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Movement for Self-Healing
An Essential Resource for Anyone Seeking Wellness
By Meir Schneider, Bill Mifsud
New World LibraryCopyright © 2004 Meir Schneider
All rights reserved.
SAVTA: MY EARLY YEARS
It was Savta, my mother's mother, who first realized that I was blind. This was soon after I was born — in Levov, Russia, outside of Kiev. Savta (Savta is the Hebrew word for "grandmother") observed me closely for several days; when she was sure, she prayed to God for the strength and wisdom to accept this new tragedy: another handicapped descendant.
Both my parents are deaf. My mother, Ida, lost her hearing at the age of three, following an undiagnosed illness. My father, Avraham, was dropped by his family's maid when he was one year old, and he suffered brain damage that left him deaf. My parents met at a school dance in Levov, fell in love, and married. My father's mother was so afraid they might have handicapped children that she slept in their room to prevent them from consummating the union. But as consummating a union is impossible to prevent, my mother became pregnant with my sister, Bella.
Bella was completely healthy. Thus made confident, my parents had another child five years later. I was born cross-eyed, with glaucoma (excess pressure in the eyes), astigmatism (irregular curvature of the cornea), nystagmus (involuntary eye movement), and cataracts (opacity of the lens). In short, I was blind. My father was busy launching his photography studio, and my mother, being deaf, felt incapable of handling the special needs of a blind baby boy and an active five-year-old daughter. So my mother's parents moved to Levov to look after Bella and me.
My earliest memories are exclusively of my grandmother. My grandfather had been arrested by the Communist government in 1943, eleven years before I was born, for using capitalist business practices in running a department store. He was sentenced to eight years in Siberia, and the government confiscated his large home and moved seven families into it. After only six months in Siberia, Grandfather was released when all the Polish-born Russians in the camp were conscripted to serve in the Polish Resistance. But when the Polish general in charge learned that Grandfather was a Jew, he kicked him out. Although freed by this curious circumstance, six months of abuse and hard labor had broken Grandfather's spirit, and he returned to his family a bitter man.
Thus, it was left to Savta to take care of me. When I was six months old, she took me on a train ride to Odessa — nearly 500 kilometers away, on the Black Sea — to see a leading ophthalmologist. Savta tells me that I loved the train ride and hated the doctor. The doctor examined me, with a group of resident ophthalmologists looking on, and declared that I would need surgery as soon as the lenses of my eyes were hard enough. Holding me in her hands, she smiled at Savta and said, "He is such a nice baby. Such a big head — a genius like Aristotle!" Then, turning to the doctors, she said, "We'll operate." One of the residents muttered, "I hope I won't be working that shift." After the meeting, Savta sought him out and demanded to know what he had meant. "At this age, his skull is so soft," he told her, "and this surgery would surely damage him." "We're planning to go to Israel in a few years," she told him. "Could we wait that long?" "Yes," he affirmed. "In fact, I think it would be much safer to have it done by a Jewish doctor." Concerned that harm might come to her grandchild, Savta packed our bag and immediately took the slow train 1,000 miles back to Levov.
Over the next three years, I became aware of my blindness. It was an uncomfortable, shadowy world — always dark. Many sounds were sudden and unexpected. I seldom knew where I was. The world was all hard surfaces and sharp edges, and only Savta was soft and tender.
Savta soothed and comforted me. The world seemed a little brighter when she was near, and I clung to her, listened for her, and followed her everywhere. When she went shopping or to the library, even though she assured me that she was coming right back, I screamed the entire time she was away. My mother, of course, couldn't hear me; even when she saw that I was having a tantrum, she couldn't stop me. Only when Savta returned and I heard her sweet, loving voice and felt her warm hug could I calm down.
Leaving for the Promised Land
When I was four, my family began the process of emigrating to Israel. Although we lived comfortably in Levov, my father was always in danger; among other things, his shop sold photographs of church icons, which were illegal under communist rule. My grandfather was all too aware of the dangers from the authorities. As Jews, my family felt that it would be better to live in a country governed by our own people.
At that time, direct emigration from Russia to the West was forbidden, so we first had to cross the border into Poland. We managed this thanks to the paper Grandfather had received when he was liberated from Siberia, stating that he was born in Poland (and thanks also, I've been told, to a bribable border guard). We had to stay in Poland for six months before we were permitted to leave.
In Poland, I had my first eye operation for removal of cataracts, the opaque parts of my eyes' lenses. It was excruciating, and I couldn't understand what was happening. Each night, Savta lay beside me, massaging my neck and face. During the operation, I remember waking up for a moment and seeing a doctor's face — his surgical mask and his eyes. I don't know whether I dreamed it or if I really did see him, but it was the first intimation that I might actually see; that image and the hope it instilled never left me.
After the operation, both my eyes were completely covered with bandages. When the bandages were removed, I was able to distinguish light, shadows, and even some vague shapes. People generally assume that blindness means living in total darkness, but after experiencing absolute blindness with the bandages on my eyes, I realized that blindness is relative and that I did have a little sight.
I recovered from the operation at home. Then, after six months in Poland, my grandparents, parents, two uncles, Bella, and I took our Polish passports and left for Italy. There we boarded the passenger ship Shalom and sailed to Israel.
I remember the crisp sea air and its salty spray, the big diesel engines that I not only heard but also felt through the deck, and the swaying of the ship, which made it difficult for me to stand. And I remember the light — the brilliant silver sunlight that I could barely discern reflecting off the Mediterranean. I stood at the rail and stared at the light on the water for a long time. One time when I was there, my grandmother put a piece of cheddar cheese in my hand. I remember holding it very close to my face and actually seeing my fingers holding it — and seeing a marvelous color I had never seen before. Grandmother must have noticed my eyes trying to focus on the cheese. "That is yellow cheese, my darling Meir," she said. I stumbled around the deck shouting, "Yellow cheese! Yellow cheese!" over and over to whomever would listen.
We landed in Haifa and settled in Morasha, a suburb of Tel Aviv. My grandparents and my uncles moved into one small apartment, and my family moved into another apartment in the same building. Father and Grandfather set about reestablishing their photography business in Tel Aviv.
Coping with Blindness
Over the next two years, between the ages of five and seven, I had four more cataract operations. In successful cataract surgery, the clouded lens is removed to allow light to penetrate to the retina. In my case, not only were the lenses not completely removed, but the operations created scar tissue that further blocked the passage of light. My vision showed no improvement whatsoever.
These operations were terribly painful and emotionally traumatic. In the hospital, I could hear children crying, doors slamming, and strangers speaking roughly. I was thirsty, and I hated the hospital smells. I was nearly always frightened. Savta was my only solace; she would hold me, soothe me, and massage me. We were in a hospital near Jaffa, on the Mediterranean, and she constantly reminded me to feel the refreshing sea breezes and smell the salty air. The one night I had to spend without her, I cried the whole time. After five operations, my lenses were almost totally destroyed. Without glasses, I could see only blurred light and shadow, and with very thick glasses I could make out some vague shapes. Dr. Stein, a world-famous ophthalmologist who performed the last operation, pronounced my condition irreversible.
At home, I was angry and rebellious. The way my glasses concentrated light on my eyes was painful, and I would throw them on the floor and stomp on them. Although the lenses were too thick to break, I succeeded in wrecking the frames. I had persistent pain in my eyes, and I felt helplessly caught in a dark prison of shadows and outlines.
At the same time, I was aware of a part of me that was peaceful and that accepted whatever happened. Even in my most hysterical moments, I knew that things were not as bad as they seemed.
I was always using my hands to "see" textures and shapes. I loved to feel my family's outlines — their faces, hands, arms, bellies, legs, and feet. Although my senses of smell, taste, and hearing were unusually acute, it was through touch that I really explored and came to know the world.
Since my world was not visual, communicating with my deaf parents was difficult. I did not learn sign language, and at the time I didn't understand the importance of directing my lips at their eyes when I spoke. My father would grab my head, sometimes against my will, and pull my face upward to read my lips. His voice sounded like a leaky faucet dripping into a coffee can: "Boop bop blip blue blue blob." But I developed an ear for understanding him, and I knew when he was telling me, "Stop knocking over the damned lamp!"
Of course, there were many disasters. When my father and I went out together, I often got lost. I'd stand there and wail, but he couldn't hear me. I needed a Good Samaritan to figure out the problem and bring us together.
From about the age of seven until my early teens, I tried as hard as I could to be like others; I never accepted being "handicapped." When I wanted to cross a street, I could see well enough to know when the vague shapes of people began to move. Only when it was dark could I barely make out a red or green dot on the traffic light. Occasionally I'd just plow ahead, and drivers had to slam on their brakes all around me. I was bumped several times, though not badly, and quite a fuss was made. But I never used a white cane or a guide dog.
I went to the movies, and although my eyes didn't tell me much, I could hear the sounds and follow the plot. And I was never afraid of asking sighted people to fill me in. I even rode a bicycle, though I often rode it into walls, trees, and people. Once I unintentionally rode down a long set of stairs and banged my tailbone badly. I played soccer. Though I couldn't keep up with all the action, I occasionally got to kick the ball, and I was a good fighter. I loved to run around, but I fell down and bumped my head almost every day. Even today, people say I have a hard head.
The kids in my neighborhood generally excluded me. When I tried to join them, they played tricks on me. One minute they were there, and the next minute they were gone. They saw nothing wrong with bullying me; it seemed perfectly natural to them. I had to shout and fight to join in any game, and I had to work very hard to compete once I was in.
Finally, I reached school age. We lived in the suburbs, and the county provided transportation for all the handicapped kids who had to attend schools in the city; we weren't included in local schools. In my van there was one other blind boy, and there were several kids with polio. Every morning and afternoon, this group of blind and physically handicapped children rode into and out of Tel Aviv.
I was fascinated by the city. It was big and busy and noisy. I got to brag to the kids in my neighborhood about attending school in the city. I told them about games we played in Tel Aviv; anytime I lost a game, I'd say, "In Tel Aviv, we play by different rules."
In first grade, I took a class in Braille. The blind kids had an hour of instruction in reading and writing Braille at the end of each day. I found it difficult to sit in one place and concentrate on the raised impressions on the paper. The different arrangements of dots didn't make any sense to me. My first Braille teacher was an impatient woman who yelled at me and punished me whenever I made a mistake, which made it even more difficult to learn.
In Braille class, when I wanted to look at my fingers passing along the text, my teacher yelled at me, "You can't see the page anyway, so don't look at it!" This instruction to refrain from looking at my fingers — just to look straight ahead in order to fully concentrate on what my fingers felt — was especially annoying. It meant acting as though I had no eyes at all. By discouraging us from using what little sight we had, the teacher diminished the likelihood of our ever becoming "normal," and inadvertently helped lower our self-esteem.
There was another dilemma for handicapped kids. On the one hand, as a blind boy I was not expected to accomplish much; it was understood that studying in Braille was slow and laborious. But because of this, in order to compensate, I was also expected to work twice as hard as sighted kids. This, of course, was frustrating. Yet the more I was around "normal" kids, the more I realized that I could do whatever they could — and I was determined to do so. By the fourth grade, I was reading quickly in Braille.
When I was ten, we moved to Tel Aviv, and I had to learn my way around a whole new neighborhood. I continued at the same school, since that was where Braille was taught, so I didn't get to meet the kids in my new neighborhood. I was quite lonely, and I took refuge in books; I read voraciously.
Life at a "Normal" High School
In Israel, there was intense competition to get into a good high school. My teachers never believed that a blind boy could get into a good school, but my grandmother was determined to help me. She encouraged me to excel, tutored me as best she could with her broken Hebrew, and made sure that I believed in myself. I prepared intensively for high school, realizing that this would be a turning point in my life. With the help of my grandmother, who lobbied on my behalf with the principals of the top schools, I was accepted at the highest-rated school in Tel Aviv.
Despite all my fears and doubts, I was exuberant about starting high school. The possibilities seemed limitless. This was the excitement of the unknown. I had been encouraged, even pushed, to succeed by my grandmother and a few others who believed in me. But in high school I immediately encountered the same narrow views about the handicapped as I'd come up against before. I was forbidden to go on field trips, and I was excluded from premilitary training, which was compulsory for all the other boys.
In Israel, military training is a basic part of every young person's life. To be excluded was quite a blow. I appealed to the assistant principal, telling him that I was perfectly capable of doing everything that was required. It took several hours — I even pounded on his desk — but he finally let me take the training and go on the field trips. They wouldn't let me shoot a gun, but I could run as fast as anyone. When the other boys had to jump ten feet down onto a mattress, I was not supposed to do it — but I sneaked into the group and jumped anyway. I was able to push myself into every part of the training except rifle practice; the instructor was firm about that. Here again, I faced that unnerving contradiction: Because the instructor thought I didn't belong in the class in the first place, I had to do more than everyone else to justify being there. Although others could sometimes forget their uniforms, I always had to be dressed correctly. I didn't like being required to be anything more or less than everyone else.
In high school, I had to adapt to completely new circumstances. I no longer had Braille instruction; this was a high school for normal children. Many of the required textbooks were not available in Braille, and although some of the teachers tried to help me by asking other kids to read to me, I usually had to write to the Braille library and request that the books be typed out in Braille for me. This, on top of many long, arduous hours of study, demanded that I use my intelligence more fully and in different ways. I had to grasp ideas and facts quickly; I couldn't simply read about them later like the other kids. Since I needed extra help with reading and subjects like math, I had to be very strong in other subjects so that I could exchange tutoring with other kids. I not only had to get by, I had to excel.
Excerpted from Movement for Self-Healing by Meir Schneider, Bill Mifsud. Copyright © 2004 Meir Schneider. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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