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.



29 thoughts on “Polio

  1. It sounds like, you have found peace with your Polio, Michael. I think, that there are just as many side effects, as there are humans and both physical and mental pain, when suffering such an illness.
    Wish Jennie a wonderful trip and take good care of yourself.

    1. Thank you, Irene.
      I’m not sure one finds peace with Polio, but mutual respect might do, eh?
      I know you know about illness and hospitals. I have been thinking over the past few days that I am grateful the antibiotics enabled you to remain with us. Illness is so complex and yet, perhaps we live through it and are changed
      in good ways. I’d rather change were easier but…..

      1. Respect might do, I agree 🙂
        Sometimes antibiotics are the only thing to keep us alive, no matter what bad side effects, they later show us to have and I got my part this time…
        I would also prefer to change easier, but yes…

  2. I keep telling those who would listen, at times pain gives you knowledge and strength that happiness does not. I empathize with you. Hope life will start looking up.

      1. Disagree dear, if acceptance gives you peace, by all means go for it but don’t give up on solutions, one may hit you sometime and if your mind is open, it may find its way in the right place. Good luck.

  3. I want to embrace that 7 year old in his loneliness, be present to him, listen to his terrors and sadness and allow compassion to arise and transcend the feelings. You are everything that has brought you to this moment, and you are a beautiful soul, Michael.

    1. Oddly, or perhaps not, I cannot imagine my own terror, even as I feel parts of it at times. Psyche does its best to protect us, eh?
      Yet in these times when illness and disability are again stigmatized, we must, I believe, somehow touch that which is painful and insist they be just part of being human, and be honored as such.

    1. Hi Noel, I’m no longer convinced that knowledge and understanding go hand and hand. Of course, that does not stop me from wanting understanding, or knowledge for that matter. I seek both. How human, eh?

  4. This is painful and beautiful and so very brave. Thank you for sharing this part of your story Michael. Even in the darkness, there is a compassionate beauty in you that cannot be dimmed. You are an inspiration.

    1. Thank you. I am always hesitant to write about Polio and other personal topics, even as I know that writing is so very important, and not only for me. I have a life-long Midwestern reticence that shows little desire to lessen.

  5. thank you for expressing this difficult medical past,
    accentuated by this recent bitter cold.
    i’m sorry to hear of such hurt
    and wish you continued success
    easing pains & nurturing
    the beauty within and all around you, Micheal 🙂

    1. Thank you, as always your generosity of spirit touches me deeply. The illness, and the ongoing effects, wre and are , challenging. They have also been a boon. Sigh. So complex, eh?!

  6. Hi Michael. I was so touched by your writing that it took me the week-end before I am able to respond. My first response, like Scillagrace, was to take your 7 year old self into my arms and hold him securely until his terror and loneliness subside. My own response to abuse was to not trust anyone, deciding at 4 that I could take care of myself. Strange how, in various ways, when we are abandoned and abused (by others or by fate) at a young age we choose to not trust at some primal level. You have reminded me of the terror I experienced as I faced the horrific boogeymen of fear and shame. But of course you know how hard emotional healing is. One of the first things that I had to do was for my adult self to respond to my bruised 4-year-old in a way that led to her allowing me to comfort and protect her. I am still, very slowly, trying to touch the horror I experienced of rape and forced illegal abortion as a early teen. That part hasn’t been integrated into my self, yet. All that is to say that I think I understand the internal struggles that aging and your recurring symptoms are poking at – even though I have no way of understanding the terror of having polio. I know I am struggling with what I want to say to you – but I think it is something along the lines of: Even though you had to go through the polio alone, and your life-long struggle to achieve mental and emotional healing has been a path only you could forge (once again alone even though protected by competent, compassionate healers), and only you know those dark places that you would like to expose to light — there are others of us out here who are walking along side you and we understand what you are going through. Your strength and courage are inspiring me to keep working at being who I am deep within my soul instead of the identity my parents imprinted upon my young brain. Michael, your writing (which is all I know of you) reflects a spirit that is so beautiful and loving, drawing people close to you. How different from the body that is scared, deformed, and experiences way too much pain. My wish for you for 2018 is that your 7 year old self will increasingly experience the nurturing and companionship of the loving network of people that you have created for yourself. I am struggling with my sense of belonging, especially as aging and pain pulls toward isolation. It looks like both of us need to learn how to accept and integrate the anger, pain, shame, sadness and loneliness that we have buried deep within and that you wrote of getting glimpses of. I catch these glimpses, too, but through a mirror very dimly. I think I need to start journaling again because, like you, I’m not comfortable posting on the internet much of internal work I need to do.

    1. Dear Pat, thank you for writing this profoundly moving response. I have sat with it several time, allowing your words to soak in, and imagining how I might respond. One of the truly painful things that arose from Polio was the realization that I could not take care of myself. For a while I could barely move, let alone do the tasks of daily life, like eating. I am still trying to make space for that total helplessness, as well as to somehow aid those in the inner worlds to know we are no longer helpless.
      I think that my experiences of abuse and incest form a sort of sandwich with the Polio in the middle. At some point in my teens they stopped. I cannot truly imagine what you endured, although I have sat and listened to many stories. I can only use my experiences as a way into yours, and there are some doors that seem barred, especially into the experience of a forced abortion. I re-read your words about going through Polio alone and know that you speak from experience, that you faced much alone and that you, too, learned to trust no one, perhaps even those who might have helped make life easier. I. too, am struggling with aging, with the threat of isolation; the winter, of course, intensifies this. Still, I have many opportunities for companionship, both physical and on-line, and am experimenting with them. I imagine that we share that trait of smart kids who are hurt deeply when young: finding conversations that have no depth unendurable. That said, I must add that I love to laugh and play, skills that I have reclaimed over the years and hold dear. There are also my beloved cameras and the possibilities inherent in a well stocked studio overlooking the woods. Perhaps I am learning to accept solace where I can, and when offered by trustworthy others. As to posting our healing work online, it seems to me there is a line that is always changing but which encourages sharing, abet carefully and with discretion. It can be difficult to know just where the line lies, eh?

  7. Michael, this piece touched my soul in a way that me feel like I was there…witnessing the whole thing! Yes…I would say that you experience flashbacks…they don’t have to be actual memories tied to a vision…sometimes it is just a ‘feeling.’ But the emotional memories can have very profound effects.
    I know I have shared that my Mom had polio when she was 18 months old. She doesn’t remember anything about that time but she had many surgeries when she was about 7 and she very recently shares with me about that. The most telling thing, and apparently something she has never forgotten, is that when she went to high school the gym teacher would not allow her to participate! She said she did everything in middle school but was prohibited from taking gym in H.S. And to this day it bothers Her!
    Sending warm wishes (yes WARM 😉) And blessings for a wonderful week.

    1. Hi Lorrie, I had only one surgery, at age 13, that kept me in the hospital for six weeks and was amazingly retraumatizing. Given my experience, I can’t imagine the horror of hospital and polio at 18 months.
      Oddly, my gym teachers were furious with me for NOT being able to participate fully in class. No winning I guess.

      1. There you go!
        Thanks for sharing your personal story. I want to read it to my Mom. I think she was so isolated by the disease. I know she never wore dresses…always pants. I guess we all have things.
        Many blessings…stay warm up there 🙂

      2. I will sit with her tomorrow and read your words, Michael. I don’t think I ever realized the isolation she must have felt! Thank you for sharing and enlightening me. Blessings

      3. Lorrie, there are a few Facebook groups for polio survivors. My personal favorite is Post Polio Syndrome, a truly worldwide gathering of polio survivors. There are polio support groups in many states.

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