Disabled Super Woman
It happened during Purim 1996. Maytal Wax, her brother Asaf and her mother, crossed the street opposite the Mall at Dizengoff Centre in Tel Aviv. A suicide bomber blew himself up next to them. Asaf, a soldier on furlough before his discharge, was killed on the spot, along with 13 others. The explosion wounded 157, one of whom was Maytal. She lost her leg and suffered burns on her entire body. Twelve years later, a single mother to 1.5-year-old twin girls, Maytal talks about her long hospitalization, the separation from her two husbands, and the decision to bring two children into this world despite her severe disability.
Based on an interview by Eti Abramov
Photos: Ariel Bsor
From a distance, sitting on the living room floor covered with toys, Maytal Wax looks like any Mom playing with her babies. Maya is already one and half years old, rolls over and is running wild, hitting the TV screen and then suddenly turns back to her mother and cuddles with her. Only when you look closely do you notice that Maytal is missing her left leg and the baby is sitting very close to her, on the stump of what used to be her leg.
In the nearby room a drama is taking place: Noa, Maya’s twin sister, wakes up from her afternoon nap and begins to cry. Although her left leg is missing and she is unable to move her right leg – which may seem whole but is in reality made up of pieces of metal covered by transplanted skin – Maytal leaps onto her wheelchair and rolls quickly into the babies’ beautiful room, despite the difference in height between her wheelchair and the baby’s crib she lifts Noa and brings her over to join her sister who is playing on the rug in the living room.
This interview takes place a few days before Purim and Maytal has made costumes for both her daughters: Maya will be a lady-bug and Noa a centipede. While they are playfully enjoying themselves on the rug dressed in their colorful, fury suits, the little ones look so happy, so distant from that horrible Purim of 1996, when their mother Maytal’s previous life came to an abrupt end and her world blew up in flames together with the suicide bomber who will forever be remembered in our collective memory as the ‘Dizengoff Centre Terrorist’.
The year 1996 was one of those horrible years in Israel’s history. The country which had not yet gotten over the shock and trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was experiencing almost weekly terror attacks, one after the other, when suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in the major city centres, especially inside buses.
To maintain sanity and for appearance sake – at least for the children – it was agreed that despite the difficult situation, Purim would be observed and celebrated as in previous years. “Dizengoff Laughs” was the name given by the Municipality of Tel-Aviv to the festivities that were planned on the city’s main street. Perhaps because at that time the buses were blowing up in Jerusalem, there was an atmosphere of complacency amongst the multitude of children and parents that came to Tel Aviv to celebrate and a feeling prevailed that here it would be different.
The suicide bomber wearing a large explosive device stood on that famous crossing, too. He blew himself up amongst the hundreds of people who were there. Altogether, 14 were killed immediately. Asaf Wax was one of them; 157 others were wounded. Maytal, was one of the most severely wounded in that bombing.
Maytal lay unconscious for 12 days. Even when she awoke her condition was critical and life-threatening. Her bodily systems could collapse any moment from the burns and the severity of her injuries. Family and friends sat at her bedside around the clock at first, trying to conceal from her the loss of her beloved brother, and then attempting to comfort and encourage her by instilling hope. Her newlywed husband, Steve Lederman, was there, too, throughout this ordeal.
The relationship that Maytal and Steve had created – two young people at the beginning of their joint life, having bought an apartment and trying to have children – was coming to an end. Despite the love and devoted care, two years after the suicide bombing they separated.
“There are many couples who go on together even after one of them is injured,” she says. “Our joint path did not succeed. I initiated the divorce because I just couldn’t be there. I loved him as a person, but inside I felt dead. At the time, I only thought of the excitement, the turn-on and the butterflies in the stomach and paid less attention to the truly important things in a relationship – the mutual respect and trust, friendship and giving.”
“I am so grateful to my ex-husband, Steve, for having been there for me. Had it been me in his place I don’t know if I could have carried out the difficult role that ‘fell’ on him. At that time, I didn’t know how to adequately appreciate it. I was totally immersed in myself and very self-centred, and that is alright. Someone who hasn’t been there would not understand.”
However, Maytal who deep down was not meant to be alone didn’t remain so for long. The Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization invited her to join its ranks and introduced her to Tel Aviv’s Beit Halochem Centre, where she met Ido, a Zahal disabled veteran, seven years younger than her. They fell in love and got married. Maytal recounts that back then they seemed so happy, healthy and beautiful, that when they walked down the street, each on his respective crutches, no one imagined they were disabled. They looked like a couple who had just returned from skiing where they had both taken a fall.
“Ido came just at the right time and place and helped me a lot both physically and emotionally. He accepted me the way I was, because this is how he met me, and it worked. Objectively, I looked terrible. My entire body was bandaged and shattered with wires. I was at the beginning of my rehabilitation process. All the wounds remained open. Not a pretty sight, certainly not very feminine.”
After two and a half years Maytal began to realize that love isn’t enough. The intensity of the treatments, the age difference and the power struggles of someone with her disability, caused her and Ido to drift apart. At age 32 and a half, she found herself divorced a second time.
“This was a critical breaking point in my life,” she remembers. “I had never been alone, I had always placed great emphasis on togetherness and that was a mistake. When we decided to split-up and I was left alone, it was completely and totally crushing and depressing. To overcome the situation, I was hard on myself. I lost weight, started working out. I went to movies and plays on my own. I danced, rode bikes. I did everything not to be alone. Sometimes loneliness crept back and brought me down, but I was so busy doing so many things I didn’t let it get to me.”
The decision to be a single parent in her condition was neither a natural one nor an easy one. Two and a half years have gone by from the moment she began trying to have children until the moment she got pregnant.
“It could take just a second or years,” Maytal says. “And there is no explanation. After the first and second fertilization attempts failed, it brings you down. Your hopes are high every time anew. Each new treatment you rally all your forces to see it through. It’s very hard. Whoever hasn’t been there, wouldn’t understand what it’s like.”
“Throughout my entire pregnancy, all the hospitalizations, I had the Book of Psalms with me. There were times when I knew it hadn’t been successful and I accepted it and there were times when it was very difficult,” she stresses. “One of those times, on March 4, 2006, on the 10th anniversary of the suicide bombing, I wanted to go to the Memorial Ceremony but was supposed to have an embryo transplant that very day.”
“After so many failures, I found it difficult to imagine myself pregnant … I was having a tough time and no success. On the last fertilization attempt, the one that was successful, I was ready to give up. I was emotionally crushed, I had been through a tough period and I said that if it doesn’t succeed this time I’m taking a break.”
Maytal had some serious fears concerning how much weight she would gain after she got pregnant. “I was afraid of how my body would carry the weight and possible problems due to my prosthetic leg and being in a wheelchair. By the way, it worked out fine.”
Before she became pregnant, Maytal had organized her life as an independent woman. With the help of the Ministry of Defense and compensation money, she bought an apartment in one of the North Tel Aviv real estate projects. She gave up the profession – librarian – she had studied for before her injury, and began studying social work, a subject which was now much closer to her heart.
However, Maytal’s babies had other plans. On a Friday afternoon, in mid-November 2006, when she was only in her sixth month of pregnancy, she went into labor alone at home.
“With shaky hands, I organized my night bag. I hadn’t been expecting this. I had finally been feeling well, I was blossoming, all the difficulties seemed to be behind me, why enter into labor now?”
Maytal was taken to the nearby hospital, Tel-Hashomer, by the psychologist who had been treating her since her injury, Dr. Dana Margalit, and her husband, journalist Dan Margalit. In a short time, she was back in control of things, as usual. “I sent everyone home and said I was fine but within a few hours I started contracting.”
When she awoke after the Caesarian-section operation, Maytal discovered she had two daughters: one weighed 680 grams, the other 845 grams.
“I was in such shock I didn’t even want to go and see them,” she says. “I knew there were so many risks involved and I was so afraid to get attached. Finally, I walked into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I looked at the incubators from a distance and from the moment I got close, inserted my finger and caressed them, I couldn’t leave the place.”
The months the two girls spent at the NICU were the toughest of her life.
“Nothing seemed to go the way it should,” she says. “Everything was all mixed up and confused. I barely got over one thing and something else would happen … There were many tough moments. Suddenly two children came out of my body, they’re mine, the entire responsibility is mine, and they’re in an incubator with a million tubes and resuscitating devices and fears. This one isn’t gaining weight and the other one is anemic, it is emotionally draining … When there are two parents you share. Here it was only me and I had to give of myself equally. I went out of my mind”.
A year and a half have gone by. Maytal is still unable to go out and work. Only now has she found the time and the emotional strength to go back to hand cycling and dancing in Beit Halochem’s Wheelchair Dancing Troupe. She has successfully competed in wheelchair partner dancing, which has become another important lifeline to healing.
“I underwent a process with myself,” she explains. “The moment I stopped thinking only about myself I could begin taking the time to give to others.”
She has completed her third year of Social Work studies. Social Work studies include practical training at various hospitals. Now, her training took place at ‘Beit Rivka’ (a geriatric medical center that treats functionally disabled elderly patients and assists in preserving their ability to live in dignity).
“Wherever I am, I see things within the context of my own situation and I deal with them. One’s training brings you face to face with your own self. I’m at a place now where I am learning to see how it affects me, identify and make the separation so that I can help others. My heart’s desire is to work at hospitals. For a while I was visiting wounded and injured people like myself,” Maytal muses. “I think it’s an encouraging thing. I remember when people visited me it gave me a lot of strength. I saw rehabilitated people who got back on their feet and moved on with their lives. It gives you lots of strength; it did for me, in any case”.
Despite having an au pair, Maytal gets up at night for the girls so she can be the first one at their side when they wake up. There is a photograph of her late brother Asaf z”l in her bedroom. She brings the girls to the photo, lets them caress it, tells them about their uncle Asaf and believes that they begin to understand.
“Today I feel whole. I am so happy. I’m at the best place I have ever been. Giving birth to the girls was the best decision I have ever made,” she affirms. “I am so happy being a mother and being back home. I love being able to give. I am a strong person on my own.”
“Being a disabled mother is physically difficult, but I recommend parenthood to everyone,” Maytal states. “There are frightening and tough moments, like knowing that I cannot run after them, or when they both cling to my wheelchair and I cannot move. My dream is to be able to go to the beach with them, build castles in the sand, take them into the water, and walk hand in hand with them when they are old enough to do so.”