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Rabbi Haviva Ner-David

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My Pool Heroes: A Reflection for Gevurah of Netzach

Posted: 04/30/2012 10:26 am

This post was inspired by the Omer day gevurah sh'b'netzah, during which we contemplate the expression of strength through persistence. The body part that corresponds to the kabbalistic sefirah of netzah is the right leg (which will become relevant if you read ahead).

This post is dedicated to the memory of Joan Silverstein Meyers, who passed from this world this past Shabbat on the 21st day of the Omer, malkhut sh'b'tiferet, during which we contemplate the expression of nurturing through beauty. Those who knew Joan understand how this was such a fitting day for her to leave this world. Among other wonderful traits, she possessed an amazing ability to nurture with style, class and a wonderful aesthetic sense. The body part for malkhut is the womb and for tiferet is the heart. Joan's heart was always expanding as she embraced others in a way that made them feel as safe, calm and protected as a fetus in the mother's womb.

I swim every day. In summer I swim at our outdoor kibbutz pool, and in winters I swim at a local indoor swimming pool. I suffer from a neuromuscular disorder called FSHD (Fascio Scapular Humeral Muscular Dystrophy), and while there is no cure or treatment for the disease, swimming helps keep the unaffected muscles strong without putting too much strain on the weak muscles. The buoyancy created by the water also helps me move in ways I cannot on dry land.

My daily swim enhances my quality of life tremendously -- and not just because of the physical effects it has on me, but also because of what it does for me emotionally and psychologically. Swimming helps me keep going; it gives me a daily surge of energy, and the water gives me a feeling of rebirth and renewal. Swimming also helps me feel I have a modicum of control over a degenerative disease that threatens to cripple me more and more if I should be lucky enough to live for many years to come.

But although for me swimming is a solitary experience, a meditation -- just me, the water and my thoughts -- the people I have met at the various pools I have belonged to over the years and whose names I often don't even know have also helped me deal with my condition. Although I am certain they don't know it.

I can give you a long list of these "pool friends" (as my kids call them), starting with the women who battled breast cancer, each in her own way, and ending with the woman whose husband of 40 years died a few years ago and yet she still comes to the pool every day with a flower in her hair and a smile. Or the friend who started swimming when he lost his toes to an infection and couldn't run anymore, or the one-armed and one-legged men who come every day to swim as well. Or the blind woman who feels her way around the locker room and swims laps with one hand on the rope so as to stay in a straight line. Or the Holocaust survivor who tells me stories of her childhood in Poland, the family she lost and the horror of Auschwitz as we dress in the locker room, and I sit in awe of the fact that she is able to get up every morning and face the world.

Yet there are three people who have particularly helped me recently with my own fears and frustrations over my physical condition who I want to mention here:

The first is the woman in her 90s who, like me, swims every day, rain or shine. I met her 15 years ago at the Jerusalem Swimming Pool, where I swam for most of the 13 years we lived in Jerusalem (except for the three years I swam at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel during the height of the Intifada, when cafes and buses were being blown up and I was afraid to go to the main drag where the Jerusalem Swimming Pool is located). When I first met her, she was close to 80 years old but still diving into the pool with a particularly lively spring to begin her half-hour daily swim. She told me she was once a dancer and then taught dance, but by the time I met her she was doing neither. And that is when she started to swim.

I don't make it to the Jerusalem Pool very often now that I moved to Kibbutz Hannaton in Lower Galilee. But the last time I was there while visiting Jerusalem a few weeks ago I saw her standing at the same locker she has had for years. She was confused. She kept opening and closing her locker, taking things out, putting things in, dropping the key, picking it up. I was not sure if I should help her. But when she started to put on her bathing suit I worried she might fall over she was so frail and unsteady. So I asked if she needed help. Reluctantly, she let me help her and thanked me as she gathered her things and set out to swim. I wondered if she would still be around when I would be in Jerusalem next. She seemed as if she had one foot in this world and one already in another. Yet she still pushes on.

I see myself in this woman, whose name I don't even know. I see my stubbornness and insistence upon doing things myself. I see my desire for privacy and independence despite the difficulty and even danger of insisting on living that way with a disability. I wonder what I will do when swimming becomes difficult for me. I know I will not give up swimming without a fight. But will I insist on doing it alone until I absolutely can't anymore like this woman, or will I ask for help?

This question brings me to two other pool friends of mine -- a couple, actually. She is in an advanced stage of Multiple Schlorosis and he is her devoted husband. They come together to the pool on weekends (other days don't work out for them, she explained to me, since it takes them hours to prepare and get out of the house and drive to the pool, and he works during the week). They show up at exactly 4:30 in their specially equipped van for the handicapped. He swims for half an hour while she waits patiently on the side (I assume she has mastered the art of waiting patiently for others to help her since she can do practically nothing on her own), and then he carries her into the pool and does exercises with her in the water for an hour until the pool closes at 6.

The loving and respectful way that this man handles his crippled wife brings tears to my eyes each time I see them. He treats her not with pity but with love, and it is obvious from the way they interact that he is committed to her in an extraordinary way. This couple has no children; and they live far from their native land (Russia) and extended family. They have only each other. It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to watch them.

This scene makes me think about how my condition affects my husband Jacob. He already sacrifices regularly to enable me -- a 43-year old mother of seven -- to have my daily swim. And he has to do all of the heavy physical aspects of keeping house and raising our seven children (except when our older children help out) -- the schlepping, loading and unloading, heavy cleaning, etc. What will happen if I have to ask him to be a hands-on care giver to me like this man is to his wife? I know Jacob will be devoted to me like he is to her -- but how will it make me feel to have to ask this of him?

When I look at this couple and see how she asks for help with no guilt and how he gives it with joy, because after all, they are together and that is what matters, I know we too will find our way to deal with whatever comes as long as we are together.

But perhaps my biggest pool inspiration is the 5-year-old Arab boy who comes for swimming lessons every Monday and Thursday at the pool in Misgav, where I swim now. He has only one leg, yet he swims like a fish. I was certain he was born without one leg, since he seems so comfortable in his body. And he is the happiest child I have ever seen. I have watched his lessons now for months, and I have never seen him express any emotion but joy. It is unbelievable!

When I went over to his mother to tell her how taken I am with her son, she thanked me. I asked her if he is always this happy. She said he is. I asked him if he was born without a leg, certain her answer would be yes. But, to my surprise, he lost his leg in a car accident three years ago, when he was two. His name is Muchamed (after the prophet): a big name for a giant of a boy. He is my hero. When I start to feel sorry for myself because of my own disability, I remember him jumping off the diving board with a huge smile on his face and I too smile. His message to me is: Life is what you make of it.

And so, while my dream is to build a swimming pool in my backyard so that I can swim at any hour I choose and don't have to share my lane with anyone, I wonder if the benefits will outweigh the loss of my pool friends and heroes.

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