Adi Huja, 16, observed the second anniversary of the terrorist bombing which almost took her life, at Hadassah Hospital preparing to undergo her 26th operation. On that fateful Saturday night two years ago, Adi and her friends had gone to eat ice cream sundaes at a café on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Two Arab homicide bombers blew themselves up, killing 12 young people and injuring scores more.
The doctors told Adi's mother, Mollie, that they couldn't save her daughter. When, despite their predictions, Adi didn't die, the doctors told Mollie that they would have to amputate her right leg which was partly torn off by the bomb. But, miraculously, they were able to reattach the leg. Two years later, however, it has still not healed, leaving Adi with constant infections and pain. The threat of amputation hangs relentlessly over her.
I am sitting beside Adi's bed in a drab room in Hadassah Hospital, a week after her latest operation. "What did they do this time?" I ask Adi's mother.
"They put in a metal plate and a pin," Mollie answers.
"But she had a metal plate in her leg all last winter," I protest. "I remember her telling me how cold it made her feel. And the last operation was to take out the plate because the doctors thought it was causing her infections."
"Right," Mollie nods. "But her leg is broken, so they had to put the plate back in."
I look at this petite girl sitting in the bed, and ask, "So how do you feel, Adi?"
Adi answers with a single word: "Mar [bitter]."
What can I say to console her -- for all the pain, for all the trauma, and for two years gouged out of her young life? I am struggling for something positive to say when my attention is drawn to a commotion at the door of Adi's ward. A man is trying to maneuver a wheelchair past chairs and beds. Sitting in the wheelchair is a young woman with a pretty face and two shriveled legs. The man pushes the wheelchair right up to Adi's bed.
"I came to say goodbye," the young woman says to Adi. "I'm being discharged."
The young woman's name is Leora. She and Adi converse for several minutes in Hebrew too fast for me to follow. Then they lovingly bid each other farewell. Leora's father backs the wheelchair out of the room.
"What's with Leora?" I ask Adi.
"She's totally crippled," replies Adi. "She's paralyzed from the waist down… from birth."
Although I never philosophize with terror victims, my relationship with Adi is close enough that I venture: "You know, you can see your cup as half empty or half full. Compared to Leora, you're very fortunate. When you recover from this operation, you'll walk again."
"I'll hop with a crutch," Adi corrects me, resentfully.
I try another tack. "You've lost a lot, Adi, but you've gained even more. Most girls your age are shallow and self-centered. Because of all you've suffered, you've become deep, compassionate, and sensitive to other people's suffering. Before the terrorist attack, could you have related to Leora so warmly?"
Adi thinks about this. "No," she replies, shaking her head. "I wouldn't have related to her at all. I wouldn't want to look at a crippled girl. I wouldn't talk to her."
"See how much you've grown?"
Adi is not listening to me. She's gazing past me at the hospital corridor. Suddenly she shouts, "It's Malkiel!! Mommy, go get him! Bring him in!"
Mollie runs out to the corridor and returns with a man in his mid-30s wearing a kipa and dressed in the blue uniform of municipal sanitation workers. "Malkiel, I'm so glad to see you!" Adi effuses, smiling broadly.
I gaze at this man. I think I recognize him, but why is he dressed like a garbage collector? "You're Malkiel Lerner, aren't you?" I ask.
Malkiel has made it his mission to visit every wounded person in Israel.
I had met Malkiel at a wedding last May. At that time, he had given me his card that read: "Brother of the Wounded." He explained that he has made it his mission to visit every wounded person in Israel -- whether from a terrorist attack or an army-related incident.
He had shown me and my husband a photo from his own wedding two years before. In the photo, Malkiel, the heavy-set bridegroom, is sitting in a chair being hoisted into the air. "That's Ohaad," Malkiel had pointed proudly to one of the young men lifting his chair. "He lost his leg in the war in Lebanon in 1997. But there he is, dancing and lifting my chair."
The day before I met Malkiel, a terrorist attack had occurred in Afula, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Jerusalem. Although I usually visit terror victims in Jerusalem hospitals, I was not about to undertake the long drive to Afula, even though I own a car. Malkiel, by contrast, had risen at five that morning, and, lacking a car, had taken a bus to Haifa and from there another bus to Afula to visit the victims. Fifteen hours later, he excused himself early from the wedding to go work his night shift as a hotel clerk. I was in awe of Malkiel's dedication.
But now, in Adi's hospital room, I can make no sense of what I'm seeing. Why is he wearing a garbage collector's uniform? I know that one of his brothers is a lawyer, another is a computer programmer. I ask him why he's dressed like this.
"I lost my job at the hotel," Malkiel answers, "so I'm working as a street cleaner. You can view it in two ways: You can say that it's dirty, disgusting work, or you can say that Jerusalem, the holy city, is the courtyard of the King, and that I'm privileged to make the King's courtyard cleaner and more beautiful."
Talk about seeing the cup as half full!
"Besides," Malkiel continues, "the hours are good. I get up at 4:30 AM, pray, catch the 5:30 bus, and start working at 6:00. I finish by 1:00, so I can spend two or three afternoons a week visiting the wounded."
Since Malkiel keeps up with all the terror victims in Israel, I ask him for an update on 20-year-old M.J. I had last seen M.J. 13 months ago, in Hadassah's Intensive Care Unit hours after a Jerusalem bus bombing. She had suffered massive injuries to her head and neck; her face was swollen to twice its normal size. A month later, I encountered her parents in the I.C.U. waiting room. M.J. was still unconscious.
"Two weeks ago," Malkiel announces, smiling, "she benched gomel [recited the blessing for recovery from life-threatening illness]. Do you want to see her picture?"
Malkiel reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out a pile of photos. He hands me one of himself standing next to a sprightly young woman whose smiling face resembles a purple topographic map. I recoil in horror and wonder how any woman, vain as we are, could let her picture be taken like that. I wonder even more at her smile.
"Let me see!" Adi asks. I hand her the photo. Now Malkiel starts to pass around other photos. There's one of Malkiel flanked by two smiling young women. One is M.J. The other woman's face has the same grotesque purple terrain as M.J.'s. "This one," he explains, pointing, "was a waitress at that Tel Aviv café that was bombed."
Adi, appalled, asks, "Will their faces heal?"
"M.J. will eventually look better," Malkiel explains. "But the waitress will always be scarred."
Adi grimaces. I say to her, "Thank God, your pretty face wasn't damaged."
"Thank God," Adi responds, still staring at the picture.
"You have a lot to be grateful for," I add. "The truth is, your cup is three-quarters full."
Adi acquiesces with a nod. She looks up at Malkiel and tells him how bitter she has been feeling. Malkiel launches into a story.
"When I was nine years old, I was run over by a car and badly hurt. I was unconscious for a week. I had a major concussion -- and my leg was shattered. A lot like you," he adds, looking at Adi. "It took me many years to recover. I never finished school, and never got a high school diploma. I was bitter. For 19 years I would look up at heaven and ask, 'Why me? Why would You make a young boy suffer so much?'
It suddenly came to me in a flash: I had to suffer such injuries so that I could help other people who are injured.
"Then one day, when I was 28 years old, it suddenly came to me in a flash: I had to suffer such injuries so that I could help other people who are injured. I realized that my mission in life is to give strength and encouragement to the wounded. That's when I committed myself to visiting every single wounded person in Israel, no matter where they are."
I glance over at Adi. She is transfixed by Malkiel's story. Her cup is getting fuller by the minute.
Malkiel continues. "When I visit the wounded, I tell them what's written in Ethics of the Fathers: 'Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.' I tell them: 'If you have eyes, teeth, hands, and feet, rejoice!' To people like Ohaad, who don't have feet, I say, 'If you have eyes, teeth, hands, and a head, rejoice!'
"And you want to know something? It really works. They trust me because they know I've gone through something similar. They invite me to their weddings and to their babies' brisses. They feel like they have a friend who understands them."
I turn to Adi and ask, "Well, what do you think?"
"I think that Malkiel is great," she responds.
"You could be as great as Malkiel," I tell her earnestly. "Because you've suffered so much, you can also help people who are suffering."
Adi grins. Her cup is full.
Readers who wish to contribute to Malkiel's mission can send donations to:
|In loving memory of my grandparents|
Kermit and Elsie Artzt
and my grandfather Nuttel ben Moishe.