Sue Stern

My daughter couldn’t speak — but she showed us her Jewish soul

Sue Stern’s daughter was born profoundly handicapped. But then their spiritual journey began

August 27, 2020 10:08

It was February 4, 1967 when the ward sister told me they wanted to baptise our baby, Deborah Vanessa. She was three days old, I hadn’t seen her since they’d given her oxygen at her birth and we knew she was very ill. When I refused, saying we were Jewish, the sister went to call my husband, Sid, still at work in our pharmacy.

I’d taken the Primodos hormonal pregnancy test tablets. At first joyous, the pregnancy had become rocky, with threatened miscarriage and spells in hospital. We didn’t know that Jewish doctor Isobel Gal — whose battle to warn people about the drug was the subject of a Sky News documentary broadcast on Monday — had already raised her concerns about Primodos’ safety.

I found myself whispering, “Awake, awake Deborah,” over and over again. I wanted my spirit to waken her to the world, although I’d no idea where these words came from.

My maternal grandparents had been Russian Jewish anarchists; my parents were socialist, vegetarian; my father a passionate atheist. I’d had no religious upbringing but knew something of Jewish history.

Sensing a void in my heart, in 1957, when I left home to study modern languages, I began a search for a spiritual way and was drawn to reincarnation.

Our daughter awoke. It was the beginning of our journey together, and, two weeks later, we took her home. She was beautiful, with long black lashes sweeping her cheeks, enormous blue-green eyes and eventually, a wide, all-embracing smile — yet feeding problems began.

In July, 1967, we learned the truth: Dr Benjamin Epstein, world expert on cerebral palsy, told us gravely that Vanessa retained the newborn-baby reflexes to an accentuated degree and would be profoundly mentally and physically handicapped.

I was profoundly upset but somehow, deep in my heart, I was certain she was destined to come to us.

“I will do everything possible to help you develop like any child,” I told her, and she laughed delightedly. For the next few years, I lived and breathed Vanessa. She couldn’t hold up her head, sit in a chair, and because she couldn’t chew she never developed speech, but she understood language and conveyed what she wanted with her eyes. At the age of four, a speech therapist told us with astonishment that Vanessa had the language development of a two-year-old.

In 1969, we moved to Gatley, Cheshire, and joined Yeshurun Synagogue. By now my mother-in-law Rachel, a Yiddish speaking East Ender, had taught me the elements of kosher cooking, (a bit of this and a bit of that) and presented us with a pair of beautiful, elaborate candle sticks, which Vanessa loved to see. It was as though she recognised something deep in her soul. We made many friends in Cheadle, by osmosis, becoming part of the Jewish community.

Having taken advice, we decided to risk having another child but was distressed when it didn’t happen. Befriended by a Charedi woman, I was persuaded to go the mikvah, an extraordinary experience.

At last, our second child, a boy, was due in August 1971. In 1973, we had another baby boy. We now had three children virtually under the age of two, for though Vanessa was six, she could do less than her new born brother.

Lovely French and German au pair girls had been our source of friendship and support — all of them adored our daughter and she, extravert, delighting in attention, loved them.

But in 1974, I began to crumble and we made the terrible decision to find residential care for Vanessa. In 1975 she entered Cranage Hall Subnormality Hospital where, amazingly, she began to thrive.

All the children were at school, so in 1978, I wrote an account of Vanessa’s life, which became the blueprint of my memoir; I also offered to write letters for the Association of Children damaged by Hormonal Pregnancy Tests.

Newcomers to Cheadle, on a spiritual journey like me, became our friends. I attended shiurim, read, and was amazed to learn that gilgul, reincarnation, has its place in Kabbalah. But in January 1982, Vanessa fell seriously ill; she died on the 30th. My Charedi friend wrote: She has completed her task. I was comforted.

‘The Child Who Spoke with Her Eyes’ is obtainable from Amazon and directly:

August 27, 2020 10:08

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