It is cold, so cold the schools are closed and folks are encouraged to stay home. Light snow falls intermittently and is blown about by a stiff breeze. We Vermonters are used to the cold but it has been several years since we have experienced weeks of brutal chill; unthinkably, it is too cold to ski.
Jennie often travels in order to teach during January and this year is no different; she heads off to Kenya on Sunday. Today she is scurrying about making final preparations. I will look forward to her tales of adventure.
I love winter even as I recognize that the season is, for me, saturated in complex emotion. I can remember being in the hospital, recovering from Polio, and, face pressed against the window, watching the snow fall. I would also carefully follow goings on in the childcare playground directly across from our ward. My mother worked in the center, although if my memory is accurate, it being winter I seldom saw her.
There were strict visiting hours on our ward, and few of them at that. My recollection is that, due to their work schedules, my parents often missed visiting hours, and I was intensely lonely. I also imagine they found visiting terrifying as they faced a room filled with children whose bodies, including mine, had been ravaged by the virus.
I was seven when I developed Polio, just old enough to have some sense that my parents cared, even if they could not visit as often as I would like. Unlike many Polio survivors who were younger when hospitalized, while I feel abandonment anxiety, I can usually tolerate being left to my own devices for goodly periods of time. Still, sometimes it is hard.
I don’t remember much about the acute phase of the virus. I used to ask my parents about what happened to me, about my symptoms and treatment. Usually they would simply say they didn’t know much and change the subject. I always thought they didn’t want to talk about it, and probably they didn’t, but it now occurs to me that the medical staff very likely told them little about my illness or my treatment. Most likely they truly had no idea what had happened to me.
I became ill over Labor Day weekend and stayed home from school for a week. Each day of that initial week seemed endless. My parents both worked and my sister, who was two, accompanied my mother to daycare so I spent each day alone. Each day I became more ill until, at the end of the week, I begged my parents to take me once more to the hospital where I was finally admitted, abet on the third visit.
That night I almost died. Indeed, the doctors apparently told my parents there was very little hope I would survive until morning. My mom and dad sat outside my room all night, waiting. I was given a tracheotomy without anesthesia (anesthesia could have made the paralysis worse) and placed in an iron lung where I would remain for eight days. That night, and during the next few days, I experienced what can only be described as unfathomable terror and abandonment. As far as I know, my parents, probably under doctor’s advice, never asked me about it.
When I was in high school and college I found the autumn and winter both beautiful and terrifying. Nighttime was the worst, and being alone at night was often quite nearly unendurable. The strange thing was that, although I told friends and therapists about the terror and loneliness, no one ever suggested I was experiencing flashbacks.
That ordeal took place over sixty years ago. Now I have a growing list of new Polio symptoms that mirror those I experienced during the acute phase of the illness. I am aware that within me live younger selves who carry memories that remain inaccessible to me, yet who feel alarm with each change to my body. I like to think that over my lifetime I have developed more compassion for them, that I am more open to them sharing their experiences with me. Maybe I am, although I am also aware that many of those experiences are laden with excruciating physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, pain I, perhaps similar to my parents, might rather not know about.