Issue #32 – Bringing Sara Home

Posted on Posted in All Articles, Down Syndrome and Congenital Heart Defects

Bringing Sara Home
Toby Zipper

Oftentimes things are orchestrated in Shomayim without our knowledge – things like bringing my youngest sister, who was born with Down syndrome, to Brooklyn to be near family.

When I was ten years old and living in Elmira, New York, my mother, a Holocaust survivor, was expecting her fifth child. Excitement filled our home as my siblings and I hotly debated whether Mommy would bring home a girl or a boy. Our brother, David, was sure it would be a boy, and Grace, Esther, and I just knew it would be another girl. When Mommy went to the hospital our excitement knew no limits and we couldn’t wait to go and see the baby – but Daddy told us that we had to wait.

I don’t remember my mother coming home without the baby. I don’t remember anything, except my mother explaining that the doctor said, “It’s too much for you. You can’t take a baby home who is so severely retarded. You have four other children to care for. Send her to the Institution in Newark. There are a lot of children like her there. She won’t be alone”. I don’t remember what Daddy said. Mommy was probably in shock.

The baby was named Sara Lee. To the institution she went and on with our lives we went. We all forgot about Sara Lee , except my parents of course, and life continued.

We moved to Buffalo, then to Queens, NY. I became frum, married, had children, became a grandmother, and started using my degrees to work as a college lecturer. As you can imagine, my life was B”H full. But I suppose that Hashem decided it wasn’t full enough.

Over a cup of coffee, a friend of mine and I were reminiscing about our pasts and I mentioned Sara. She suggested that I go to Rochester (where Sara was living in a home) to visit her. At first, I couldn’t believe that she suggested it. “It’s at least a six-hour drive! By myself? I’ll never be able to do it alone,” I defiantly told her. But the thought would not leave my mind, and I decided that I could indeed go between semesters. So, I made my plans. Soon they were set. It was well before Covid, so I was not concerned about any restrictions. The only thing that was daunting to me was the long drive alone, but I was determined to meet my sister. It had been sixty years.

The drive was difficult. I wasn’t used to Waze yet, but I managed. I was flooded with relief when I finally arrived in Victor, NY. The home was pleasant enough. It was in a beautiful country setting just outside of Rochester, NY. There was a lot of land surrounding the house and the residents were taken outside onto a large swinging chair or in their wheelchairs. I spent as much time with my sister as I could, which wasn’t much, since I needed to travel back the next day. (It turns out that I changed my plans and stayed an extra day with her; all that travel was too much for me and I wanted to be with the sister I had never seen). I tried to share her blocks with her, but she didn’t know me and would not give me anything. Still, I was happy to be with her and before I knew it, it was her dinner time. A nurse took Sara’s wheelchair into the kitchen and proceeded to tell me about the nutritious dinner my sister was being fed. Sara was unable to eat by herself.

The meal was ground up (treif) meat, potatoes, and milk. The nurse chattered endlessly about the carefully planned combination of protein, carbohydrate, vegetable, and calcium for an added boost! Meanwhile I became nauseous just thinking about the meat/milk combination and started dreaming about getting her into a kosher home. I drove back home the next day, became busy with work and my own family, and carefully laid any plans for Sara aside.

About a year later my brother David and I decided to go on a road trip to – Rochester! We were going to visit Sara. What fun! I couldn’t wait. David loves to drive. I’d be able to relax and look at the countryside – I needed to rest, and we’d visit Sara again. As we were driving, memories began to surface about her diet, and my negligence in caring for my sister came to the fore. How could I forget about Sara when I had been so determined to do something for her? Where was my persistence?

My brother turned the music on. I forgot everything, and I enjoyed the scenery and his company.

Soon, we were on Route 91 a few miles outside of Rochester. Coming into Victor, NY where Sara’s home was, we went to the Best Western Inn first to get settled and soon were on our way to visit our sister. Of course, when we arrived and saw her, she did not recognize us. Although we tried to play with her and spent a good amount of time with her, Sara did not know who we were. What kind of life does she have without her loved ones near? I thought. The staff members had often mentioned how important it was to have family visit the residents and told us that we were welcome any time. But guilt surfaced as I thought about my once a year visit; I tried to suppress it by conversing with a staff member, Dan.

He spoke fondly about Sara, and I don’t know what led to it, but we starting speaking about the topic of abuse. He mentioned the fact that abuse does happen in these homes. My stomach, my throat, my mind – everything turned and melted into fear and rage. This was it. It was time for action on my part. Sara had lived apart from family for sixty years, and it was more than enough.

David and I spent another hour with Sara and we left the next morning. When I arrived home, I was determined to do something for her, but I didn’t know where to begin. I called a friend who was a Social Worker and she referred me to someone who might have access to information about what needed to be done to move Sara. He didn’t know. He referred me elsewhere. Again, nothing. I was referred to a mental health agency and called. “Call back tomorrow at 10:00 and speak to Leah. I called back and, Bingo! she said she would work with me. She would call me the next day at 9:00 am and we would talk. I felt like I was getting somewhere.

Leah directed me to residences where I could inquire about a place for my sister. After many phone calls and many dead ends, I found a suitable home in Brooklyn for Sara, a Shomer Shabbos home where she would have kosher food and frum people who cared. A home where I could visit her regularly and she could get used to my voice and maybe, just maybe, she would know that someone loves her. The intake supervisor at the new residence which was also an OPWWD home, would get in touch with the intake supervisor in Rochester and start things moving. We were going to bring Sara here. My prayers were going to be answered.

However, I was not prepared for the difficulties that I would get from Albany. Since we were in the middle of the Covid pandemic, OPWWD was giving me a very hard time in facilitating the transfer of my sister to Brooklyn. They gave me every excuse you could think of: no available ambulette, insufficient staff, too long a distance to travel, and on and on. It got to a point where I was sure that the move would never happen, and I told that to the social worker at the Brooklyn facility.

“I think it’s just too hard. I’ve been trying to bring Sara to Brooklyn for two years, and still nothing! The OPWWD has so much red tape and I feel like it will never happen.”

The next day, the resident director at the home emailed me and told me that an ambulette was being sent to Rochester (335 miles), along with staff, to care for Sara during the trip the next day. They were bringing her here.

Sara was brought to Brooklyn on the sixth day of Chanukah. I was invited to the facility and was pleasantly surprised to find the donuts that I had ordered for everyone in celebration of her arrival, being enjoyed by the staff. The following day Uncle Moishy came, and I received a picture of him next to Sara.

Today I visit Sara regularly, and being with her has become a part of my life. Although teaching and family responsibilities consume much of my time, I try my best to be together with my sister as often as I can. That means going after work, on my days off, sometimes on Shabbos. I regard being with her as my special mitzvah. I have had to try various things to develop a closeness between us. Sara is on a restricted diet, but I’m allowed to give her yogurt and she enjoys strawberry (who doesn’t?) flavor, so I usually bring it when I come. I wheel her around in her wheelchair which always makes her happy. Sara loves music, and I try to remember to have it in the background on my phone when I visit. My reward? Sara often smiles when I’m with her. Today she even held my hand for an extended period of time. I still can’t believe it.

Many of the staff members are encouraging, letting me know of Sara’s independent streak. They tell me that she gets into bed by herself and puts her socks and shoes on with minimal assistance. She even eats her meals on her own. These seemingly insignificant skills are huge milestones for her.

Most importantly, I pray that our reunion is bringing peace to our parents’ neshamos.