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It's often hard to look wheelchair-bound people in the face, especially if they're Israel Defense Forces wounded and even more if they've lost limbs or normal features. We feel guilty for their disability.
Ricka Rousso Cina - an artist, ceramicist, teacher and author living with her husband and children at Moshav Sharona in the Lower Galilee - not only helps us look directly at the seriously wounded IDF veteran; she lets us feel him from the inside.
Her Hebrew-language book is a novel - not a perfectly factual account of one veteran's experience after being evacuated from the battlefield. However, based on wounded soldiers she has met and her observations in Haifa's Rambam Medical Center and the rehabilitation department at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, the 155-page volume presents readers with what seems to be a non-fictional account.
The book, says Dr. Michael Pollack, a Sheba psychiatrist who helped the author, should be available to patients in rehabilitation departments and veterans' facilities to "spread hope and faith." The title, Thermica, is the name of the straggly dog abandoned on a lonely road that the fictional reservist, Gabi, takes home. Her name recalls the beloved "thermals" (warm air currents) that keep him and other paragliders floating aloft. The intelligent animal - smuggled into hospitals in a basket - "understands" and "speaks" Hebrew, providing Gabi with company and "advice." Cina chose a dogged character in memory of her own pet.
"I MET a reserve soldier, Netanel, who fought in the Second Lebanon War and whom I have known since he was born," recalls Cina in an interview. "He was not physically wounded, but when he came to visit, I understood that something serious had happened to him. He said it was very difficult, that many of his buddies had died and others had been wounded. He said it was hell."
It is not a story of one person or war but of many. He and Yoav, a moshav member who served in the First Lebanon War were amalgamated with others to become the Gabi character.
"I followed the wars and knew how difficult they were. The state did not do enough for the veterans. The physically wounded get medical care, of course, but if they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, some of them don't realize or admit it, and many cases are left untreated. They may complain later of back problems, for example, but not of the invisible wounds," says the author. "I have sons in the IDF; some of their best friends were killed. I want as many Israelis as possible to read the book and understand that there is a deep human price to all wars."
HER MANUSCRIPT was accepted by two publishing companies, but she decided to produce it on her own, using the company name of Laga'at Balev (Touching the Heart).
"During the Second War in Lebanon, there wasn't enough equipment or food. Israelis living in the center of the country... far from the battlefield were not really aware of it," notes Cina. "The war in Gaza showed the leaders had learned something and fixed mistakes. But I wanted readers to feel what effect war has on soldiers. There has to be public recognition that soldiers pay a price, even if they can't always say so."
That was also the fictional Gabi, who regains consciousness at Rambam Medical Center after being seriously wounded in the second Lebanon War. "It isn't clear to me from which cliff I jumped," he says, finding his limbs - or what remains of them - bandaged and attached to infusion tubes. "What a godly thermal!" He feels like he's in a whirwind, but then realizes he was in the war and now is in a hospital.
He had been called up on a day when a major university exam was scheduled. After taking the test, he goes to his city apartment, where he lives with a beautiful-but-spoiled girlfriend Noga and Thermica. Arriving late at the meeting point with his buddies and given a sendoff by his devoted parents (who bear homemade oatmeal-and-nut cookies), Gabi is bused to a community south of the Lebanon border. The logistics seemed to be confused and the equipment inadequate - with the entry into Lebanon as hasty as the Israelites' exit from Egypt.
Some 30 soldiers are assigned to spend the night in a Lebanese house with a big but unfortified iron gate. "Doesn't this gate worry you?" Gabi asked a friend before falling into a light sleep. In the early afternoon, he heard the whistle of a missile and a terrible boom. At first he thought it was "friendly fire." He felt his face and limbs with his fingers and found he was unharmed. But others were bleeding profusely, some from shrapnel. His commander was dead and the deputy commander was wounded. "There was no one to tell us what to do."
He picked up one casualty and rushed out of the house. "I understood that if they fired one missile at us, there could be another." Residents of a nearby village had apparently informed Hizbullah of the soldiers' presence.
Gabi heard voices from the building and thought there were more soldiers who needed help.
"I went in, and that was my mistake - because then we got hit by the second missile. And that's apparently when I died..."
He wakes up in Rambam. One eye, his arms and legs were bandaged. His right leg ends in a stump under the knee. His mother wets his lips with water as his consciousness flutters. He is moved from intensive care to orthopedics. The nurse assigned to his care is Libby, a tall young woman with one green and one brown eye (like singer David Bowie). She treats him with the delicacy of a nurse taking care of a premature baby, and becomes his counsellor and supporter.
His parents named their three sons after angels. As Gabi's condition improves, he sees more of his far-flung siblings: Uriel is studying veterinary medicine in Italy and the youngest, Raphael (Rafi) wanders the world and touches down in Israel. He is staying in Gabi's apartment to take care of Thermica; Noga has left.
Gabi's pain and fear are almost constant, but Uriel's medical knowledge helps him understand his wounds and the level of disability.
"Don't laugh, Gabriel," says his brother during a visit. "The situation could be much worse. You have a long recovery ahead of you, but in the end, you'll see with two eyes, function with two hands and walk on two legs - yes, one will be plastic, but you will walk!"
After weeks of hospitalization, Libby announces that he is well enough to have his first shower. He unwinds the bloody bandages that she changes daily and she takes him to the bath, where she washes and shaves him and combs his hair.
"What strength this girl has. How quiet and efficient," Gabi marvels. "I am so grateful."
When Rafi first sneaks Gabi's dog into the ward, Libby discovers her but intentionally disregards it. Thermica licks his face and "tells" her master how much she has missed him.
But the hellish nightmare of the missile attack and the loss of his friends constantly recur, troubling his sleep and becoming worse when his army buddies visit. He is finally told which soldiers were killed and wounded by the missiles.
Noga finally makes a hospital visit, even though their relationship had cooled before he went to war. The box of fancy chocolates - a sign of her family's wealth - that she brings somehow adds to his frustration. Suddenly Gabi pulls the sheet off his battered legs and demands that she look at them. "Look," he says in a strong voice "You can no longer run with him, jump with him, dance with him! That's all there is. This is me now."
She cries and runs out of the room, only to be replaced by Libby, who has come to change the bandages and berates him for his behavior. "How lucky that I am not your girlfriend!" the nurse says.
One day Gabi is visited by Ruth, the mother of Boaz, a friend since they were drafted who was killed by one of the missiles. "What can one say to Boaz's mother?" he asks himself. "What words of consolation can I offer?" She makes a huge gesture by giving Gabi photos of the two friends on a Galilee trip. Ruth then looks at the newspaper of the day before and notes the page-one headline: "Our leaders are not worthy of soldiers like you."
When Libby overhears Gabi questioning visiting army friends about the war, she tries to end the conversation. "It won't help.... dealing with the details. Nothing they tell you can change what happened, restore anyone to life or heal any wound."
Every week makes him stronger. His bandages are finally peeled off for good. He is soon to be transferred to Sheba's rehabilitation department to have a prosthesis fitted. In the meantime, Gabi and Libby discover they have fallen in love. Before she goes on a long-planned trip to Australia, Gabi promises the nurse that the next time she sees him, he will be walking. They correspond regularly.
Sheba's physiotherapy staff are sensitive, patient and dedicated. Fiercely determined, Gabi pushes himself to strengthen his thin arms and legs and adjust to the plastic limb. When Libby finally returns home and comes to Sheba, Gabi greets her by walking painfully toward her. Able to take a weekend leave, Gabi arranges to meet Libby in his apartment. But Noga causes a major crisis when she arrives uninvited.
The happy ending should not be revealed, but it can be said that Gabi rebuilds his life. The beautifully written novel reflects real life and presents the depths of suffering and the joy of survival and rehabilitation. It indeed should be required reading in hospitals, and not only in those departments that treat soldiers.
Cina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; her phone numbers are (04) 6620314 and 052-3385315 or at www.rickarts.net. Thermica is being sold at Steimatzky's and Tzomet Sfarim.