A Mother’s Right

A version of this post was published today as “Why Abbie Dorn Deserves to See Her Children” on the Sisterhood blog of The Forward. Click here to read it.

A vibrant and healthy Abbie Dorn prior to the botched delivery of her triplets.

When I look at Abbie Dorn, I see my late friend, Risa Hirt.

Abbie Dorn is the 34 year-old, severely incapacitated, Orthodox woman whose tragic story has been in the headlines recently, as her parents fight on her behalf against her ex-husband in the courts. They are fighting for Abbie’s right to have her children, triplets born in June 2006, visit her. Daniel Dorn, who divorced Abbie a year after she suffered apparently irreparable brain damage following her delivery of the children and is raising them in Los Angeles (Dorn is being cared for by her parents in their home in South Carolina), is arguing that the triplets’ seeing their mother in such a state would be distressing for them. He says he would be open to their seeing 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 incapacitated parents.

I can’t help but view Dorn’s case, through the prism of my, as a teenager, watching my friend Risa rapidly waste away from an early-onset, rapidly progressing form of Multiple Sclerosis. The situations are not exactly the same, but for me, the lessons learned are.

Those lessons are that try as you might, as Dorn’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 can be detrimental to them, depriving them of the opportunities to develop into compassionate and moral human beings. Life can be confusing, hard and disturbing, but it is through these kinds of experiences – far more than through the easy ones – that we grow.

To be sure, some credit is due to our parents and teachers. But it was the time my schoolmates and I spent with Risa that taught us the most about what it means to be a good Jew and a good person. It is thirty years later, but I still vividly remember the boys carrying Risa in her heavy wheelchair up three flights of stairs to the classroom and the girls helping her in the bathroom. She quickly deteriorated from walking unsteadily to being non-ambulatory and constantly shaking, unable to control her muscles, but no one doubted her place alongside us.

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. Her hospital bed was next to a large window that looked out over the street, from which she could view neighborhood activity and see visitors as they came to the door.

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 and gossip about who was dating whom, I was no longer so sure that she was still there. However, it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because Risa was still a human being created b’tzelem elohim. There but for the grace of God went I, and who was I to decide that she did not deserve to be paid attention to, cared for and loved? I’m not sure we teenagers could have articulated this in this way, but we knew it. We knew that doing this chesed was not optional, and that by doing right by Risa, we were doing right by ourselves.

As we, Risa’s friends, grew up, the demands of young adulthood and higher education pulling us away, we were not able to spend as much time with her as before. She died in 1990, 14 years after her diagnosis, having changed my life and those of my friends for the better. That is her legacy. That is the powerful legacy of a young woman who 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, and even more so, they deserve to see her.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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8 Responses to “A Mother’s Right”

  1. ilana Hirt Says:

    Hi Renee,

    Thank you so much for sending me this beautiful piece that you wrote. It is so touching.

    I had always had questions: Why Risa? Why her? She was so young. But, I truly believe that she served a purpose down on earth. And, you and everyone else who came to visit is proof of that. I think Risa had an effect on all of us for the good. And, as hard and terrible as it was to see her suffer and i really wish it never happened, I do know that all of us learned from her about compassion, humanity and community.

    For me, I saw each and everyone of you as heroes. In those days you all seemed so much older and I was amazed at all that you did to improve Risa’s life and in turn my family’s life. Every time you entered our home you all brought a little bit of sunshine and normalcy to us.

    Today, when I look back and see how young you all were and yet how much you did – I am even more amazed and appreciative for all you did.

    It was a unique time and very special…I really want you to know how meaningful this was for my family. You made our lives just a little bit easier to bare knowing you were coming for a visit – Thursdays and Sundays were always looked forward to.

    Thank you for writing this Renee…I hope Abbie’s ex-husband hears what you had to say.

    I will make sure to pass this on to my parents.

    much love,

    ilana (Risa’s Sister)

    P.S. Risa died in January 1991

  2. Mark Kerbel Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments, Renee. For the father to position his actions by framing them as a manner of supposedly shielding the children from distress, IMHO sounds more like a position of shame and not wanting to have the children discuss it and ask him “what’s happened to Mom?”.

    There are admittedly no simple ways to explain things to them that will comfort them, but it’s probably a lot easier for a 4 year old to digest than most adults would like to admit.

    Moreover, what is he going to tell the children when they obviously will ask “What happened to our mother?” Is there going to be a sugar-coated story — or the opposite, claiming she died? Either way, the kids will easily be able to read about when (in less than 10 years), they’ll be adept enough to search the web themselves for stories, videos, and pictures about the public discussion about their own mother (including this very discussion thread following Renee’s article).

    Honesty is the best policy, even when it comes to grave situations in life. Been there, done that, with our having to explain to own son of serious situations (health and otherwise in our own family), and we’re glad we explained the truth. There’s no need to elaborate on medical situations, but telling a child what’s going on is perfectly fine IMHO, even when things aren’t going perfectly fine with their parent.

  3. Paul Cohen Says:

    Renee, your post struck home to my wife & I. You see, we are Abbie’s parents and we deal with situation pretty much on a 24/7/365 basis. I guess what keeps us going is a goal….. to see our daughter united with her beautiful children even if only across cyberspce, even only one way so they don’t know their mother is watching over them (even that has been rejected by her ex even as he says he still “loves” her.) We feel despite her outside apppearance and neurologic impairment, she still is quite alert. She blinks with a long unnatural blink which is “yes”. The other day she even agreed that her mom is sometimes annoyng! We are currently looking into other alternative communications, again with a goal… so that someday, somehow she can tell her kids “I love you”. Again, thank you for the beautiful post. Paul & Susan Cohen, Myrtle Beach SC

  4. Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

    Paul and Susan,

    Thank you so much for commenting on my post about Abbie. Based on my experience as Risa Hirt’s friend and watching her family cope, I can have some understanding of what you are going through – but not completely.

    I wish you continued strength in supporting, loving and working so diligently with your daughter on her recovery.

    I will be thinking of you, Abbie and her children.


  5. Hndy Hirt Says:

    Renee Dear

    Thank you so much for the article. We never had any idea about how Risa influenced any of you. All we knew, as a famiily, was that we were surrounded by so much love. And that certainly helped all of us get through each day. Yes, Thursdays and Sundays were our favourite days because till RIsa died, those were the days that so much laughter and love entered our home.

    Looking after Risa was a struggle, especially since, as parents, we knew that she had had so much potential. She was bright, artistic and atheltic and chose her friends carefully. (Two of her pictures , done at 3 in nursery school and 4 in kindergarten,) were fortunately framed and we are reminded of her presence daily.

    As for Abbie’s children. They are, unfortunately, losing out on what could be an experience that will make such mentchen of them. Their father doesn’t give them enough credit and doesn’t even realize how resilient children can be. By keeping them form their mother today, he only creates a mystery for them and will leave them asking many questions when they reach adulthood. Shame.

    Our former neighbours’ children were exposed to Risa from infancy and were totally comfortable in the presence of those who had disabilities. One story is of Dana Bennie (today gorgeous and married) who was the only child (like you Renee) to play with her kindergarten teacher’s child who was brought to the class one day and manifested some form of disability. Laura, Dana’s mother, was phoned by the teacher to report what an extraoridnary child Dana was an how it made a difference for that day in her chil’d life.

    Years later Dana’s younger sister, Rikki, called me to ask if I had a photo of Risa that I could spare her. Since Risa was no longer alive, I couldn’t figure out what the reason was. Rikki went on to tell me that she had to write an essay (in grade 6) about someone who inspired her and it was Risa and our family and how we all treated her so respectfully and with love. Rikki’s essay was the winning one in her class. However, it wasn’t us, it was you teenagers who were incredible. We still can’t figure out where it came from but we are forever grateful to have had the most inspiring and amazing teenagers become a part of our extended family and whenever we see any one of you it is a treat. You have all gone on to become notable adults and mentchen in the community.

    All our love

    Mory and Hindy

  6. Michele Says:

    This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Risa Howell Says:

    I really didn’t know much and Risa, but only that I was named after her, and she died of Multiple Sclerosis. My mother Lorna Howell was a friend of the family, and was asked to name her child after Risa. And here I am Risa Howell.

    Not too long ago I was looking through my moms photo album and saw pictures of a beautiful girl who looked in like she was in her teens. Just looking I felt like I knew her somehow. When I asked my mom, if she was the person I’ve been named after, and she said yes, I had to quickly type in Risa and the words died of Multiple Sclerosis on the internet and found this blog. I was so certain you were taking about her, that after reading Risa’s sister, and mothers’ commment I had to confirm Risa’s last name was Hirt, and what her mom, and sisters’ name was. I was so shocked to find out who you are talking about is the same person I was named after.

    I have pictures of Risa, Ilana, and her mother. I am touched by your post, and they comments about Risa. So moved that it brings me to tears.
    I really hope to find, and learn more about Risa, and everyone who has impacted her life.

    Risa Carolyn Howell

    • Renee Ghert-Zand Says:

      Risa, thank you for your touching comment. I’m glad you found my post about Risa Hirt.


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