When Boston’s Children’s Hospital deposited me and my small bag of belongings onto the sidewalk with my mother I was about to leave a place where all the other kids had handicaps like mine, and the adults had the job of equipping us to get around in our new state of paralysis.
Nobody asked questions about “What happened to you?” or “How come you can’t walk right?” Everybody knew and everybody had their own stories. We were equal opportunity story tellers.
These were pre-highway days, when this thirty mile trip was bumpy and twisty — perfect conditions to induce car sickness. As my mother piloted our way home in an old black Pontiac through Boston’s twisty streets, then out onto state roads where the speed limit was no more than 40 mph, I sat beside her, being not-so-quietly upset. In between bouts of retching I looked at the various homes and small businesses we passed, feeling entirely ready to set out on my own changed terms. If my stomach would just behave with all the stops and starts, my mother’s uneven foot on the gas pedal.
Too bad I couldn’t get into the back seat of the two-door sedan. I would have been less carsick there. And too bad for my hungry mother, who had missed breakfast and wanted to stop at a shiny silver diner for a tuna sandwich. “No, NO!” I screeched at the sight of the parking lot. The thought of food smells was intolerable. The poor woman went on with her long fast a good while more.
Now the memory is almost surreal. Us in the ancient two door Pontiac, Mother bravely coaxing the best performance out of it that she could, this tiny, noisy me beside her clutching a bowl to my chest. It should have been a joyful occasion. Maybe it was, on some level, but her nervous driving and hungry, brain fogged condition coupled with my stomach upset and imperious behavior suggest, now, several excellent reasons why she was so happy once I’d grown up.
In looking back I’m struck by how different a six-year-old’s views are from those of my current age group — the folks with silvery hair and lots of crinkles in their faces. Or maybe not so different for some of us. The only thing I feared then was getting carsick again. Now I’d probably fuss about how people would react to my new status as a mobility challenged individual. Or — more likely — I’d just want lunch. Having conquered car sickness.
It wasn’t long before I learned the respect of dry, dust free floors, how much safer they were for wooden crutches than floors with slippery things on them. It wasn’t long before I learned how to pick myself up via chairs with my new, rigid legs in the metal braces that you couldn’t bend when you were standing, or trying to. And it wasn’t long before I got tired of displaying my latest black and blues from my various splats to the floor.
For outdoor exercise it was now my job to plod, in a wobbly way, down the street where I had formerly flown, leaving my slower grandmother behind. Now she was speeding ahead of me, frequently pausing to let me catch up. Donny simply ran circles around and around us. Back and forth, ahead and behind. Up and down the hilly spots — daring me to follow him.
Barking dogs and vicious ones were something I had to learn to handle, there was no getting away from them. Somebody’s big grey goose waddled through a fence to bite me.
I took the whole thing as it came, figuring that I just had to get the walking thing under control and the good adventures would recommence. Don’t look at the dogs, keep plodding. Imagine fresh goose eggs, or roast goose for dinner…
Happen they did, speedily, since the hospital had released me soon before I was due to start first grade in the town’s elementary school. And there lay the place where my rubber met everyone else’s road.
I became the novelty in short order when my mother chauffeured me to the school that her architect father had designed. The teacher, Mrs. Hastings, was aware that I was coming, that special adaptations would become necessary, and she had gathered the entire class in the parking lot to greet me. It was quite something for me to see how perfect they were, no crutches or wheelchairs, legs moving, standing on their own. To them I was a wonder in leg irons and Buster Brown shoes. What I remember is smiling at them all with true bliss because I was thrilled to be back in the “real” world once again. The fellow handicapped children recently so close receded. This, before me, was the world I had been so much longer accustomed to, what I had been longing for over the past year spent mainly in hospitals.
Yet it wasn’t long before I was rather missing my peers at Children’s Hospital, wondering how they were getting along.
At first I was to be allowed only half days on the grounds that it was fairly difficult to get up and down from the hard little wooden chairs in the classroom, and that using the bathroom — nothing was handicap friendly back then — took about fifteen minutes and a great deal of effort. A room “mother” had to stay with me.
The thing about leg braces when your legs are paralyzed is that you can’t bend your knees in getting up and down — or you will simply go down all the way to the floor — so you wind up shoving up hard with your arms. This takes not only practice, but developing serious arm muscles in a hurry — and my arms had also been paralyzed for a while, and were slowly regaining to near normal. You also need to fine tune your sense of balance, to keep your mind on it a whole lot more than you did before.
Recess was the highlight of my time in the first grade. It was fun to leave the stuffy classroom in favor of brilliant autumn days, to share stories with a few friendly kids, and wonder why it was that some others were careful to keep as far away from me as possible.
And so my re-introduction to “normal” people and places became gradual rather than sudden immersion. My time in school was cut short that first year. For the reasons above, as well as for frequent trips back to Boston for checkups that took entire days out of my learning schedule. Plus I was growing fast enough to need new braces and crutches, and that process also took much time.
A couple of experimentally minded doctors decided to invent a back brace, and I became an early guinea pig. I was duly suspended by the neck from a hospital ceiling to be casted, then a couple of weeks later presented with a hideous wrap around of solid brown material that covered my hips, had rods with screws to adjust their length running up from that lower piece to two arms that wrapped around my ribs. Tightly, very tightly. Sitting down in that thing was well nigh impossible.
That back brace squashed my rib cage for life. Its purpose was to prevent later scoliosis that would result from the few working abdominal muscles being stronger on one side than the other. The brace failed miserably in that respect.
Back to the beginnings of my bizarre elementary school education: The school principal, an old family friend, volunteered to come to our house a few days a week to tutor me.
These arrangements were fine with me. Nobody was bringing me flowers and toys any more, my brother was happier and it was awfully good to be home again. Miss Lillian Dunn was lively and fun when she would look at the work I’d done for her, and she never got tired of answering my endless questions about anything from hand writing to how tadpoles shed their tails and where were the stars, really?
But her endless patience could be hard on her — once or twice she passed out during our sessions in the living room. Miss Dunn had diabetes and she did not always remember to eat something before heading to our house. I have memories of my mother rushing in with glasses of orange juice for her.
Which all was of much interest to me — adults also have trouble with physical challenges, and they don’t all show.
By the time second grade began I was more than ready for the school’s physical challenges, and had been brought up to speed about why it was that some of the kids had been avoiding me. They were being firmly indoctrinated by parents in the imaginary perils of being around someone who had had polio. They thought I would give them the disease.
My mother, the public health nurse, had spent quite a bit of time, while I was at home during the first grade, in contacting and visiting some of the families who thought I was still contagious, explaining how once a person had gone through the acute stage of polio the virus became inactive, and would remain so.
For my part I adored hearing the stories she brought back from some of these visits. Never a gossip or a bit malicious, my mother shared key explanations of people’s backgrounds, what contributed to their misunderstandings. And no doubt to other things they thought. She had compassion for those who had little education and a lot of hard work in their lives.
And then there was the German woman, who had a daughter in my class. I will call her Mrs. J… My mother merely noted that Mrs. J had once “taken care of the German soldiers during their off time.” And let drop the fact that, in company with a German officer or two, she had gone skinny dipping in the Rhine during Allied bombing — glasses of champagne at the ready.
I wondered what kind of care of soldiers that was, exactly, but Mother never answered with more than a glare. It was obvious that science was not something that mattered to Mrs. J, and that was the reason for her daughter giving me a very wide berth at school.
Decades later, when I had my first newspaper job, some long-time fire fighters told me about how visitors to the J family home were sometimes shocked on approaching to see a bare butt sticking out of a kitchen window, the owner doing her business. That was, evidently, Mrs. J.
What a crazy town I was trying to re-integrate into! It’s a good thing that I didn’t know the half of it at the time.