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One woman’s story of resilience

Italy: Samuela has never been able to use her hands and legs. Yet, she wrote a book and is already working on her second novel.

Samuela Baiocco with friend and psychologist Dr. Lucia Zamponi.

” I grew up with people telling me that my body was only good from the neck up. Ok, that’s fine   I told myself.  It means I’ll use the best part of me, my head, to make all my dreams come true. ”

The first time I met Samuela Baiocco I noticed her cheerful eyes, so full of light and curiosity. She smiled and studied me discreetly. I reached for a handshake. It was different, warm, beautiful. Only then, after touching her hand, did I realize that Samuela was affected by a congenital disability that had deprived her of the use of hands and legs. “Disability ” is a word I am only going to use once in this post since there is no need to do so. Samuela is far more able than most of us “normal” folks.

Another thing I am not going to do is chronicle her story of resilience. That would be unimaginative and uninspiring since Samuela recently published a novel about her life called “Correre Oltre Me” , (Breaking Beyond Myself).

Last week my husband and I had the pleasure of attending one of Samuela’s book presentations in Monte Urano, a town located in the Italian region called Marche. The setting? A welcoming family-run restaurant: ” La Fascina “. We met interesting people around the dinner table. It was a memorable evening. Time we spent laughing, crying and letting ourselves be touched by all that Samuela is; a whirlwind of life endowed with self-irony, grace, joviality, kindness and the type of courage that comes to those who turn their own hardships into something we all benefit from.

A moment during Samuela’s book presentation.

Art students representing Samuela’s book live during the presentation.

Every appointment with Samuela and her “child” (as this is the metaphorical meaning she has given her novel), is made special by including art, music, poetry and contributions of friends who share the common vision of diversity as something that elevates and enriches our communities by making them and ourselves truly civil.

The evening was ushered by Samuela’s friend and psychologist Lucia Zamponi.

Here is an abstract of Lucia’s thoughts translated from Italian to English:

“Physical barriers are but a portion of the limiting conditions we can experience as human beings. There are many circumstances during the course of our lives when we happen to feel tied down, gagged, paralyzed. Movement is not merely about having legs to support us. Freedom of movement comes from the mind and it is the most authentic form of mobility as it is governed by possibility, the possibility of believing we can break through, go beyond the obstacles we see as barriers. Going beyond means believing in our quests. We all have a battle to win, we all have our own dimension of mobility and at the same time the possibility to change our condition. Believing is the first step toward achieving.”

Samuela signing autographs.

One of the most signigficant moments of the event was publisher Carlo Pagliacci’s reading of a passage of Samuela’s  novel. Between one delicious homemade dish and another he interpreted pages of a woman’s story of resilience. As the narrative unforlded it was surprising to feel how well he understood the author’s emotions. Every word was pronounced with the right intention.

I will do my best to translate that passage for all to read, enjoy and feel.

” It was the first time. I had never seen those perfect cut blu blazers complimented by sensual knee length skirts, fall and caress the beautiful, refined legs of the flight attendants. A blue and green scarf contoured the neck, underlining a graceful femininity, undermining the serious countenance of those uniforms. The sound of the stuard’s trollies rolling across worn out floors, made me feel, I’m not sure why, extremely excited.

I was right there with them, this time I was taking off as well.  For a few hours, I too would be part of that fantastic world. Yes, very soon, I would be on a plane, and, I could barely wait to test the elevator platform that was going to lift me on board. 

As departure time neared, the remaining minutes seemed endless. I was the last person to board. All of a sudden I noticed the airport assistant frantically running back and forth from heaven knows where. I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then, I was given the grave news: the elevator platform was unavailable.

In the meantime all the other passengers were comfortably seated in their spots waiting for me to board so we could finally take off. I, on the other hand, was the only one left furious, disappointed and in disbelief on the ground. I could not fathom how a big and important airport like Fiumicino in Rome, did not have the lift I had asked for and booked long before the departure date.

I could not help but wonder about the kind of ordeals I would have to overcome when we arrived in Tunisia. If I ever managed to get on the plane, how would I get off once we arrived? I staggered for a few moments. I was aware of my difficulties. Perhaps I had dared too much by stubbornly believeing I could manage such a far away journey, on a plane yet.

The flight was late, because of me. Unable to find a solution someone was sent to tell me that I would have to get up the stairway on my own.

At that point I was downright angry: <<Do you really think I would have asked for an elevator if I could use my legs and feet?>>.

There was no choice. I would either have to get myself up those stairs or say farewell to my trip.

Was I going to give up and go home with my tail between my legs? Absolutely not…

I gathered every ounce of patience I had left and with a healthy amount of sarcasm faced the terrible climb to the top: <<Ok, ok. I accept the challenge! Maybe the exercise will help me loose a few pounds. That’s right, how could I have not thought of it before? It was all planned! You did this for my own good. Silly me to think lowly of the Fiumicino airport and of those who work here. Of course, by the time I finish getting up the whole ramp of stairs, the airplane will probably have had enough time to take all the other passengers to their destination and come back to pick me up!>>.

I observed the stairway closely: it looked like Mount Everest.

For a moment I was tempted to surrender, to call my father and ask him to come pick me up.

<<Ok, let’s go! I’m not giving up my trip because of a missing elevator! But someone is going to have to help me. Hold me up by my underarms and follow my pace!>>

The airport assistant had a fearful expression as he took to explaining that I would not have to climb the stairs one by one with my own legs. Rather I would be transported to the top by two robust stewards while seated on a chair.

On one hand I felt relieved on the other hand a little concerned: the stairs were steep, I was chubby, I wasn’t so sure four arms, even the strongest ones, could endure such a great effort.

My fear grew when I saw the chair, a minichair that was maybe twenty centimeters wide. An absolutely insufficient amount of space to contain my rear end and my back. The possibility of falling over one side or the other was now tangible. I could already see myself folding over and tumbling down the stairs.

I looked at the airport assistant, then at the two powerfully built stewards standing beside me. My voice trembled as I managed to ask: <<You want me to sit on that ramshackle?>>

The answer came without hesitation: <<Yes, if you want to board the plane. But don’t worry Miss, we’re going to tie you down nicely so that there is no risk of falling>>.

So it was that I allowed myself to be carried to the top, tightly tied, like a sausage.

Following the first few moments of terror, the creative way of climbing the stairs turned out to be fun. As expected, the two men struggled during the endeavour. Nonetheless they managed to accompany me to my door to Paradise.

As I peeked onto the corridor I saw the other passengers seated, a little nervous because of the wait. I felt so embarassed I wanted to get back on the minichair, tie myself down again and flee down those stairs as fast as I could.

Instead I did no such thing because I was immediately greeted with smiles and a thunderous applause. I did not quite understand if the applause was because we could finally take off or because everyone had seen from their windows how big of a struggle it had been to get up that stairway.

But all is well that ends well. I too was finally able to settle in my reserved seat.

Taking my place was not easy, a challenge within the challenge I dare say: I could not bend my legs. Therefore I found myself stuck between my own seat and the one infront of me.

But at last,despite it all, I was inside the “steel bird”.

Samuela Baiocco

Thank you Samuela. Your friendship is a blessing to me.

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