Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My Mother and Polio

There's a reason why I don't get into arguments with anti-vaxxers.

My mother had polio when she was a young child, maybe a year older than Secondborn is now. Prior to that, she'd been a very active little girl -- the fastest runner on her block, she once told me.

Then she came down with polio.

It was during one of the big outbreaks, and for my mother it was a very convincing approximation of the end of the world. She was sent off to Warm Springs, while her sisters were sent to live with other family members and her parents were... otherwise engaged. (I realize I'm being vague here, but I'm trying to give you a feel for just how completely horrible and terrifying this was, without providing specific names and dates.) She stayed there not just for the course of the disease, but for the recovery and rehabilitation period that followed.

It's fair to say that my mother's entire life was shaped by what polio did to her, and by what she refused to let it do to her.

She wound up paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors told her she would never walk again, that she would spend her life in bed or in a wheelchair. She didn't. She got braces to hold her legs straight, and learned to walk with crutches. Have you ever sat down and watched a turtle walk? They don't move quickly, but they're determined and they just keep moving... and as a result they cover a surprising amount of ground. My mother moved like that.

When my father first proposed to her, she told him that he didn't want to marry her. The doctors had told her that polio had strained her heart. She wouldn't live past thirty-five. The doctors had also told her she would never have children. My father, to his credit, said: "I'll take it." If you've ever met him, you'll understand just how him that sort of reply was. If you've ever met my mother, you'll understand why he would think it was worth it.

I was born when she was just into her thirties, and my brother a few years later, and the doctors be damned, I'm sure she thought. Quite frankly, I'm pretty sure that's what she thought for a great deal of her life. She distrusted doctors, aside from the few she knew personally (and with good reason, especially in later years).

What she lacked in mobility she made up in cleverness and planning -- and in some cases, sheer determination. She became a psychologist and family/marriage/personal counselor, using an uncanny ability to see patterns[1] to address not only what people told her, but what they weren't telling her. She plotted strategies and fall-back plans, in the kind of detail that would make most people shake their heads, baffled and unable to follow. All through my youth, right up to the time I left for college, she kept the entire family fed on a grocery budget that never went much above $100 per week.

I've said before, though probably not on the Blog o' Doom here, that my perception of gender roles was a bit unusual. My dad held jobs and made money, but he wasn't always aware enough to realize when things were going bad. (He was, however, always talented enough to move on to something else -- often something completely different.) So my mother was the reliable breadwinner. She was also the organizer, the rule-maker, the consequence-giver. Dad was the nurturer, the encourager, the supporter. (It was only later that I realized just how much strength he carried in his own right.)

Where Mom had character flaws, they were... well, they were her strengths and coping mechanisms when they got carried or pushed too far. She could get set on a plan and be unable to set it aside -- even when it involved other people who wanted to do things another way. She could hit things that triggered those childhood memories -- anything involving hospital visits, to pick an obvious example -- and just sort of panic... and freeze up. She didn't want to go to them; she didn't want to admit that she might need them; she didn't want to talk about them. She could get too clever for her own good.

She was terrified of being trapped in a wheelchair. It sounds very pop-psychology to blame that on her childhood, but the connection is bleakly clear. She didn't want to be reliant on other people, with my father as a general exception. She was especially scared of being reliant on people who didn't know what she was going through. Self-determination was massively important to her, and if you think that didn't shape my life and her role in it then you're delusional. (Though if you knew my mom, you know that.) I think that's why, despite her Catholic upbringing, she never much pushed me about my atheism, or about baptizing the boys, or even about keeping them in church. Yes, she saw patterns, and she knew how that sort of conflict would end; but that wasn't why she relented. She felt, bone-deep, that it had to be my choice.

I wish I could quote you the eulogies given for my mother. One was from one of her oldest and closest friends, the one whose firstborn child came along at almost exactly the same time I did. The other was from her husband, my father. Despite everything I've written here, I feel like both of them captured a general sense of her life better than I've even come close to.

But I know that one of her deepest fears was being weak, being helpless. Posit the wheelchair as the symbol of that, and I won't argue. I know that fear myself. And when I say that this was exactly the way she would have wanted to go, I'm not lying, I'm not telling tales, I'm not obfuscating, I'm not even exaggerating. This was what she wanted: a quick, clean death, before my father, before she deteriorated[2], before she was helpless.

It's a comfort, even if it doesn't sound like one.

The priest offered the image of my mother in Heaven, her body and mobility restored, cavorting and cartwheeling and racing and dancing. It was a comforting image, I suppose, but it's not one that makes me feel better. I take my comfort in knowing that my mother refused to be restricted by her disabilities, and died before polio could finally rob her of her dignity and grace.

[1] I'm not sure how much was innate and how much practice, but I suspect it a talent that she pushed for everything it would give her.

[2] And if you know anything about Post-Polio Syndrome, you know that was coming. It had already started.[3]

[3] That's why I don't argue with anti-vaxxers. I have rational arguments, but I can't be rational about it. I go straight to homicidal.


  1. I've just gotten around to reading this Michael. She sounds like she was an amazing person, indeed.

  2. I've walked in your shoes and couldn't have said it any better. The vaccine was invented a year after my mother fell ill. She's now in her 70s. How I wish I could have ran beside her as a child. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you for reading it and sharing your own story.


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