Standing for a Cause: Climbing Over the Obstacles of Life

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By Lauren Keating


Vayner climbs literally and figuratively to reach her goals.
Vayner climbs literally and figuratively to reach her goals.

Boisterous noises bounced off the walls of Brooklyn Boulders. The rockclimbing facility was full of children attending birthday parties as athletic men and women mounted the walls, leg muscles straining in an attempt at victory found at the top. Some struggled at the challenge, while others rose to the occasion, lifting their bodies in effortless fashion. Mia Vayner sized up the wall, mentally preparing to attempt the conquest. “I make the wall my bitch,” she asserted.

Unlike those who scale the walls, arms and legs sprawled out like spiders, Vayner, who climbs three times a week, relied solely on her arms to pull her 6’3” frame up the faux mountain. She sat shoulders back in poised posture in her purple wheel chair. Her hair was pulled back in preparation for the work out, her brown ponytail neatly braided. The purple T-shirt she wore not only suggested her favorite color, but also suggested her personality. “Positively Frisky,” it read. Zeus, her service dog, sat at attention beside her.

Vayner is a strong-willed individual. When she puts her mind to something, she sets out to accomplish it. She has hammered hindrances, jumping over various hurdles in her life. Although she has suffered from heartbreaks and hardships, she has become a voice for the disabled, while standing for the causes she believes in. Mia wears the hats of wife, author, chef and activist, all while founding the non-profit organization The Roll for the Cure in memory of the late mother-in-law Rozalya Vayner, who died in 2007 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“Why do one thing well when you can do five things perfectly,” she asked.

Vayner climbs with help from wife.
Vayner climbs with help from wife.

Vayner counted “one, two, and three” as her wife, Evelyn Vayner, pushed the chair back, and stood tall while beginning her ascension. Her manicured hands firmly gripped rock to rock as she made her way up the wall, an example of one of the many obstacles she has fearlessly overcome. While meticulously planning each move to make, Vayner used her upper body to climb up the wall, a metaphoric act that could be applied to her life, while the muscles in her body contracted, highlighting her undefeatable strength. The black bracelet she wears every day says it all— “Fear is Dead.”

“When I started climbing, the first thing that appeared to me was when I climb and the chair is at the bottom, you look at the wall, and others don’t know which of the 10 people [climbing] the chair belongs to. It’s my five minutes of freedom,” she stated.

Evelyn Vayner believes that one of her wife’s best qualities is that she never says no. “She is fearless at whatever she puts her mind to,” she stated.

Vayner, 53, was born in the Outback in Australia. Vayner’s early life was filled with tragedy, starting at birth when her twin passed away. She is now one of the surviving seven children. But her relationship with her family is nonexistent after struggling with her identity and sexuality.

Vayner was born male; consequently, her early years were filled with soul searching and finding comfort in her own body. She claims that from the age of four she knew she was a female, but growing up in a macho family heavily influenced by the military rendered it unacceptable to express who she really was.

Vayner makes her way to the top.
Vayner makes her way to the top.

Born able-bodied, Vayner trained in martial arts and judo and played lacrosse as a child. She entered the Navy Reserves when she was 14 and entered Active Reserves after an invitation to join the Navy Reserve Sharp Shooting team, where she taught commandos combat and highly skilled marital arts, karate and judo abilities.

During her time in the Navy, Vayner was still identifying as a man. Although her family was pleased with her military training, they failed to accept her. The pain continued when, for 11 years, starting at the age of four, Vayner would be molested at the hands of one of her brothers, brutal acts that would scar her worse than any war wound.

In Vayner’s book, “The Secrets the Mirror Kept,” which was published in 2011, Vayner writes bravely about abuse as a way to voice her demons and give hope to those in the same situations.

“Tony’s darkness came from the monsters in his life. All kids see them under their beds, but when they’re in your bed and your body, it’s no wonder a soul darkens and any small belief in God that might be left over from childhood Sunday school classes dies with the very first time the monster holds your body down and enters your very most intimate places. And this was why Tony went so suddenly quiet and withdrawn.”

Adding insult to injury, her mother failed to stop the abuse, even after witnessing it. The heart-crippling events caused her to build up a wall, one she wouldn’t dare to climb.

“I wrote off the concept of caring parents,” Vayner stated firmly.

Vayner coped with the effects of being surrounded by a military environment and years of sexual abuse by erasing the traumatizing memories from her mind. She has suffered from epileptic seizures as well as seizures that are brought on by psychological trauma. “Your little brain says, ‘What does a four-year-old know about intercourse? How does a four-year-old handle it?’ It doesn’t. It shuts everything off from the day it happened— everything gets shut, locked away.”

Becoming transgender has allowed her to pick up the pieces of her broken life and live on. “If I didn’t have the ability to become Mia, then what good was fretting about what was going on? So, it was put in a box.” Vayner now identifies as a woman. She takes transgender medication and injects estrogen into her body.

Although some have questioned Vayner, she is now comfortable in her own skin. But it wasn’t until she met her wife and in-laws that she would feel love, as they would become surgeons to stitch up Mia’s broken heart. “I blocked out the ability to love anybody with the title mother or parent— until I met [her mother-in-law] Rozalya [Vayner].”

Vayner said, “I had been living full-time trans, living as Mia barely a couple of years. And I was transgender, but I was celibate. There was just nobody in my life. I never did what people do when they come out as gay or trans, I hadn’t gone crazy and slept with a dozen people.” Members of her community were telling her that since she is transsexual, she should be interested in men. However, this was not the case.

She met Evelyn Vayner, a Jewish New Yorker, who was seeking adventure in Australia after finishing her degree in Communications. “Mia loves to talk to everybody,” she asserted.

What started as a friendship between the two, quickly grew into something more. At that time, Evelyn Vayner, Ella as Vayner calls her, had only been with men. “Things went from nothing to something really fast, and I also felt a connection to the person.”

Ella Vayner continued, “I think it became obvious that it was permanent— just the amount of loyalty and dedication and the decisions that were being made at that time were all based on a partnership and not on two individuals. And that’s when it was clear.” Ella and Mia decided to move to New York together, and on April 17, 1999, the couple married in Central Park.

Mia finally felt like she had a mother again, as she bonded with her mother-in-law Rozayla Vayner over their shared love of cooking, only to lose her to cancer. “I thought I probably had another 20-25 years of her on planet earth. I have a mother again. She was dead in 7 years.”

“My mom got sick for the first time back in 2001 and she and Mia bonded pretty closely because Mia was taking care of her,” Evelyn Vayner stated.

Vayner’s mother, Rozalya Vayner, or Rita as they called her, was first diagnosed with Lupus. After it turned out to be a misdiagnosis, doctors then came to the realization that she was suffering from another autoimmune disease, Polymyositis. The drugs that treated and cured the Polymyositis often can cause cancer as a side effect, thus Rita became severely and fatally ill with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

At this time, Mia was still able-bodied, but her own health was in decline, as she would have to begin walking on canes due a condition called spinal nerve atrophy. “On a good day I can stand, on a bad day I try to stand and I fall over and have a seizure,” she said of her situation.

Despite her own hardships, Vayner would tend to Rita Vayner every day. Doctors predicted that after the chemotherapy, Rita Vayner would probably have only a year or two to live, but her time was cut to a short month.

Vayner stated, “In Australia, you don’t turn around and go ‘That’s my mother-in-law, I hope she’s alright.’ In Australia, you take away the word in-law. The moment you’re married it’s family.”

Hospital staff would call the couple to their mother’s bed on her last day on Earth to say tearful goodbyes that concluded the joke between the two over adopting Vayner. “Mamma said to me in Russian, ‘I signed the papers last night. You’re mine forever.’ That was the last thing she ever said to me,” Vayner said.

Around this time, more tragedy struck. Not only did Vayner lose her mother-in-law in 2007, but she also lost active use of her legs. She was officially diagnosed with spinal nerve atrophy in 2003, a condition that would affect her both physically and emotionally.

Vayner channeled her emotions and negativity from both comments over being transgender and being disabled by sharing her experiences on her blog, Disabled Access Denied. She wrote about overcoming obstacles in life with the help of rock climbing on October 24, “When I climb I take a different problem to the top of the wall with me and leave it up there. And when I abseil down, I have left the woes I carried up at the top. One down so many to go.”

At Brooklyn Boulders, a young girl, blue eyes wide with curiosity, asked Vayner why she wants to be a girl. She answered saying she is a girl, but leaves the explanation to the young child’s mother. She said it is not her place to educate and apologizes if she came off rude to the child’s mother who smiles and nodded in understanding. However, on her blog, she is an open book and calls things as she sees them. “I’m going to give you my world, warts and all,” she writes.

“I started my blog because when you have so many martial arts certificates and the world is pissing you off for being transgender, for being disabled— Ella’s seen what I could do when I was able-bodied, I lost my temper a couple times. She’s seen me throw a few round-a-house kicks and get a little bit angry. And she said to me one day, ‘You know honey, do you know how many round-a-house kicks you could throw in your mind? You either start venting or get a good criminal attorney. And we can’t afford a criminal attorney,’” Vayner joked.

Instead of being selfish, Vayner considered the 16,000 wheel chair users on the island of Manhattan alone and realized she wasn’t the only one who wakes up with problems. “So, I either write for everybody, or I get the fuck out of the business. And I started writing for everybody.”

But even with the success from her blog, finding her voice, standing tall against all her adversaries, she still has some unfinished business to take care of. Two years after Rita Vayner has passed away, Vayner realized she had her end of a bargain to fulfill.

During the end of Rita Vayner’s life, they learned that scientists might have found a cure for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when a story ran on the Discovery Channel where the host appeared near the Santa Monica pier. Vayner reminisced about what Rita said while imitating her broken Russia accent saying, “Santa Monica! That’s where Tom Hanks make Big. He dance on piano.” Rita had always dreamed about visiting Santa Monica. Her mother’s spunk touched Mia deeply. “We have this expression is Australia. If you love someone, you say I’ll crawl over broken glass for you. I said, ‘Mama, I’ll crawl over broken glass for you.’”

And with the sense of humor the two shared, Rita responded, “Don’t be fucking stupid. You ride a bike.”

Vayner is able to climb literally and figuratively to reach her goals.
Vayner is able to climb literally and figuratively to reach her goals.

Keeping her word, Vayner has recently founded The Roll for the Cure, which entails her pushing her wheelchair, beginning on Rita’s birthday, May 12 and will conclude on the day she passed, August 17. She will be traveling 3,400 miles in 97 days. Leaving from Coney Island, she will roll from New York to California, making eight stops in different cities along the way in an attempt to raise $1 million for the Rozalya Foundation to help families receive cancer treatments.

In Santa Monica, Mia will hold a memorial service for Rita, setting her out to sea.

As Vayner continues to strengthen her body at Brooklyn Boulders for The Roll for the Cure, she simultaneously strengthens the sense of hope within people in similar circumstances.

“Mia is passionate, funny and caring. She cares about community,” an athlete friend who wishes to remain anonymous stated. “Instead of throwing bullets of hatred, Mia has made her mark not on bodies but on minds. By helping families in need with The Roll for the Cure, those with disabilities with DisabledAccessDenied, and those who experiences troubled pasts with “The Secrets the Mirror Kept.’”

An attitude this Aussie-American has toward rock climbing can be applied to the many challenges in life. “If I make it, it’s because of me.”


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