Reaching the peak of Mount Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe, was unforgettable because I was with Sauro. Together we have shared many incredible experiences and adventures that have made us lifelong friends. Sauro is an exceptional person who taught me some of the most important lessons of my life.
Sauro was born in 1952 with spastic tetraparesis, a neurological disorder that progressively reduces a person's physical autonomy. He has an older brother, Sergio, with the same syndrome. As children, their mother supported Sauro and Sergio as their bodies' abilities decreased. Today, they require the help of a personal assistant at home and moving around the town.
Sauro and I met when I was a small child. We were members of the same church. Every Sunday after mass, the congregation gathered to chat and snack on homemade cookies and coffee. One day, I noticed a large crowd in the corner of the churchyard where people were roaring with laughter. My curiosity directed me towards the commotion. I made my way through the crowd. When I arrived at the center, I saw a man in a wheelchair telling jokes to everyone's enjoyment.
Our friendship began that very morning. As a healthy seven-year-old, I often questioned why some people had not been born with the ability to walk. What was God thinking? I had always prayed to God to treat everyone fairly, feed the hungry, and heal the sick. Why did there have to be people in wheelchairs? What I did not realize was that my friendship with Sauro would teach me to think beyond reason. He did not view himself as an enlightened individual or a martyr, but rather a modest human in this world who could offer a couple of words of wisdom.
I would meet Sauro after Sunday mass. As our connection deepened, I began visiting him a few times a week, after school. Sauro and his brother had a newspaper kiosk three miles from my house. When he opened the business, Sauro had a moment of regret; he hoped not to have customers because he was afraid that people would not understand him or mock him. It took some time for him to overcome this fear and accept that he could not control others' perceptions of him. But among the customers who became regulars, many had a sincere appreciation for this charismatic, hard-working young man.
We spent many afternoons talking about his experiences as a disabled individual. Sauro's journey to social acceptance had not always gone smoothly. For the first two years of elementary school, he had to be homeschooled because the principal could not take responsibility for Sauro due to the lack of qualified staff. When he eventually joined the school in third grade, Sauro confessed that he would wait to use the bathroom until the end of the day to avoid his peers seeing him struggle to walk. In fifth grade, the school collected enough money to buy him a brand-new wheelchair. Sauro told me that he would never forget the joy he felt that day. The wheelchair was not a Ferrari, but with some imagination, it could transform into a sportscar.
Adults often ask children what they want to be when they grow up. Sauro responded that he wished to walk and dance. He needed a miracle. With his brother's company, he embarked on a twenty-hour journey by train, from Florence to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, at the base of the Pyrenees in France. Every year, millions travel to Lourdes in hopes that the holy water of the spring performs a miracle. Many claim to have been cured of blindness, paralysis, and all sorts of illnesses. Sauro and his brother Sergio could not even find seats on their long journey. They had to sleep on the floor, hoping that the toll of traveling would not leave them more crippled than before. Sauro's trip to Lourdes was unsuccessful, and he knew he had to take a different route to fulfill his wish to walk and dance.
Sauro had already achieved some of the most ambitious goals that he had set for himself early on in his life. He accepted his physical condition and no longer felt inferior to others. The newspaper kiosk granted him an honest living. He learned to drive, which was another significant step towards independence. Sauro bought a brand new, custom-made Volvo with special mechanical adaptors to help him with his physical limitations. Then, in 2003, he founded a dance association for disabled people in Italy called Danceability. At first, people did not take him seriously. Eventually, Sauro organized events with his dancing troupe throughout Tuscany and various other locations in Italy.
In 2009, Sauro came to visit me in California. He was scheduled to arrive at LAX on a late afternoon flight from Frankfurt. I must have been the last one waiting at the exit. I was ready to wave and shout out his name. Instead, an airport associate tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was waiting for somebody in a wheelchair. I said yes. Sauro was on his way to the exit but had to run to the bathroom as he had held his bladder for eleven hours. Ten people were around him when I saw him arriving at the gate. With his broken English, he seemed to be entertaining everyone. The first thing he told me was, "I'm here, I'm here. Did you have any doubts? It's just that this airport is so big I couldn't find my way out." I went to get the car, and when I arrived at the curb, the parade of people was still there, fascinated by this man whom they could hardly understand but who had managed to get their full attention. Sauro had accomplished another goal, of traveling to California, and I was thrilled to spend ten days with my best friend.
Some things are apparent. Sauro's disability is noticeable; others are not. There is a widespread disease that hides under the evident "normality" of many people. It is called unhappiness. Sauro was and continues to be the person to pull me out of the negative headspace surrounding "first world problems." We call each other "colleagues" because we both have handicaps: his are visible, and mine are concealed. The problem is that not enough people realize how fortunate they are just to be breathing. On top of Mount Blanc, Sauro and I observed the vast panorama in front of us that day. We are a small portion of the incomprehensible immensity of the universe. It took a slight variation in the double helix structure of DNA to affect Sauro's life. But that did not exempt him from being given the gift of life. Sauro cannot walk, but he sure has given me an authentic lesson on enjoying the dance of life.
Sauro’s website: https://rotelleattive.org/
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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