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Saturday, September 06, 2003

"I searched the rescue scene, hoping I would not recognize anyone I knew"

Israel's agony hits home - Star-Ledger (NJ)
BY MAIDA AVERBACH

Every time we heard a news bulletin about a new terrorist bombing in Israel, we were glued to the TV, hoping against hope that our 37-year-old son, Steve, and his family were safe.

We watched the news in a continuing ritual, searching pictures of one disaster after another and hoping our loved ones were not there. We are in a perpetual state of anxiety over this vital, handsome and brave son, who has lived in Israel, his chosen homeland, since he was a teenager. He has managed to live there happily despite the many hardships that he and his countrymen have experienced.

We had arrived home on May 17 from a dinner at which my husband, David, a surgeon, had received an award from his hospital colleagues. As usual, we put on Fox News. There it was! Another bus bombing in Jerusalem, where it was already May 18. The No. 6 bus was hit by a terrorist, dressed as an Orthodox Jew, wearing a bomb belt, which he detonated to kill himself and take with him as many innocent victims as he could.

I searched the rescue scene, hoping I would not recognize anyone I knew. A wave of nausea passed over me as I thought I caught a glimpse of Steve's arm on a stretcher. Just a mother's fear, I thought; it couldn't be. But another sleepless night lay ahead as I wondered if this time I was not imagining something horrible.

The phone call came at 6 a.m. Steve's wife, Julie, was speaking very calmly and slowly. "There has been a bombing on the bus that Steve was on," she said. "He is alive but hurt. Here is Barbara, the social worker, who will explain."

My husband and I were both wide awake by then, stunned, anxious and in tears. Barbara Hanoch gave us the details.

Steve's spinal cord was injured. He was stable and had had surgery to remove a ball bearing that entered his neck. He was conscious but on a ventilator.

Barbara told us they had arranged for us to stay in the "melonite" at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerrem. Someone from the "Bituach Leumi" would contact us. She relayed all the information professionally and compassionately.

Our life was forever changed. The terrible injury affected not only Steve but his entire family, including his four sons, who most likely will never be able to sit on their dad's shoulders, play Frisbee on Shabbat or run bases with him ever again.

We arrived at 10 a.m. the next day, and as I sat by his bedside watching his body fight to obtain oxygen, my mind traveled in many directions.

I cannot understand the mentality of a culture in which parents raise a child to want to die in such a fashion -- bombs strapped to his waist. The bomber was a 19-year-old Palestinian engineering student whose parents, although mourning his loss, were "proud" of what their son had done. How much good might this young man have done for his people in a long lifetime.

I cannot fathom the mentality of a culture that teaches its young to hate with such a passion that instead of wanting to grow up to serve others in a productive way, they kill innocent people while dying themselves, in the belief that they will attain a place in heaven with wonderful rewards.

I am appalled at the vast sums of money in the hands of Palestinian leaders earmarked for training and arming these bombers rather than for schools that teach tolerance and love as well as academics, for playgrounds, sports arenas, theaters, museums, universities and for industries where their people could be employed.

Having been raised during the Holocaust and during times of virulent anti-Semitism, I can understand how frustrated a people can get trying to establish their own identity and culture. But never have we witnessed Jews resorting to this outrageous behavior as a people. We have been taught tolerance, compassion, pride, hard work and the desire to serve all people as well as our own. We cannot see any justification for this brutal and barbaric behavior.

During Steve's hospital stay, I saw a dedicated staff caring for Arab and Jew alike with compassion. I saw Palestinians being trained as physicians. My husband was invited into the operating room to observe an Arab resident assist and learn new skills.

For weeks, Steve could not speak, had a feeding tube in his stomach, splints for his legs and hands, an access tube in his jugular vein for fluid and medicine and a catheter in his bladder. This is how his four young sons saw him after being prepared by psychologists to know what to expect.

Steve spent five weeks in the intensive care unit and then was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital near Tel Aviv. He must depend on others to feed him, bathe and shave him, scratch an annoying itch on his face, help blow his nose, massage his painful neck and take care of his bodily functions, over which he has no control.

Although he undergoes therapy, we are aware that this strong and charismatic soldier of life suffers from muscle wasting. His arms have become thin and his chest narrow. How do we tell him that he may have to "settle" for breathing on his own and being fed for the rest of his life? Watching him cry like a baby at a particularly trying moment tears my heart out.

As time went on, a clearer picture emerged from witnesses of the bus bombing. It seems Israel is now realizing that Steve is probably a hero. Commuter buses drive in tandem throughout Israel. On the fateful morning, Steve sat at the end of the first bus. When the terrorist boarded and proceeded to the end of the bus, Steve was immediately suspicious. He rose and drew his gun, causing the bomber to detonate his belt of murder earlier than planned. We are told that this killer wanted to wait for two more stops when the bus would have been packed with commuters. Steve's action probably saved many lives.

We were told this by many people and of course we are proud though heartbroken.

On our last visit to Israel, Steve was finally out of immediate danger of death, but he remains paralyzed from the shoulders down.

At that time, so many people were excited about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Palestinian leaders were negotiating with known murderers in their midst to stay their carnage for three months. Would we be so excited about President Bush negotiating with Osama bin Laden?

I feared that the three months would allow Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups -- these maimers of the innocent -- to regroup and strengthen themselves whereupon Israel will be back to square one in its fight for survival.

We learned that "hudna," the term being used to signify the three-month truce, is an Arabic expression dating back to the Middle Ages meaning "a time for regrouping" and traditionally lasted 90 days. Draw your own conclusion.

Despite the supposed truce, on Tuesday a bus bomber struck again. This time 20 were killed, including at least six children, ranging in age from 3 months to 15 years. Scores more were injured. For their families, the pain of terrorism is fresh. For those maimed by the bomb, the hope for recovery remains strong.

A month ago on my 65th birthday, I received the best gift. I was trying to get some office work done, when I answered a phone call from Israel. It was Steve. "Happy birthday, Mom," he said. He had progressed to the point where he was able to breathe for several hours on his own. He spoke without hesitation and did not sound as if he was having any problem breathing.

Gifts like this are rare and priceless. They remind us that nothing should ever be taken for granted. Not even the most minute things in life like speaking. They also remind us that there are indeed miracles happening every day.