The Accident

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09 Nov 2006

I met my friend Sharon for coffee last week when she arrived in Israel for a quick visit.

“I’m only here for the week,” she explained with her trademark engaging grin. “I couldn’t miss Danny’s bar mitzvah at the kotel.” Good friends had decided to celebrate their eldest son’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, and on the spur of the moment, Sharon had decided to join them.

“I haven’t been here for nearly 17 years,” she said wistfully. “I’ve always dreamed of coming, but you know how difficult it is for me to leave my family.” She leaned over the table, and placed her hand on mine. “It’s the first time I’ve left them since Michael’s accident,” she said simply.

“Sharon, I never really learned all the details of the accident, since I had already made aliya some months previously. I had been told only that Michael had been badly injured in a car accident. Do you feel like talking?”

Sharon sighed, and absentmindedly stirred the last drops of muddy liquid in her cup. She fingered the spoon, and then laid it carefully on the cream-colored porcelain saucer in front of her.

“No, I don’t mind. It’s hard to believe it’s been only five years. Our lives have changed in so many way that it seems like much longer.” At the sympathetic look on my face, she was quick to add, “Don’t feel sorry for me. A lot of those changes have been wonderful, and have enriched our lives immeasurably.”

It was five years ago on Lag Ba’omer that Sharon and Michael Wachs had their lives suddenly and irrevocably altered.

Michael was driving back from work, anticipating the annual Lag Ba’omer celebrations of their small, close-knit community that would take place later that evening. Checking carefully behind him, he prepared to change lanes, when a minivan abruptly moved into his lane. Swerving to avoid the other vehicle, he hit the guardrail. His car bounced, and was flung viciously back into oncoming traffic directly in the path of a large truck. Michael was unconscious when the rescue workers arrived at the scene only minutes later. He was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries.

Sharon was at home with their young children when the call came. Leaving the kids with a neighbor, she raced to the hospital, fearful of what she would encounter.

“We can’t estimate at this point how severe his injuries are,” Dr. Raskin gently informed her. “It was touch and go for a while, but we’ve managed to stabilize him now.” Sharon was horrified at her husband’s appearance. He was hooked up to so many machines; she could barely see his face. Two nurses were hovering over him, adjusting tubes and intravenous lines, carefully monitoring the beeps and low whining of the equipment surrounding Michael’s hospital bed.

“Sharon, it’s time to go home now. The kids need you, and there’s nothing you can do for Michael at this time.” Her brother Jonathon was by her side, where he had been for the last ten hours. He was the only family she had nearby, and the two were very close. Exhausted, Sharon was forced to accept his logic.

“All right, I’ll go. But, please, Jonathon, promise me one thing. If he opens his eyes, or if there is any change, call me immediately.”

Prayer. It wasn’t something she was used to doing, but now she poured out her heart and tears. Sharon had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, and had had a basic Jewish education. Michael went to shul on shabbos, and to an occasional shiur during the week. Shabbat, kashrut, holidays; these were all observed to some degree in the Wachs home. Tefilla had never played much of a role in Sharon’s life, and she had never felt a connection to religion. Those feelings began to undergo a subtle change as she gazed out of the large picture windows in the living room. The stormy weather mirrored her roiling emotions. The wind tumbled around outside, howling and menacing. The sky spat water, streaking the out-sized glass panes.

“Please, G-d, help us. Don’t let Michael die. I need him so badly, the children need their Daddy.” Sharon sobbed uncontrollably, her shoulders heaving. She wasn’t aware of the hours passing as she begged Hashem to save her husband. The early morning light drifted into the room. Mist corkscrewed in the hushed stillness as the new day dawned. Sharon felt exhausted, yet a calm filled her. She had formed a clear resolution over the hours of painful pleading with G-d.

“I know I can’t help Michael medically. But, perhaps there is something I can do to benefit him.” The sefer tehillim in her hand felt less awkward than it had seemed the night before, and she gripped it determinedly.

“That was the first step I took,” she confided. “I invited a group of women to my home, and we began the first ever Tehillim group in our community. Our rabbi explained the significance of completing the entire book of tehillim in a group, and Monday morning tehillim became a fixed point in my life.”

“Slowly, gradually, I began to observe more mitzvoth. Saying brachot, washing netilat yadayim, birkat hamazon, and even saying shema with my kids at bedtime. Our home went through a religious metamorphosis.” Self-consciously smoothing her sheitl with one hand, she hesitated before continuing her story. “Covering my hair was a major step,” she admitted. “I hadn’t even worn a hat in shul before Michael’s accident. You remember what it was like in our community.” I nodded in understanding. Non-practicing orthodox was how many members of the community viewed themselves. Affiliated with orthodox synagogues, yet not religiously observant, they were content with the level of Judaism that they felt comfortable practicing, keeping those mitzvoth that didn’t infringe too much on their lifestyle.

The community rallied together, sponsoring learning programs and chessed initiatives, for the full recovery of Michael Chaim ben Reuven. Five days after the accident, Michael opened his eyes and spoke. Sharon wept in relief, as it became evident that there was no brain damage. Michael recalled everything-except the accident itself. He had no memory of that day, and was frightened and confused by the stark reality of his condition. Test followed test, and the hospital staff grimly announced the bitter reality. Michael was paralyzed. He had some movement in his lower arms, but none in his hands. He had control over his face, but his head flopped back if not supported. That was the extent of his physical abilities. The doctors said that the damage was irreversible, yet possibly, with a rigorous physical therapy program, he might achieve slightly move mobility in his arms. Michael was devastated. “A cripple, an invalid, that’s what I am,” he railed in impotent rage. “What kind of a life can I have, strapped to a wheelchair, dependent on others for everything I need.” Michael agonized over his condition, and endured bouts of depression, which terrified Sharon.

“Michael was always such a cheerful, optimistic person that I was alarmed to see him in such black moods. Thank G-d, that phase passed fairly quickly. After that, Michael was determined to push himself in his physical therapy program to regain as much mobility as possible. The therapists were astounded at his perseverance and endurance. He achieved much more than they had imagined possible, and soon he expressed his real desire.”

“Sharon, I’m going to walk again, you’ll see. I know G-d can do anything, and one day I will get out of this chair.” Michael’s determination and steely resolve remained unchanged in the face of the doctors’ incredulous response.

Michael remained in the hospital for six months, followed by another year in a rehabilitation center. He was fitted with a special glove that enabled him to feed himself, by inserting a fork or spoon into it. He learned to manipulate the keys on the computer keyboard, and slowly his world opened up. The insurance payment from the accident covered the expenses of a male helper, who helps dress and maneuver Michael from bed to wheelchair, in addition to assisting him with other physical needs.

Sharon’s religious commitments encouraged Michael, and he began praying in shul three times a day.

“People have told me what an inspiration Michael is for them,” Sharon told me, pride evident in her voice. “Cold weather or rain never deters him from going. It’s such an effort for him to make it there, yet he refuses to relent. It can take up to an hour to wash, dress, and help him into the car in the morning. Knowing the tremendous exertion it takes for him to be there, others feel an added responsibility to make the minyan.”

“Our home is a happy place,” she stressed. It’s important for her that her children grow up well adjusted and not feel different or objects of pity because of their father’s severe handicap. “On shabbos, all the neighborhood children play here. I never sleep in the afternoon, so all the moms know they can send their kids to our house. We often invite shabbos guests, and the kids feel comfortable asking their friends over for meals during the week also.” Sharon is a high-energy person, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that she doesn’t use shabbos afternoon for a well-deserved siesta.

“I reflect sometimes how my life was before Michael’s accident. I did a lot of growing up over the past five years,” Sharon confessed. “Our lives have become richer in ways I could never have predicted. Could you have ever imagined me in a sheitl?” She laughs wryly. “I don’t regret it, not for one moment. Michael and I have matured from our experiences, and it’s brought us even closer together. We share a bond most other couples cannot even envision.” We sat in silence for some minutes, as I digested Sharon’s message.

“I never stop praying, you know. Michael has never been to Israel. His dream is to celebrate Yoni’s bar mitzvah here in Jerusalem in two years time. Please G-d, he should stand at the kotel, on his own two feet

I silently echo, Amen.

Sharon and Michael Wachs are fictitious names. Sharon asked that their real names not be used, nor their location disclosed, for personal reasons. The rest of their story is true.

Sheila Segal teaches in a women’s seminary in Israel, where she has been living for the past 23 years. She enjoys writing in her spare time.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.