> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Three Steps Back

August 26, 2009 | by Sarah Shapiro

On being a tourist in the land of the disabled.

Do all stories begin, as did this one, before they begin? This one began at my daughter’s wedding, during the ecstatic first round of dancing, but the frame can conceivably be pushed back three weeks, to a phone call from one of Nehama Consuela’s many friends. She said that Nehama had fallen and broken her leg, and invited me to share a taxi with a few of them the next day, for the long ride out to the hospital.

Nehama, an accomplished writer, musician, and a convert, has lived in Israel for four decades. She has no family here but through the years a sort of virtual community has arisen: the far-flung fellowship of women bonded informally to one another by way of their bond with her.

“I don’t know if I can go, I’m so busy right now,” I said, reassuring myself that family responsibilities have to come first. “My daughter’s getting married.”

“Oh! Mazel tov!”

“Thank you!”

Each of my excuses seemed too selfish a pleasure.

I had to finish the invitation list and address the envelopes, go with my daughter to the hall to choose a menu and the flowers, and -- worst of all -- go shopping for a mother-of-the-bride costume. I was also under pressure from a publisher’s deadline, tying up loose ends and resolving the myriad technical details involved in the creation of an anthology. But since that obligation was so deliciously invigorating and ego-enhancing, it seemed too selfish a pleasure to cite as an excuse. Each of my excuses seemed too selfish a pleasure.

I’ll go to the hospital later in the week, I thought, or beginning of the next, and in any case, much prefer visiting the sick one-on-one.

In the next few days, I phoned Nehama twice to set a date, but on both occasions she couldn’t speak: once because a doctor was there, resetting her cast, and the other time because she had company. (See that, I thought, she’s not alone.) A week or so later I needed the byline for her piece in the anthology, and was in too much of a rush during that conversation to think of anything else. By the time we spoke again, she’d been transferred to a rehabilitation center outside the city, even farther away than Hadassah.

“Are you up for a visit tomorrow morning?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, that would be so nice!” A half-hour later she called back, with precise directions, and said she was looking forward.

Early the next day, we got news of the funeral of Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l, scheduled for 11 a.m.

I called Nehama to apologize.

* * *

Amidst the whirling brightness, when my daughter ran -- a white light flying into the hall -- all the girls wheeling and turning around the blissful center of the world, our child born, a bird set free, hurtling into her future, I caught my sister’s hands and we held on tight. Swirling and grinning, the walls spinning, the ceiling and floor a pinwheel of joy above and below, we were dancing and dancing and spiraling into the air when out of the blue a sword plunged down and pierced me, a flash of lightning.

My leg twisted, and collapsed upon itself.

The cosmos, with my liquefied, throbbing knee at its center, was an expanding pool of exquisite pain.

My knee was electrified, my knee had dissolved, my sister was holding me up. Kind and sympathetic faces were appearing in a circle overhead, blotting out the ceiling. To somebody’s helpful caress, I yelped, Stop! Don’t touch it! The cosmos, with my liquefied, throbbing knee at its center, was an expanding pool of exquisite pain.

What a story! Very dramatic. The mother of the bride was carried out on a stretcher. Grimacing and waving cheerily to her guests, she was borne aloft to the waiting ambulance like a politely prone Queen Elizabeth -- right down to the matronly handbag, though without the white gloves. Wait, she forgot her purse! Someone placed it helpfully atop my stomach.

Most likely the meniscus, said the men in the white coats.

The what?

* * *

Who could have guessed -- certainly not I! -- that life as I knew it had been secretly predicated, all along, upon a small disc of something-or-other which had never made its presence known. I’d never even heard its name. Could a left lateral meniscal tear really occupy such a prominent place in the proper functioning of the universe? For with my knee no longer there to support the weight of myself, I’d turned all at once into somebody else.

One would think that plenty of other body parts are more important than some little half-circle smudge of cartilaginous tissue, but a tiny perforation in that padding, which keeps two bones of the joint from chafing against each other, had felled a once-mighty mother and grandmother -- a human being who once upon a time could board and disembark from buses with nary a thought, try on too-small gowns one after the other for hours on end, stand in line impatiently at the post office to mail invitations, sit upright on a chair making Important Calls About Bylines... walk all by herself to the supermarket to pick up a bag of milk, as the spirit moved her, or jour[k]nee from sink to refrigerator to washing machine a hundred times a day...without assistance! This power-house, this Wonder-Woman, had in the twinkling of an eye been transformed. In a matter of seconds she’d been catapulted to the other side of the world.

She got an early intimation of her new circumstances when -- flat on her back in the emergency room – she realized that she’d like to visit the Ladies Room.

With amazement and embarrassment, she cringed to see this morphing into an issue for vocal public consultations, as increasing numbers of people joined in on the negotiations surrounding the gala event.

This was merely a preliminary glimpse, a preview of coming attractions. It was fun going to shevah brachot in a wheelchair, but very quickly thereafter, over the next two months, life became an increasingly empty blank, an interminable twilight in which nothing happened, and each and every detail of her simple physical needs became a big deal for everyone else. She couldn’t do anything by herself. She could not rise. She was a supplicant now, an apologetic receiver of favors, a dependent,

“Could you...I’m so sorry...Thank you so much!”

“Would you mind bringing me a...”

“I’m so sorry to bother you again, but could you please get me the...”

The body, that invisible magic carpet which with no hesitation had always taken her -- willingly, never balking -- out into the big wide world, was suddenly a clumsy, onerous barrier between her and her own life. How astounding, to see herself moving the way she’d always seen elderly people move, in their immeasurably far-off, far-removed foreign planet of old age! Lying in bed, unable to go, the inner eye seemed naturally to keep turning back, through the curtain of time... There was Mommy in the house in L.A., holding on to living room wall as she edged her way to the kitchen...and farther back, to childhood...her grandmother Fanny, white-haired and remote. And only a few months before...Lily! Her friend unable to sit up in the weeks before her death....

To be dependent on others for your most basic personal requirements is to constantly confront your deepest feelings about yourself.

What did I learn during my months confined to bed? I learned that to be physically handicapped, to be dependent on others for your most basic personal requirements, is to constantly confront your deepest feelings about yourself. To constantly ask assistance from others without sinking into a very dark spot, you have to trust that you deserve people’s help. Which boils down to...that you’re worthy of being loved. And in this case, the feeling encountered in that subterranean realm was the opposite.

Astounding when suddenly you grasp that the body...your body, is not an eternal thing. You’ve supposedly known it all along. It’s a shocking revelation.

With my limbs on the blink and doing absolutely nothing at all, my mind, too, turned numb and still. The sky would get light and the sky would get dark, then dark, then light, then dark. I’d notice a strange thought going through my head, and realize I’d been dreaming. Day merged with night, neither day nor night.

I stopped praying. And once I’d stopped for one day, the next day it was doubly difficult to begin again, so I didn’t.

* * *

After I’d been confined to bed for about a month and a half, exiled to the vast region of existence inhabited by millions through the millennia – many of them permanent residents -- but where I myself had never put in time, and where I was now a tourist, the Land of the Disabled, it occurred to me to call Nehama at the rehabilitation center. She said she was having a music session at the moment and would be finished in two hours.

A week or so later, I called again. “Nehama, I want to tell you why I haven’t come to see you. I’ve been --”

“Oh, no, I’m better now. I’m fine. I’m home.”

“Well, I hurt my leg at my daughter’s wedding and I think it’s measure for measure. Because I didn’t come see you when you hurt yours.”

“Oh, no, no, no, no. That’s not it. Don’t think that way. No, no, no.” She sounded like a protective mother. She asked for the details, then said, “Do you have some good books? Good books are very important.”

“I don’t want good books. I’m just numbing out. My mind’s a blank.”

“Don’t worry. That’s just normal. That happens to people sometimes when they’re in pain. It happened to me, too.”

“Really? It did?”

“Yes, really. Don’t worry. It will pass.”

“But I feel so useless. I could be using this time. I could be doing something, but I’m not. I’m not doing anything.”

“You know, I have a book that deals with this, by Oliver Sacks. ‘A Leg to Stand On.’ You can borrow it. He broke his leg and he also went through a time like that.”

“Really? He did? I want to borrow it! But Nehama, something else: I stopped dovening almost right after it happened. I don’t want to talk to God.”

“Look, then you don’t have to talk to Him. Do you still have that porch of yours, under the tree?”

I murmured yes. They had cut down the tree, and I hadn’t planted flowers out there this year, but, yes, the porch was still there.

“So I’ll tell you what to do. Can you get out of bed?”

“Yes, I can walk with crutches now.”

“So go out to your porch and just sit there. Just sit and be with God. Just be with Him. That’s all. Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.”


* * *


Yesterday, for the first time since the wedding, I got on a bus and went to the Kotel.

I walked!

I’m walking again! Oh!

To be walking again! A huge celebration was going on in my mind, with music, and dancing (even though my physical feet were dragging a little.) It was like getting married again, to life itself. And at the Western Wall during the silent Amidah, I was able to take three steps back, then three steps forward.


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