Molly's Polio


On the left is my mother as a young woman, on the right as she was as I always knew her, in a wheelchair and her arms in contraptions that supported them and gave her some measure of enablement.  You will notice that in both, her glance is fearless and unself-conscious; she always met life head-on...

In what I guess was the summer of '48, my mother caught polio, perhaps from me or my brother.  We had been vacationing in the Pocono mountains, and there is one last movie of Molly with Bill and I at the edge of a swimming pool.   It was soon evident that Molly, who was rarely ill, was seriously so and then that she had polio.  Our good good friend, Dr. Adler, was Dean of the UPenn medical school; he cleared a ward, so that Molly, highly contagious, could be hospitalized and placed in an iron lung that "breathed" for her.  Molly never spoke to me of that time, except to say, once, that the pain of polio was having a tooth pulled....all over your body.  When the disease had run its course, she was left with the ability to move her head and very weak abilities in her arms and hands; she went for rehabilitation at Warm Springs, Georgia (where FDR had been treated).  She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair or bed.  With her arms supported by ball-bearing glides (one of which you can see at the bottom left of the right-hand picture), she could feed herself, dial a phone or turn the pages of a book in a rack; she could lift nothing heavier than a fork with food on it (and certainly not her arms themselves or herself).

I never once heard her complain.

This winter, my step-mother Biddy came across some old letters from Philadelphia.  In them was this letter of Molly's, written a year after the disease had struck.  What spirit she had; she remains my exemplar of courage.

Last year at this time. I was up and about on my two busy feet eagerly beginning our last fall and winter in Philadelphia.  This year, I am up and about also---but in a wheel chair and counting myself fortunate to be so.  Then we had just completed a wonderful and adventurous summer--driving West, working in the Democratic national convention, weekending with friends at the shore---and were thinking how best we could savour and enjoy this final year of my husband's fellowship in the City of Brotherly Love and the host of beloved friends we had made there.  Now we are at the end of another busy summer--having gotten over the first, and we hope biggest, hump of adjusting (an ugly word, but polio is full of it) to life in a world for unhandicapped persons.  We justly count ourselves experienced, if not sophisticated, in the matter of servants; and now we are equipped to run our household with other hand at my direction, and we are eager and curious to see what time is going to bring.

The first warning, although we didn't recognize it as such, came one night as we were getting to bed, and I voiced something that had been with me all day, but which I'd been to busy to note consciously: "I have a funny pain high in my back", I said, "It doesn't hurt much but it just doesn't go away."  That was on a Tuesday night and the following Sunday late, I was in the hospital too agonized to care to much when my husband said goodnight and back home to two neglected little waifs we had left behind crying to see their mother carried out.  The next morning before daylight, I was in a respirator, horrid and blessed monster, and the ensuing week I know nothing of, which is all right by me.  I remember only snatches now and then of a frantically worried husband standing over me, and my thinking how silly he was to take it so seriously, nothing ever happened to me.  I was LUCKY.  And so I was.  Our two sons never contracted the disease---or if they did, it was that nice mild form that passes without notice.  Neither did Wy get it, and he has been busy all this year producing substitutes for my missing muscles.  We had two loving families to help us, to care for our two sons and to get ready for us a house in which to resume our life as a family.
Everything about polio is long and slow, excepting the speed with which it stops your stride.  It takes a long long time to believe it.  For two months I never looked at anything but ceilings until I felt sure I had memorized the top of every hall and corridor, elevator, treatment room and a good many just plain rooms in the hospital.  I recall in the respirator thinking how I would be back at home by Thanksgiving to bake a blackberry pie from the canned wild blackberries that our oldest boy had picked on the hill above his grandmother's house while we were being giddy and irresponsible somewhere out west.  As it turned out, by Thanksgiving I was just beginning to feel comfortable enough to bear the pain of being turned on my stomach.  And by Thanksgiving too, I was increasing the scope of reality to absorb the possible fact that I might not walk again.  It took me longer to face the fact that I wouldn't be able to do all I might wish with my arms.  By then, though, I had learned to appreciate the compensation of a good trunk [torso], and breathing muscles returned to normal [SD note: She exaggerates: she didn't have the strength to cough well and colds, bronchitis and the like were dangerous].
I have not had any great spiritual difficulties to solve, and although I can't deny a normal amount of emotional trouble, there has been very little that we have been unable to work out in the family.

That was my mother: Pure grit.  Pure, simple courage.  The truest courage: not the Hollywood sort of bulging muscles and violence, but of weakened, nearly absent muscles and an indomitable will to go on in a life where physical action may have been denied, but mind, courage, spirit and love burned all the brighter in compensation. 

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