Fifty-one years ago today, on a Sunday morning, I got up for breakfast with the rest of my family. The steps I took from my bed to the kitchen table were the last unassisted steps I would ever take.
By dinner time, I would be in the hospital on an isolation unit. I would not see home, my baby sister, or my new puppy for another six weeks. I would not ride my pony again for more than six months. I would not see the inside of a school room again until the following September.
I had polio.
Every fall, my body remembers, even if I do not seem to myself. I get a case of the blues that lasts until after the holidays. Which is weird, because I seem (at least to myself) pretty well-adjusted otherwise.
I was thinking about this a little bit to myself this morning as I was getting ready to go to work, and I think for the first time it really dawned on me how traumatic that must have been to a seven-year-old kid. I'm pretty sure, for example, that I had never spent the night away from home except at my grandparents', which hardly counts. I certainly had never spent six weeks away from home. And then there's all the constant little daily traumas that go with being in the hospital: Shots, pills, strangers poking at you at all hours of the day and night. High fevers, drug-induced nightmares, loneliness, boredom, and in my case also a spinal tap or two and daily hot packs.
Not to mention, it changed my life--and to some degree, my whole family's--forever. And these changes would make childhood and adolescence damned difficult. My parents were both accomplished equestrians, and I would never be a good rider with one paralyzed hip and leg. I would not be able to participate in phys ed with the rest of the kids, or dance in high school.
I certainly was not marriageable, as it was then defined. All my clothes--especially my shoes--would forever after look weird. Skirts hung crookedly because I was crooked. Slacks that fit on one side did not on the other. The toes of my left shoes sometimes stuck up in the air. And I could never wear nice shoes because they couldn't hold up to the bracing. I fell constantly.
Most of this is so irrelevant to my life as an adult as to actually be hard to dredge up from the deep cellars of memory for the writing of this list. I am married. We don't have phys ed at the office. I don't have the time or the money to ride any more anyway. And yet all these things, I think, swirl around in my subconscious come November every year.
There is also much to be grateful for, in the It Could Have Been So Much Worse department: My family could afford my medical care. Some kids died. I'm only a monoplegic, whereas many kids emerged as paras. I came to my post-polio symptoms decades after many of my peers, and despite them I am still working. Some of my peers cannot. I did ride again--and swim, and hike. I even went backpacking once. I probably never would have chosen the career I did had I been able-bodied, and I do love my work. Trust me when I say, I'm grateful for it all.
And yet, every fall, the body remembers.