When I look at Abbie Dorn — the 34-year-old, severely disabled Lubavitch woman, whose parents are fighting on her behalf, against her ex-husband — I see my late friend Risa Hirt.
Abbie’s parents are advocating for Abbie’s right to visit with her children, triplets born in June 2006. Daniel Dorn, who divorced Abbie a year after she suffered brain damage following a botched delivery of the triplets, and is raising their children in Los Angeles, is arguing that seeing their mother in such a state would cause the triplets distress. He says that he is open to their visiting their mother when they are older, but only if she were able to communicate with them. The case is going to trial on May 13 and could become a legal landmark for the rights of mentally disabled parents.
I can’t help but view the case through the prism of my experience, as a teenager, watching my friend Risa rapidly waste away from an early-onset, rapidly progressing form of Multiple Sclerosis.
Situations like Abbie’s and Risa’s teach us that, try as you might, as Abbie’s ex-husband is attempting with their 4-year-old triplets, you can’t shield children from the less-than-happy aspects of life. In fact, doing so deprives them of the opportunities to develop into compassionate and moral human beings.
It was the time my schoolmates and I spent with Risa that taught me the most about what it means to be a good person — and a good Jew. It is 30 years later, but I still remember the boys carrying Risa in her wheelchair up three flights of stairs to the classroom and the girls helping her in the bathroom.
Once Risa was no longer able to go to school, we visited her at home in the bedroom her family set up for her on the first floor of their house. We came over individually and in groups to keep Risa company, first communicating with her by trying to decipher her labored and garbled speech, then by helping steady her fingers as she spelled out words by pointing to letters on a board. Eventually, we spoke to her without any expectation of a response.
For a long time, I knew that the smart, talented and funny Risa was trapped inside her incapacitated body. But toward the end, even as I continued to spoon feed her ice cream and confide with her about the boys I liked, I was no longer so sure that she was still there.
But didn’t matter because Risa was still a human being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Who was I to decide that she did not deserve to be paid attention to, to be cared for and loved? Through our acts of loving kindness, we were doing right by Risa, we were doing right by ourselves.
Risa died in 1990, 14 years after her diagnosis. She changed for the better my life, and the lives of many of my friends. That is the powerful legacy of a young woman who, for more than a decade, could not talk, feed herself or move her own limbs.
And that is why it doesn’t really matter whether Abbie Dorn can actually see her children or not. She deserves to see them; more importantly, they deserve to see her.
Watch a CNN report on the case of Abbie Dorn:
Renee Ghert-Zand, a veteran Jewish educator, blogs at “Truth, Praise and Help.”