You can only wobble around hospital corridors, showing off your new skills with leg braces by kicking your popular young doctor in front of his peers, for so long.
Children’s Hospital discharged me just before I was due to start first grade, at the age of six. Oddly, I remember almost nothing about the event, in contrast with clear recollections of leaving Haynes the previous year.
What I do vividly recall is our family’s registered nurses — mother and grandmother — pulling and pushing the heck out of my legs as I lay on a high, hard table they’d acquired just for physical therapy sessions. And, since the only bathroom the old farmhouse had was upstairs, I remember a bedside commode (which I hated) and taking baths in the kitchen, in an antique metal tub that people filled by hauling containers of water from the sink. Later it was emptied by the same timeless method, but out the back door.
Before writing about my truncated elementary school career — evading twits, nits and kids demanding to know “Can you still have babies?” — there are two side-themes to the life of an athletic girl sideswiped by paralytic polio that need mention. My tow headed younger brother, and certain problems with gift giving. Gifts showered upon me, that is.
Donnie and our mother had also contracted polio during our pond swim on Cape Cod in August, 1953, and though bad-flu sick, both recovered well. At the age of three Donnie — whom my mother, at moments of stress in coping with me, unfortunately revealed was a child she had not anticipated and, in fact, had not wanted at the age of 43 — was used to his big sister taking care of him. He arose from his sick bed after ten days and his main companion was still gone. Dire stories, frightened remarks about her, the fears of both father and mother over her future — these things wore heavily on him. And at that age he didn’t have words to share his feelings.
It was a state of mind from which he never recovered in his short life. All the more because when he was seven and I was nine our grandmother, his mainstay during my absence and the person who called him “my best friend”, died as an apparent suicide. She threw herself in front of a speeding car one dark July night. Family whispers had it that she felt she was becoming a burden on two of her three children.
I’m grateful, now, that she was there for Donnie during the first years of our family’s adaptations. In many ways those were the best years of his life, as he got a lot of attention from her. He needed that.
People have some pretty twisted ideas about what being a burden truly means.
On the morning when my aunt and uncle carried me off to Haynes Memorial Hospital thirty miles north Donnie, sick though he was, hid behind a big chair and would not come out for Grammie for hours. She herself was “worn to a frazzle” after days and nights of tending three extremely sick family members. Her only sleep had been in a rocking chair during that long period. Our father, who hadn’t joined us for swimming, went off to work nearly every day, as usual.
Even the family doctor, also exhausted from the many home visits he was making in this polio epidemic, refused to come the night my fever passed 105º. So Grammie, seventy four years old, under 5 feet and below 90 pounds, kept me in cool water in the bath tub upstairs all night. She had to carry me upstairs first. Her efforts saved my life.
When I made my semi-triumphant return home a year later, Donnie was still hiding behind things. We learned quickly that much had to change in sibling relations. Rather than me leading him around by the hand, or even carrying him, now he had to help me with things. I think, now, that might have been a positive thing for him except for:
The advent of the gift givers.
The front door had barely closed behind me before hoards of people — mostly “ladies groups” — were pounding on it, wanting to personally deliver special gifts to the little girl who’d survived that awful disease. Being shy, Donnie would hide behind something as they entered whatever room I was in. True, his behavior did nothing to suggest that at least some bit of attention should be given to the cute little boy over there. Mostly they left without even a smile for him; for that my heart hardened towards them. Not a good word, nor a present in recognition of his efforts as a helpful little brother.
Possibly our mother was still too shocked and wrapped up in her many new responsibilities to tactfully work in a mention of Donnie to these gift bringers. Whatever the reason, a smoldering began in my heart, though I could not verbalize reasons for this.
Mission accomplished, they’d given the little girl a nice doll, another stuffed animal, a beautiful pin. They left feeling pleased with themselves.
My mother later told me that I met the onslaught of curious visitors “like a queen”, sitting straight up on a chair with my braced feet sticking out at right angles, rather than hanging down like regular feet, dark brown knee pads prominent below my skirts. What I remember about it was, perversely, a growing resentment with each new beautifully wrapped box that was placed in my hands, with reams of ribbons, cards to be opened and saved for later thank you letters. I would look at my little brother, look at my mother, anywhere but at these people who seemed determined to swamp me in saccharine comments such as “How beautiful you look!” and “What an angel!”.
These were some of the same people who had kept my hospital rooms overflowing with lovely flowers and various “girl toys” like dolls, more dolls and stuff for dolls. Evidently no one asked what kinds of things I liked, or had been informed that this particular girl preferred matchbox vehicles and plastic action figure horses to sock monkeys and blue eyed dollies with golden ringlets, smelling of talcum powder. Hence, while my mother thanked everyone on my behalf, I wasn’t as grateful as I might have been.
The gift I received with love and exclamations of joy was from my grandmother, and I have it still — a small Golden Guide to insects. I would make up stories about the most fantastic looking of the creatures in that book. Later, when I could once again get around outdoors, it was fun to figure out identities of some bugs.
I guess I was still acting out against my new condition, though what I remember is being eager to get on with life and done with the emotionalizing business. What I wanted was to be outdoors, wandering along the earthen dam by our favorite stream, visiting the big draft horses over at my great-uncle’s barn, watching birds and squirrels in the forest … Climbing trees!
What I got was: Time to get ready for school! Which involved not so much getting new clothing and lunch boxes as it did hours of painful physical therapy, and my mother’s endless conversations with future teachers. Fuzzy Wuzzy was also frequently contacted.
And Donnie… He never really got over the need to hide when troubled. But his is a different story. I will say that he died in a car wreck, with a good friend, a month after he turned twenty. As with our grandmother, a possible suicide. Our mother felt quite sure he had decided not to care what happened to him when he, and his equally Vietnam-draft-bothered friend took Donnie’s new muscle car for a 100+ mph drive one rainy May night. On a tiny, winding road in the forest a few miles from home there was no shoulder, only big trees to crash into when the car skidded. It was a spectacular accident, with the engine flying over phone lines and starting a fire in the woods, rain and all.
Me, I just suspected both guys believed that they were not subject to ordinary laws of physics.
We were, of course, not foreseeing these events when it was time for me and my squeaky, pinchy new leg braces with the hideous brown lace-up shoes to make my appearance in the town’s single elementary school.
The three-and-a-half years I spent there brought on all sorts of challenges. ranging from learning to climb stairs again to parents who gave firm orders to their children not to have a thing to do with Emmie Lee — “She’ll give you polio!”
Good thing my mother had had a long career as a public health nurse from coast to coast before she married my dad. … Wasn’t it?