Silver and Tonto

Silver and Tonto   May 22, 2012

When I was stricken with polio at the age of twelve, I spent many weeks in a wheelchair, which I named Silver, after the Lone Ranger’s horse. Eventually I transitioned to walking sticks and then, as those of you who have read my memoir, Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, know, I was finally able to walk without assistance. It was an accomplishment that affected my outlook and personality for the rest of my life.

As Small Steps was being prepared for publication, my editor asked for a photo of me in my wheelchair to put on the book’s cover. I couldn’t find one, so I called my mother. She confessed that after I was able to walk again, she had destroyed every picture of me in the wheelchair. “I didn’t want to remember you that way,” she said.

Sixty-plus years later, one of my biggest problems from post-polio syndrome is fatigue. My increasingly weak muscles tire quickly and are prone to permanent damage if I over-use them. If I walk too far, especially on hard surfaces, I end up not only in pain, but with leg muscles that may not completely recover.

When I began making plans to attend my granddaughter’s college graduation, I knew from past visits to Whitman College that we would be doing a lot of walking to and from campus, and between buildings. We had a full schedule and I did not want to miss anything so l borrowed a wheelchair for the weekend. Anne, Kevin,  Eric, and Brett, were there to help push. Soon after we arrived Friday afternoon we decided to walk around campus to visit all of the places that had been so special during Brett’s four years there.

“Do you want the wheelchair?” Anne asked.  “No,” I said. “I’ve been sitting in the car for five hours; I need to move around.” I should have said yes. Even as I was saying no, I knew I would regret it, and I did. Long before we finished our campus tour, my legs hurt and I was over-tired.

Why had I not made use of the wheelchair that I had borrowed and that Kevin had wrestled into the trunk of the car? I’ve used a cane (named Alice) for ten years and have never minded that; I welcome the stability that Alice provides. Yet I was reluctant to use the wheelchair. A universal symbol of disability, the wheelchair represented everything I had fought so hard to overcome.

On Sat. morning as we left the hotel, I told my family that I wanted to use the wheelchair that day. As I sat in it the first time, I thought about my mother destroying those old photographs. I remembered how desperately I had worked to be strong enough to leave Silver behind. At the time, I had thought it was forever.

“Have you named this chair?” Kevin asked.

“Tonto,” I replied. “The Lone Ranger’s friend.” My friend, who would help me have energy for the important events of the day and who would prevent further damage to my weakened leg muscles.

I rode in Tonto to all of Saturday’s events, and I rode across campus on Sunday to Brett’s commencement ceremony.  What a joyous occasion! What a proud grandma! After the diplomas had been granted and the caps flung and the happy tears shed, Tonto waited to carry me to the graduation party.

For two days, Tonto was a true friend, saving me from needless pain and fatigue. At first it had seemed a defeat to return to a wheelchair, even temporarily, especially when polio was the cause. Now I see my decision as a triumph, a victory over fear and dread that enables me to preserve the strength I have left and to fully enjoy life’s celebrations. This time, I’ll keep the picture.


Let’s Pretend

One of my problems from post-polio syndrome is fatigue. It isn’t the normal feeling of being tired that happens after a busy day but rather a heaviness that drains my energy and makes even small activities seem overwhelming.

One day as I tried to talk myself into going to buy groceries I thought, Why don’t I just pretend that I have lots of energy and then act as if it’s true? So, that’s what I did. Telling myself that I felt great, I gathered my list, my coupons, and my purse and set off. When I got home, I was still fatigued, but I wasn’t any more tired than I would have been if I’d stayed in my recliner – and I was no longer out of cat food, an important achievement.

Since then, I often pretend that I feel better than I do. You feel great, I tell myself. You can answer all your fan mail this morning. You can write three pages on that new book. Most of the time, it works.

The post-polio syndrome isn’t gone, but pretending allows me to manage it better.  Of course, I’ve been pretending for years in other ways, making up events and characters and dialogue, and putting them on paper.  Authors are adept at pretending, and now I find it’s been good practice for real life.

A wonderful gift

Yesterday was my wedding anniversary. I met my friend, Mark Smithberg, for breakfast at Lil’ Jon’s, where we get the best cinnamon rolls in the world.

Carl and I used to go to Lil’ Jon’s often and Mark (our unofficial son) went with us many times, so it was a fitting place to start the day. We met yesterday because Mark had made a baby gift for my granddaughter’s upcoming baby shower and he needed to get it to me to take to the shower.

While we waited for our cinnamon rolls, Mark said, “Today is your wedding anniversary, isn’t it?” I was amazed that he would remember. When I said, “Yes,” he said, “Happy anniversary!” and handed me a gift.

Not just any old gift. It was a vintage player piano roll of a song that I did not even know existed: “The Franklin D. Roosevelt March.” Because FDR was a polio survivor, I’ve always had a special interest in him and, of course, I love to pump my old player piano.

This gift was a complete surprise, and it was perfect. A  loving friend’s thoughtfulness made me smile the entire day.

Why Small Steps has two covers

smallstepscover2.jpgWhen Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio was published, the editor wanted to use a picture of me in my wheelchair on the cover. I looked for one and learned that after I got well, my mother had destroyed all photos of me in the wheelchair because she didn’t want to remember that time. So we used a photo of Alice and Dorothy, two of my hospital roommates, instead.

smallstepscover1.jpgThis caused no end of confusion. Everyone wanted to know which of the girls in the photo was me. When the paperback was published and, later, the Tenth Anniversary edition, we used a picture of me when I was home from the hospital for a Christmas visit.