Words: Shaun Turton
Istvan Szuhányi heads towards the haystack and steps on the edge of a pitchfork like a skater stomping on the end of a skateboard.
The sun is dipping below the tree line of the ridge overlooking the 62-year-old’s small plot on the outskirts of Jibou, a town of 11,000 in northern Transylvania, a region in central Romania.
The tool's wooden handle springs off the ground and, using his foot, Szuhányi raises it up and catches it between his neck and left shoulder.
His shirt is open, showing his lean but strong weather-beaten chest and scars streaking down his torso. The marks are burns left by the electrical shock that, thirty-nine years ago, destroyed his arms, burning them severely to the elbow, below which surgeons amputated.
He was a 23-year-old mechanic who had just finished serving in the Romanian Army engineer corps – at the age, Istvan says, “when a man gets his wings.”
Working on the construction of a new airport runway, he went to grab a metallic bucket a coworker had thrown next to a live transformer.
“The magnetic force grabbed me and I was left unmoving, paralyzed in a coma. For half an hour I was unaware,” says Szuhányi, who speaks softly and with a smile, speaking in Romanian through a translator.
He gesticulates with his stubs, holding them out in front of his chest.
“After I shed my burnt skin, there was pure wound underneath,” he says, nodding toward where his arms once were.
* * *
Locking the pitchfork under his left armpit, Szuhányi gets his right stub under the handle, lifts it up and holds it across the top of his body.
The long sleeves of his shirt twist and flap around freely as he carries the tool toward a pile of loose hay lying next to the thirteen-foot-tall haystack, about as wide as it is high, which serves as a reflection of Szuhányi’s toiling last month – June, when hay is traditionally made from meadows in Transylvania.
He lives here with his wife, two children, two stepchildren, his stepson-in-law and his step-granddaughter, in the same two-room house where he was born.
After the accident, the thought of Szuhányi working again – or raising a family – didn’t occur to the doctors present when he arrived at a hospital in the nearby city of Cluj.
Initially, they asked his parents to come and collect their son’s body. When he didn't die, one doctor suggested a lethal injection to avoid his unnecessary suffering.
Enduring the pain of having healthy skin grafted onto the wound from elsewhere on his body – a much less sophisticated process at the time – he continued to recover.
“I had a very strong and resilient body. My insides were clean because I did not drink or smoke,” says Szuhányi, adding that his fervent dislike of smoking is based on tobacco’s tendency to reduce the capacity for work.
“When I woke up they told me, ‘have courage, try harder.' They said, ‘look, he lived one more day, then two.’ They said that if I get through to five days then maybe I will survive. Five days, thirty, 500 – forty years and I am still alive.”
* * *
Szuhányi drives his fork into the hay, a movement sort of like a spearfishing thrust but with the handle gripped between his shoulder and chin, like someone holding a telephone in the crook of his neck.
Making hay from the region’s meadows to feed the cows, pigs and horses during the coming winter is at the core of rural life in Romania; a tough existence in which hard work is not an option but a necessity for survival.
“My parents were farmers. They did not have any other income, no salaries; they lived only from what they grew with their own hands,” he says. “As the Bible tells us, by the sweat of our brow we will earn our bread.”
Young Istvan and his three older brothers and sister were never shielded from this reality by their parents, especially their father.
“They did not leave us, the children, to be on our own, to roam the streets,” he says. “We each had our responsibilities.
“I wasn’t bigger than this child of mine,” he continues, indicating his eight-year-old son, “but I had my own list of chores on the field, my own patch of field to take care for. When I was a child hay was on the daily list and my father never missed it.” He looks out the window as he speaks, smiling as if looking back in time.
“From a small age, we got used to working, and not only that. My parents, especially my dad, he was so severe that if I skipped some of the chores that were mine to do, at night, when everyone sat for dinner, I had no place there until I finished my responsibilities."
Istvan Szuhányi’s father died four years after his accident; the younger Szuhányi remained with his mother, despite being offered assistance by a family friend in Hungary. His siblings all eventually moved away, and he alone took care of the farm.
* * *
Szuhányi’s greatest pride is now his own family, especially his two children, thirteen-year-old daughter Loredana, who says she wants to be a singer or model, and eight-year-old Stefan, whose eyes are bright blue like his dad’s. Diagnosed with autism, Stefan’s condition means he’s been unable to say a word to either parent in his eight years. Szuhányi’s wife of fourteen years, Emilia, 48, says Stefan’s only speech comes in the form of song lyrics he copies from the television.
While posing for a father-and-son photo, Stefan wriggles out from between his father’s stubs and, becoming more agitated, begins to cry and scream.
In 2014, 654,403 adults and 60,789 children were registered as having disabilities in Romania, according to a European Parliament report released last year, which added that because registering a child is voluntary, the real number is likely much higher.
The average per-person income in rural areas of Romania amounts to $226 per month, which is thirty-four percent lower that average urban incomes. The figure drops to $184 for farmers. Exacerbated by poverty, the consequences of Romania’s under-resourced health system are particularly acute in the countryside, where support is nonexistent and the stigma attached to disabilities is widespread. The picture is particularly bleak for children with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities such as autism, with most – especially those in rural areas – lacking access to any kind of social care.
The subsidized two hours of weekly treatment in the city closest to them - ninety minutes away - falls far short of the treatment required to give Stefan a chance. And with just 2,000 lei ($363) a month to support eight people, private therapy isn’t an option.
Holding the pitchfork between his stubs, Istvan carries the bundle to the edge of the towering haystack.
Like a lacrosse player, he catapults the tool forward, flinging the bundle on top of the stack, giving a small indication of the effort required to build these towers. He calculates he can stack about four tons (nearly 9,000 pounds) of hay in about two hours.
He shows the customizations he’s made to each tool, including a nail poking out of the pitchfork handle, which he uses to catch and lower his pants if the call of nature should sound while working in the field.
There’s also the custom harness he uses to drive the horse-drawn cart, which loops over his stubs; and a homemade catheter made from a drinking bottle, elastic strap and plastic tube made watertight with insulation tape.
A sense of pride in his work that stems from childhood fuses his exhaustive daily tasks with a purpose that goes some way to explaining his relentless drive.
“Year by year, I celebrate my birthday with work,” says Szuhányi, noting he was born in June, the month of hay. That is the start of the season and work starts with it. "So many times, I don’t even remember I have a birthday," he says.
“When people go to a football game they have a passion for it, they follow the game with their eyes and heart. This is how I feel if I see the haystack rising. I feel uplifted, more complete. That it is my mission.
“I told myself I would rather walk for 100 kilometers on my own two feet than sit for one day, trapped between four walls.”
During the next half an hour, Szuhányi works with a focused sense of purpose.
He ploughs, rakes and swings a scythe through the knee-high grass with controlled swivels of his upper body.
These are but some of his daily chores, which range from milking and scrubbing the family’s nine cows with self-made prosthetics, to collecting firewood, tending to the vegetables and lugging the milk two miles away to sell.
Watching on, Emilia, who initially worked as a helper for Szuhányi when his mother died, says she couldn’t believe his self-sufficiency when they first met.
“At first I thought it was going to be hard for me, but then, when he was healthy, he used to work a lot, alone. He did it all, the hay, the raking, the haystacks. I was amazed,” she recalls, adding, “When he was healthy, you couldn’t stop him, just like now. It is his ambition; ambition takes hold of him.”
Sitting inside as the day darkens, Szuhányi looks over at Stefan, who is playing behind him on the couch. Szuhányi’s eyes fill with tears.
“I want more for my children. I was raised, instructed in a certain way…” He stops, looks out the window and pauses before continuing. “I feel only happiness, not shame.”
Driven by the lessons of his father, Szuhányi has built his own family, one haystack at a time. Without a significant intervention, these are lessons Stefan will struggle to inherit. His dad, however, is determined to try.
“Our parents’ words are not forgotten. They still remain in the memory, in the history of our lives,” he says.
“The times have changed a lot, of course, but in order to make it through we still need to remember the advice, the lessons our parents have taught us.”
As Szuhányi’s ability to work diminishes, the family is hoping twenty-year-old Laura, Emilia’s daughter from a previous marriage, might get married soon, to bring another worker to the farm.
His most intense fear, Szuhányi says, is being alone, an anxiety fueled by his physical condition, which he describes as feeling like waking up with his hands tied behind his back.
“I am sad when I find myself lonely,” he says. “Even an hour when my family is out for a little while, to me it feels like a year.”
He leans over and kisses Emilia, who has brought him a glass of water.
“I searched hard for someone to be with me, someone to share the burden,” he says. “We have been married thirteen years and still kiss like we’re sixteen.”