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.