Az Yashir – A Story

My hand hovers in front of the door, shaking. I take a deep breath, calming myself as best I can. And then I will it to move forward. But all I do is shake more violently. I know what I need to do, but I cannot make myself do it.

And then I feel it. Her skin. Her warmth. Her hand on mine. My shaking subsides, drifting away in a newly formed ocean of light. And then, with the barest suggestion, my hand moves forward. I slip from her touch. Then I grasp the handle, open the door and step outside.

I remember meeting the psychologist. I was a little kid. Little enough that I should have no memory of what occurred. But it is there. A memory. Although perhaps it is not a memory at all. It has that essence of truth to it to it, though. That essence of reality. I remember the man’s office. It was a small place, but pleasantly furnished. As if the soft textures and soft colors and dim lights could somehow overcome the echoes of chaotic pain that seemed to fill the place. I didn’t want to go in. I shook and shuddered, but I was little and so they made me go in. The man, the doctor, seemed kindly. But I knew, as he eyes passed over me, that I was just a routine to him. A preordained reality. He asked my parents questions. Questions about my behavior. He asked me a few as well. I couldn’t answer, of course. The feedback of language overwhelmed me. As long as I’ve known the power of words it had overwhelmed me.

He asked me to look at him. I looked away, as I always do. He tried to touch me. Just my hands. I wouldn’t let him. I couldn’t have managed if he had.

It was all a show though. From that first glance, he knew what he was going to say. He knew what my future was going to be. The routine was an act for the benefit of my parents. It was meant to give his words weight. To give them truth. To give them meaning.

In those days, there a broad spectrum of options to choose from. The terminology wasn’t the same as it is today. There were only two options: high-functioning and low-functioning. From the moment we entered that room, I knew where I would land.

I remember him, clear as day, telling my parents what my world was like. That I didn’t understand the emotions of others as well as normal children. That I couldn’t grasp and use language. That I had a hard time understanding and controlling my own emotions. That sensations could overwhelm me in a moment.

He was describing a world of chaos. A world of isolation. I would engage – had already engaged – in self-harm, head banging, repetitive noises, violent movements and unexplainable efforts to escape. He warned them that as I grew, it would be impossible for them to care for me.

That’s what he told them. But I heard something different. I heard of a world of people who could feel, even more than I could feel. I heard of a world of people who could manage, control, even harness that feeling. I heard my own weakness. A prophecy of my own, predestined, failure.

My parents heard his words. But they denied his prophecy. They had struggled to have me. I was, and would be, their only child. They told themselves that they could make it work. That they could be different. That they thought they could be dedicated enough to make me something more than what I was destined to me.

That some of their hope could survive.

It took years, but I wore through them. I wore through all their good intentions. They didn’t want to, but they would hold me – restrain me. Even hit me. They didn’t want to, but they would fight – one with the other. I remember my mother slapping my father. I could feel the shock and the sadness. Her shock and sadness. And I could feel his pain, as he sat in our small bathroom.

I wondered how normal people, people who could feel everything, could ever possibly manage.

I tried. I tried not to wear them down. But I couldn’t help it. I was worn down. I needed the movements, the shaking, even the pain, to mask everything else. I wanted to contain the feelings that were overwhelming me. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t as strong as normal people.

My weakness was destroying those around me.

My parents were divorced not long afterwards that slap. And then, just a short time later, I was moved to a group home. A small place with eight residents and three carers.

My parents, divided and destroyed, had surrendered.

My weakness had been too great for them.

I was nine years old and I was the youngest person there.

I know it can seem like torture to you. Sitting in the same house with the same routine, day after day. Month after month. Year after year. But it meant peace for me. Yes, the staff would change over regularly – most of them. And yes, every new person was another wave of change and challenge. But it was better.

I had failed, yes. I could feel it when my mother or father visited – as they did less and less. I had failed. But those around me now were not hurt by me. I wasn’t failing them.

I could feel it. Just as I had with that doctor. I was their routine. Their foregone conclusion. Just a job. Their goals were far more modest than my parents’ had been. They were to keep us alive, stop us from harming ourselves. And they were to go through the motions of something greater, knowing nothing greater would ever come of it.

It wasn’t torture to me. It was peace.

And so, the years passed. I was twenty-three when Ayelet was hired. She was twenty-three as well. She was just like the others – except she stayed longer. I remember when was married – two years later. I remember her worry and uncertainty and hope. I remember her pain, as she and her husband tried to have children. I remember her pregnancy – the waves of emotions that would come over her. I would flee then. Flee to my room. Closing the door. Trying to block the chaos away.

I had hoped she would not return to work as a mother.

I knew her emotions would be too strong.

She was just like the others. Only, perhaps, more so. She made us a routine. A task. She would block our humanity from her mind more completely than the others could manage. It made her good at her work. She could manage. And she stayed.

She stayed because her world was outside. Entirely outside. Her husband. Her child. Everything was outside, and nothing was here.

She was 36 when her husband got sick. I felt it the moment she walked in the door. I ran. I locked myself in my room. I stayed there, every day she came to work. Even so, I could sense the pain through the walls. He was dying and then he was dead. He lived on only in her sorrow.

But she managed. She was strong. She had a daughter. A now six-year-old girl. Tikvah. Her name meant hope.

Ayelet was just like the others. Only more so.

We were simply a routine.

Then everything changed.

I felt it from across the city. I felt the burst of pain like a cataclysmic collision of blackholes halfway across the universe. It split my reality and I knew, immediately, what had happened.

Ayelet’s daughter had been killed. A random victim of a terrorist attack on the streets of Jerusalem.

Streets I’d only seen as a small child.

Ayelet returned to work a week later. I could sense her pain before she even arrived. Her world was outside, but that world had been destroyed. She come back because she needed our routine. She needed our peace. Our low lights. Our quiet noises. Our predictable meals.

Overnight, she had become as much as resident of this place as we had always been.

I tried to flee to my room, but there was no point. Her emotions were simply too strong. They could not be avoided.

There was darkness and chaos. I could sense, under her shirt sleeves, the scratches she’d gouged into her own arm.

She had always managed and now she couldn’t.

She had been too strong to be this weak.

I feared what would come next.

I forced myself from my room. I forced myself down the little hall. I forced myself towards her chaos, residing turbulent in the main room. She saw me coming. I couldn’t look at her. But I could sense a new feeling. Hatred. Hatred at a world that had denied her a child, even one was damaged as I was.

I forced myself to go further. To draw closer. I sensed her confusion. I was confused. I had to give her strength, but what strength did I have to give?

Then I reached her. I lifted up my eyes and for the first time – despite knowing her for 22 years – I looked at her. Her pain shot through me. I shuddered with it. But I was the stronger one. I was the one who knew the battlefield. I could teach her to survive.

I stretched out my hand. Shaking. I stretched it towards her. For a moment, her confusion overwhelmed her. She couldn’t begin to understand what was happening. It overcame the pain, just for an instant. And then she responded. Her own fingertips reached towards mine.

A moment before they met, I found myself speaking for the first time. “Vayehi Ohr,” I said.

Let there be light.

When our fingertips met, there was light. I could feel Tikvah’s hope. I had never met her, but I could sense the beauty of her short life. I felt it rippling through the two of us, a wave of hope wearing away at the pain so many felt. Her hope filled me and I knew that I had to share it.

In that moment, I finally understood that the Doctor had had it all wrong. I was not emotionally locked away and unable to comprehend. No, I felt what others felt even more strongly than they could feel it themselves. I felt it so strongly that their emotions overwhelmed my own. With a touch, with a meeting of the eyes, with an exchange of words, I would have been struck low by them.

But I knew that Tikvah could overwhelm them all. With a touch, my touch, she could change their lives.

I could see it in Ayelet’s eyes. I was no longer a routine. I was no longer just a job.

I was no longer ‘low-functioning’.

Moments later, against all the rules, Ayelet has entered the code that unlocks our front door.

And now my hand hovers before it. Shaking.

I know what I need to do, but I cannot make myself do it.

And then I feel it. Her skin. Her warmth. Her hand on mine. My shaking subsides, drifting away in a newly formed ocean of light. And then, with the barest suggestion, my hand moves forward. I slip from her touch. Then I grasp the handle, open the door and step outside.

For the first time in my life, I step outside.

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