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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Lessons in Forgiveness

Saralee and her dad

Saralee and her dad.

By: Saralee Perel

Though my father's been gone for over fifteen years, he will always be a part of me. I still "talk" to him and "hear" him.

He had a spinal cord disorder that developed when he was in his late sixties. I have a spinal cord injury that occurred when I was fifty-two. Until then, I never understood how hard so many things were for him. I have yet to forgive myself for the lack of compassion I showed when I was a kid.

Dad had me late in life, at age forty-seven. When I was a teenager, I'd get impatient with him because he walked so slowly and took "for-ev-er" to do anything. Most of his movements were grueling. He needed a back brace to support his spine.

I don't know what treatment options were available back then. There were so many things our family didn't understand. My parents had wall-to-wall shag carpeting. Dad fell down frequently. He kept buying different shoes thinking that was the problem.

Now I know that the shoes were not the problem. When I walk on a shag rug, it feels like I'm sinking into ten inches of carpet. I know that my brain won't send correct signals to my toes, so I need to look to see how high to raise my feet. If only an occupational therapist could have told Dad this. I don't know why nobody did. Perhaps knowledge about SCI and household hazards was limited in those days.

I had no idea why it was so hard for him to get out of bed every morning; why it took him so long to get his socks on; why I didn't offer to help.

Dad's determination
In spite of how I regard my teenage self, my father didn't regard me as inconsiderate. He adored me. And I adored him. You see, Dad was a withdrawn man around everyone in our family  . . .  except me. If a heart could be metaphorically measured by its contents, 100 percent of my father's heart would be filled with his love for me. I was his greatest joy. And he was mine.

He still is.

Dad had a strong code of ethics. "Everything in moderation." And, "No self pity." If he ever felt someone was feeling sorry for themselves, they were off his friendship list. He kept his own complaints to himself.

We had many good times. Most nights, we'd lie on the couch with our arms around each other while watching TV. We had a blast vacationing in Atlantic City. Though summer camp was super, my favorite part was visitors' day, when I could see my dad again.

He would not have me feel sad or worry about him. When he fell down the night before my wedding, my fiancé, Bob, helped him get up. His first words to Bob were, "Don't tell Saralee I fell." With the use of a walker, he escorted me down the aisle, though he dragged his left leg. Two days later, he became wheelchair bound for good. I believe it was his deep determination to walk with me on my wedding day, that kept his disability at bay.

Thank God he died before my sudden SCI hit. He'd have been heartbroken to see me in my wheelchair. But he would have been overjoyed that I had surgery, so I wouldn't be in the terrible shape he was in.

Never too late
Before his death at age 88, I was the only one he recognized. By then, he couldn't speak. My last words were, "I love you Tatteleh (affectionate Yiddish for father)." To this day, I tell myself he heard me.

At his burial, I touched the hand-carved Jewish star on the wooden casket that held my father's body. But it didn't hold his soul. When the rabbi handed me a trowel filled with soil for me to sprinkle on the coffin, I kept that little piece of earth. It stays on my bureau in Dad's milkglass shaving mug.

Our latest "talk" was about a week ago.

"Tatteleh," I said to the heavens. "I wish I could erase all the times that I disappointed you."

I "heard" him say, "Shaineh maideleh (his pretty little girl), you never disappointed me. I loved you."

"But I didn't understand how hard you had it."

"You were just being a kid."

I'm trying to say something here without preaching. It is never too late to speak from your heart. So if you're feeling sadness like I am, you might consider having the kind of talk with someone you love, that I'm so desperately trying to have with my father now.

"You were the best part of my life," I heard my father say. "You filled my heart with happiness."

And in so many ways he did, and still does, mine.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Umbilical Cord Blood Banking (PDF)

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)Dept of Physical Medicine and Rehab Services at Baylor College of Medicine.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship areencouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.