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Guestwords: Polio Flashbacks

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 17:45

Tired. So tired . . . I want to lay my head down. So heavy. 

It’s 1947, a hot, late-summer afternoon in Bethesda, Md., where I’m in first grade at Bradley Elementary (named for Omar, the World War II general). I’ve walked my bike home on the path through the woods, past the spot where we kids hunt and eat wild strawberries at recess. Too weak to pedal. I’ve made it home by holding on to the handlebars and lying across the seat. A few steps. A few more. Another.

I sit on the back steps of our modest two-bedroom Cape at 5520 Lincoln Street (all our streets are named for presidents). Doubled over, my leaden head resting on a throw pillow, dozing. Wondering why I don’t feel like riding my bike, throwing my ball against the chimney, “reading” Gery’s Little Lulu comics, although I can’t read yet. Someone finds me. For the first time in my life I ask, “Can I go to bed?”

It’s night. I’m in my PJs and orange corduroy bathrobe, a hand-me-down from Gery. My mother sewed us matching robes when we still lived in Massachusetts. I’ve graduated to the larger one. Something’s wrong. I’m lying prone in the backseat of our old Chevy. My father’s driving, my mother’s in the passenger seat. Their muffled voices reach me but I can’t make out what they’re saying. I know something’s wrong. I’m afraid.

I’m alone in a narrow, white, brightly lit room. I’m lying on a white surface with silver edges like a giant tray. Heart racing. Where are my parents? My PJs? My orange bathrobe? I’m wearing a sort of gauzy sack with ties to hold it closed. My teeth are chattering. I’m freezing. I see through a small window that it’s dark out.

A tall, dark-haired doctor comes in. (I know he’s a doctor because he’s in white and has one of those things dangling from his neck that they put on your chest to listen to your insides.) His back is to me. He’s reading papers clipped to a board. In abject terror and desperation, I shakily speak to an adult, worse, a stranger: “When can I go home?” No answer. He does not turn around. I say it again, louder. Nothing. My words have no sound or meaning here. He leaves.

Out in the hallway someone says the word “isolation.” I know they’re talking about me.  ICE-olation. Ice. Cold. Alone. Terror.

I’m being shaken awake. It’s dark out. I’m made to sit up in bed, still asleep, and swallow a fat dropper of nasty brown stuff. I’m shaken awake and given a tan pressboard tray with indentations bearing portions of watery eggs, tepid oatmeal, canned juice, and toast slathered in undyed margarine. I’m warned to clean my “plate.” I do as I’m told. I’ve learned that children here are to be seen and not heard (and poked and prodded but otherwise ignored). I try to go back to sleep. It’s still dark out.

My parents have sent me a blond, curly-haired, stuffed dog with a collar. I name him Toby and make him outfits out of Kleenex. He sleeps with me. I’ve been moved from ICE-olation and am in a room with three other kids.

“Why are you here?”

“ ’Cause I have Possible-polio. So do you.”

 “Do not.”

 “Do too.”

 “What’s Possible-polio?”

 “It’s maybe you have polio.”

 “What’s polio?”

 “Shut up. Mind your beeswax.”

The girl next to me cries a lot. One day she throws up all over her crib. It stinks. She cries more. When the nurse sees it, Crybaby gets a royal tongue-lashing. I get the same when, in fright, I wet my bed at night. We are afraid of the nurse.

I’m making a necktie for beloved Toby. As I fasten it to his collar, he slips out of my hands and onto the floor, which I’ve been pretending is made of lava or quicksand. I have to save him! I pull myself over the metal crib rail and step down. Bam! I’m lying on the floor. I’ve banged my head. I try to scramble up, but my legs don’t move. What’s happening? Nurse Throw-Up (as I think of her) finds me and gives me what for. How dare I get out of bed? I am a naughty, naughty girl. If I ever do that again . . .

That’s how I learn that my legs are paralyzed.

Crybaby’s crib is empty and freshly made up. We never see her again.

The building we’re in — Children’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., later condemned — was built in the mid-18th century. It housed Civil War wounded in its day. It’s old and tired. The grim, gray, water-stained walls of our room are cracked and peeling. Bricks can be seen under missing plaster. One night I turn on my light and find the wall by my bed teeming with ants. Ivy covers most of the windows.

One memorable day, a nice nurse — there are some — opens the window, pulls the ivy aside, wheels my crib over to it, and says, “Surprise! Surprise! Look down!” Four floors below in an alley, far away and tiny, waving up at me, are my parents. “Mummy! Daddy!” I shout and wave. I hold Toby up to see. We call and wave and call and wave. Suddenly the window is slammed and the crib is jerked back, propelled by Nurse Throw-Up. What are you doing? This time I’m very, very bad. You’d think I’d moved the crib, opened the widow and — worst sin in her book — exposed myself to the outside air. I worry that the nice nurse is in trouble.

Hot packs: a special torture. Imagine canvas beanbags sewn together into a quilt. They’re heated to one degree below scalding and wrapped around me. Tight. I am then inserted into a metal drum and lie there until the heat dies down. More hot packs are applied. Repeat this forever. I hate it as much as I hate Nurse Throw-Up.

I’m in a long, wide, glass-ceilinged room. I can see the sky. Cots with kids line the fresh white walls. Is this heaven? Why I’m here, I do not know. It’s nice. Best of all, after a few days here, I learn I’m going home! As I’m getting ready to leave, my curly-haired Toby, companion and fashion plate (sporting a snappy new hat and tie for the ride), is taken away. He is to be burned. For the first and last time in this hellhole, I cry.

At home, I’m carried to my bed. I have a big brass school bell to ring (fun!) to signal that I need to be carried to the toilet. Red candy-coated pills are on the bedside table to be taken hourly. I lick the sweet, red coating off the pills and throw the resulting bitter white balls over my shoulder. They fall under the bed. So happy to be home.

When do I discover I can get to the bathroom by myself? If I scoot to the foot of my bed, slide off the right side, and hold on to the bedpost, I’m standing at my bedroom door — only five shaky steps from the toilet. Holding the wall, I can make it.

I don’t let on. I’m disobeying the rules — could get in trouble. As I already am, because my mother has discovered dozens of little white pills under my bed.

My cover is blown one day when she asks why I haven’t rung the bathroom bell. Engrossed in my coloring book (all boys wear blue pants and red shirts), I say, “Oh, I went already.” Oops. Stunned silence. Then: questions. Answers. I demonstrate. My mother runs to the phone to call my father. I am not in trouble.

Exercise: leg strength. Gery and I sit on the floor facing each other, holding hands. Our right legs are extended, the foot on the other’s left knee. Left legs are bent to the side on the floor with foot on our own thigh. We push and pull, back and forth, back and forth, feet pushing knees. My legs grow stronger. Gery takes credit for my recovery.

Exercise, a different kind: Dick, Jane, and Spot. I look forward to Tuesdays. Miss Weller, a second-grade teacher, arrives to tutor me in reading and arithmetic. I’m allowed to wear my black patent-leather Sunday shoes and party dress (white background, primary-color dots with black borders, like jolly typewriter keys). Miss Weller is young, beautiful, kind, and says she “can’t believe” how fast I’m learning. “Judy, you’re like a duck to water!” I’m in love. I dream of the day, next year, when she’ll be my teacher.

I’m back in the first-grade classroom at Bradley Elementary. Thanks to Miss Weller, I’m in the top reading group. Jimmy Larson, who, alphabetically, sits in front of me, refers to me as “the new girl.”

“I am not new,” I say indignantly. “I was out sick.”

“What with?”

“Possible-polio. It’s when you can’t walk.”

I am 9. I’m in the car with my friend Susan Karant. (We met in second grade. No, Miss Weller was not our teacher, alas.) Susan’s mother is driving. I’m bragging, “I can run faster than anyone in my class.” (At recess, when the boys chase the girls, catch them, and take them to “prison,” my boyfriend begs, “Judy, slow down!” so he can catch me.)

Mrs. Karant says, “If your mother could only have known, when you had polio, that someday you’d say that.” Fastest kid in fourth grade.


Judith Long, former copy chief at The Nation magazine, lives in Sag Harbor.


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