied men, when she went with dates or friends to Disneyland or Universal Studios she would be left behind when they went on rides. And she started to think it might be better to date someone else with a disability so she'd have company. She's glad now, she says, because when the twins are older and friends take them on hikes and the like, Stuart can remain with her on easier turf, and together they can look at photos of the twins' "firsts" that they can't witness firsthand.

They kept in touch by phone and e-mail and had occasional dates - to the Grove, to Starbucks or just out for drives - over the subsequent months. Stuart proposed seven months after they met, while they sat in the van by the Santa Monica pier; he read a favorite poem and they listened to the waves breaking. Six weeks later, dressed in an elaborate wedding gown and in front of about 400 guests, Rebecca rode up to the chuppah in the wheelchair that pushes her body upright, accompanied by her parents, who had moved to the U.S. when she was 3 to get better medical care for her.

After being married a year and making visits to Florida and to Stuart's family in New York, they began trying to have kids (she warned him that twins ran in her family). When she started eating a jar of pickles a day, they knew. Soon thereafter, the doctor detected two heartbeats. Says Rebecca, "God said, 'OK, you want a family, so let's get going.' "

Reprinted with permission from the LA Times.
Click here to visit Stuart's art gallery.

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