Rabbi Charles Sherman’s son Eyal was four years old in 1986 when doctors discovered he had a dangerous lesion on his brainstem. Surgery to remove the tumor caused a massive stroke, and Eyal became a quadriplegic. He would never be able to walk, talk, feed or breathe on his own, although his brain and intellect remain intact.
Eyal, who is now 32, became trapped inside his own body.
Sherman, who has served for many years as the spiritual leader of the Conservative Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, New York, had long wanted to write a book about his and his family’s experience, but it was not until recently that he found the right way to tell it.
On the advice of a literary agent, Sherman decided to shape his story in a way that could help other people facing challenges in life, no matter how similar or different from the ones faced by Sherman and his family. “The Broken and The Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak” was recently published by Scribner.
“She made me realize that what I needed to write was not just a misery memoir,” the rabbi told The Times of Israel by phone from his synagogue office.
Sherman doesn’t presume he has answers for everyone, but he believes that the ones he has found for himself can be of help to others. It is not easy to live at the intersection of the broken and the whole, but he knows from his own experience that it is possible to negotiate that space.
Sherman had tried to write his story before, but it never seemed to come out right. Two earlier manuscripts failed to interest editors. “The first one was mean and angry and the second one was also bad,” he admits.
“I don’t think I was really ready to write this book until now. I needed context, perspective and a sense of maturity,” says the rabbi. “I needed distance and time to see the impact of Eyal’s illness of me, my family and my community.”
Sherman spares no detail in describing what daily life is like for him, his wife Leah and Eyal (the Sherman’s four other children are now all adults and live away from home with their own families). He writes:
Today Eyal is thirty-two years old. He still lives with Leah and me at home. He is physically compromised, dependent upon others twenty-four hours a day for his most elementary physical needs. A ventilator breathes for him, while a feeding tube provides nutrition through a hole in his stomach. An ileostomy bag handles his waste; a vesicostomy, a small surface opening in his stomach, allows urine to flow freely; tarsorrhaphies, in which both eyes are partially sewn shut, prevent corneal breakdowns.
Despite all this and more, Eyal graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in fine arts. He regularly attends religious services at his father’s synagogue (at 13 he became bar mitzvah by soundlessly mouthing the words to the prayers and Torah portion), and keeps up with the world by controlling a computer with his chin.
Eyal paints by holding a paintbrush in his mouth and making minute movements with the little muscle control he has left. He even uses his chin muscles to play the drums to perform duets with younger brother Rabbi Erez Sherman, an accomplished pianist.
‘We live in a culture in which joy is an entitlement. It isn’t’
Each of the fourteen chapters in “The Broken and The Whole” is devoted to a different emotion, moral value, or aspect of life that Sherman has had to work through over the years since Eyal first took ill. He shares how what has happened has shaped his understanding of things such as perseverance, faith, regret, gratitude, personhood, and marriage.
Eyal’s and the family’s journey over the past 28 years unfolds in thematic fashion throughout the memoir. Sherman uses anecdotes about experiences at home and during prolonged hospital stays, along with Torah insights, to illustrate the life lessons he has learned along the way.
The most striking aspect of “The Broken and The Whole” is Sherman’s own journey from a smug, ethnocentric young rabbi to a humbler older man who has realized that there is much to learn from non-Jews and how they face adversity.
He shares how observing the various people around him as he sat next to his son’s bed in a large, open children’s hospital ward was a religious experience for him. The Latin American grandmother with her rosary beads, the sick Muslim child from Cairo, the Jehovah’s Witness parents of a boy with hydrocephalus, and the 14-year-old girl pleading, “Jesus, don’t take me now!” all had a profound effect on him.
Along these interreligious lines, Sherman asked a Catholic woman who works in his synagogue to act as a sounding board for some of the memoir’s passages, and the official launch for the book took place at a nearby Catholic church, the largest in upstate New York.
He maintains his faith in God by being willing to accept as a mystery the fact that bad things exist despite God’s being both all good and all powerful. He refuses to give up hope that perhaps one day Eyal will be cured, even though he has not heard his son’s voice since he was a preschooler (Sherman has only one audio recording—his toddler son reciting the Sh’ma). He has learned to live in the moment and not allow himself to wallow in self-pity and regretful thinking about what could have been.
“We live in a culture in which joy is an entitlement. It isn’t. You need to work at happiness, and that is what we do with Eyal every single day,” the rabbi explains.
He and his wife have shielded Eyal from harsh realities. In some key and obvious ways, Eyal has had to face very bad things. But at the same time, his parents have worked to preserved his sense of innocence and naïveté. “We have to help him find a reason for him to get up every day.”
Hardest of all, Sherman and his wife have worked to prevent Eyal’s challenge from destroying their large family.
“We established a new normal and consciously worked at creating a life of joy and fun in our house,” the rabbi says.
Somewhat not surprisingly, Eyal’s two older siblings and two younger siblings have all become rabbis, Jewish educators, and healthcare professionals.
“Eyal’s illness shaped the lives of his older sisters Nogah and Orah, but for his younger siblings Erez and Nitza, it informed who they are,” Sherman reflects. “Nitza had the most difficult time.”
Leah was pregnant with Nitza when Eyal took sick, and she and the rabbi left her with grandparents in Syracuse right after she was born so they could get back to Eyal in the hospital New York.
“You can’t put the pieces together again,” says his father. “But you can learn to live with the broken pieces.”