Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
No longer a childhood activity
“Which would you rather have: cancer or polio?” My older sister and I played this verbal game in the late 1940's. Having no real knowledge of either disease, the words were meaningless. Sure our parents understood fear, helplessness, had buried loved ones, but we, as our younger sister, were without any understanding of mortality and every illness we’d had we got better.
Polio seemed to be a summer situation, and going to the movies, before television, was part of a routine, especially on Saturdays when a continuation of a weekly cliff-hanger came on before the promoted film. And summer camp, sleep-away, out of city heat, was being with others my age, all the wonders of sports/ boat house dancing/ Color War/ the morning ritual at the flagpole..... So parents couldn’t come and visit during the eight weeks I’d be in the mountains. Was okay with me. Disease that could paralyze? Not going to happen. Being young meant invincible.
“Well,” I prodded my older sister Carole, “why would you want one instead of the other?” We spoke of an iron lung as if we had a clue to what it was, which we didn’t, and decided cancer death. Of course death was abstract. We were never going to die for real, ever. I thought of our childhood silliness when, indeed, she did die of stomach cancer many decades later.
After I married a medical student, I actually walked through a Polio Ward at the hospital on campus. For real: iron lungs. Only a face and a mirror for the human totally encased in a metal cylinder for life was seen. And rocking beds that I didn’t ask about. I held my breath feeling scared but ‘safe’ as long as I didn’t breathe. I felt a wave of sadness that for the only life each of those people were to have, it was one without movement, any of the opportunities I was given, and wondered ‘why me’ re ‘luck’ if luck exists. I realized that Polio was not a temporary condition for these, and it had been years since summer camp and silly verbal games.
My brain went into girlhood mode when, pregnant with my first, my mate developed a dangerous staph infection and the doctor told me to not be in the double bed we shared. I did not leave our bed. He was so ill that eventually had to be hospitalized, yet I still assumed some magic bubble was protecting me, and it did.
I tended to my three offspring with their strep throats, and illnesses prior to the common vaccines we now have available, and only took real precaution if my husband and I had to fly someplace and he and I took different planes. No matter that we, together, could be harmed in an automobile, we felt some control on a road rather than above clouds.
Polio vaccine came out in my children’s lifetime. Only the oral doses were then available. Their physician said it would not be advisable for me to take such and hoped I’d had immunity from exposure when young. I never did get that vaccine. I was grateful this next generation would have no knowledge of iron lungs or polio syndrome that’s come on from some cases not severe but caused damage later in life.
Reading about the 1918 killer flu was similar to reading about log cabins, outhouses, horses attached to buggies for transportation, facilities with no heat or running water, one-room school houses. History. Didn’t seem real. Gravestones seemed like billboards saying someone with the name etched is below ground. If I hadn’t yet truly accepted that my own father was put in the red soil on Long Island when I was age 20 and he had only blown out 45 birthday candles, how could I comprehend pandemic!
Swine flu vaccine had to be given at a health center; my daughter got so sick she vowed no flu vaccine would ever go into her again. It was 2009: CDC Novel H1N1 flu. To me, a novel is a book of fiction and not something associated with a sickness! And now, 2020, I’m hearing the word ‘novel’ with the current Coronavirus. Pandemic. Age group with high mortality risk. My husband and I touch hands realizing we are in that stage of life now. While our offspring know where legal documents are, and so forth, dying is incomprehensible so we remind our executors where papers are but can’t quite process that if one/both contracts this new virus, death might no longer be abstract.
Supermarket shelves depleted of goods are as eerie as photos of airports having no long lines of passengers. No live theatre, no cruise ships exiting ports, no...... It seems surreal. “Which would you rather have?” I hear my childhood game with older sister. Now I’d only answer with my husband: life/health.
Spring. Buds are beginning, robins are returning, winter ground is getting soft. But spring isn't new and the ordinary reminds me.
"Look at the pink snowballs," my brain whispered to my eyes. Aloud I questioned the price and name of the plant perched on an outdoor wooden table.
"The hydrangea's on special. So are those azaleas sitting next to the pansy boxes." The farm market salesman saw merely a possible customer.
My fingers fumbled under protection of my side pocket; I freed my grip and allowed them to stroke the plant's petals. Arthritis accepted the digits that had developed gnarls, but the tips thought it was girlhood:
Our heavy pottery birdbath was securely surrounded by a perfect circle of dense planting; between the circumference and grass was a sharp indentation made with a weighty wooden-handled tool that sported a sharp half-moon blade. Some old man, remnant of days quite finished, came to the suburbs selling his sharpening services. Rusty cowbells clanging from his open truck annoyed proper house-dwellers; these were not tenements with fire escapes sharing their function with sleeping people on hot summer nights.
A narrow but even concrete path enabled outside passage from the front to back of the house; "step on a crack, break your mother's back"...I walked with giant steps. A painted-white wooden archway was laced with roses. My mother called it a rose arbor. I never wondered why or how roses climbed straight up and then knew when to turn horizontally. It was a grand entrance to the back yard and a favorite place to be photographed during summer.
Everything grew. I squat each spring before tiny bells while singing `lily, lily of the valley' and looked, in Woolworth, for perfume by the same name. Sometimes that store sold tiny flacons of fragrance; sometimes I had to buy an entire blue bottle of it. No one in the family liked the smell but I imagined it had a delicate scent.
Bulging blossoms of snowballs didn't diminish lilies of the valley. I thought they got along rather well.
A Chinese Maple dwarfed my height. What made it Chinese? Did I ever ask?
The shrubs grew. I never saw the work, feeding, watering, pruning, de-weeding...until war demanded Victory Gardens and food planting. The circle was invaded, stripped of its dignity. As a family, we planted onions, radishes, carrots, potatoes, and marked each with Good Humor popsicle sticks on which we scribbled the vegetable's name. Gentle leggy bushes beneath the kitchen window were uprooted and tomato plants eventually leaned against the brick. It was ugly. Hoeing was hard. Small tools that looked like crooked fingers scratched tough, dry soil. I preferred that job as I toiled same way during recess in the school's victory garden. I would have rather continued playing dodge ball.
Before the war effort, I'd take peas in a pod outdoors and sit near the arbor. As I shelled them for dinner, I ate contents of one for every three placed in a pyrex bowl. If my mother minded, she never said. She didn't see that ends of bakery bread were missing each time I walked to get her a loaf of rye, so how would she know the pea count inside closed green shells? Now I felt responsible for the puny size of my crops and angry when a hungry squirrel selected our yard for a restaurant.
Flit cans with rusting plungers de-bugged tomatoes. In a bathrobe and backless slippers that slapped against her naked feet, my mother nourished what she actually needed to satisfy growling stomachs. No ration coupons were required. I imagined the pre-war garden and still believed it just grew healthy and handsome by magic.
War or not, we still had lilies, roses, snowballs. Fortunately, the maple was Chinese and not Japanese! My mother and I inserted a frail magnolia into the front lawn. I could see it from my bedroom window even though my panes were framing silk stars showing passers-by that we had relatives overseas.
Dodge ball resumed for my younger sister. I was in high school and seemingly didn't see the circle return to foliage. The tomato plants had become part of my mother's life and, decades later, I've snapshots of her, in robe and scuff slippers, showing my two year old son how to snip a swollen red ball, truly home-grown. By then, the magnolia had become a tree, and I was aware the rose arbor sagged from years of standing. Birds still cooled hot feathers in the birdbath but none heard me sing or saw me squat before bell-shaped spring flowers. My son pointed to a huge clump of flower and I identified it "snowball".
"Made up your mind, lady?" The clerk's voice startled me. "Want the hydrangea? Has to be planted soon."
"Allergy," I responded, embarrassed about my watery eyes. "Don't think so." It's 2020. Why hasn't the mind a sense of time
©1988 Gannett Co.
Reprinted 2005 Clear Mountain
A hero named Sheryl
Let me give you a glimpse of my caring and compassionate daughter Sheryl. I knew, as a pediatric oncology nurse before she became a stay-at-home mom, she showed her rare quality of intelligence and tenderness, efficiency and personal attention, always creating a ‘better world’. And time, burdens of her own life, continued to prove she would always expend energy on others:
“He nearly died once from the contrast dye.” I’d told her about a medical diagnostic procedure where injected fluid allowed doctors to see a problem with my husband’s spine; he had a severe reaction to that dye and went into shock. Because someone was in the room at that precise moment, and treatment initiated, my mate began to breathe again.
Sheryl earned two university degrees, and became a Registered Nurse, since that incident. Now she fully realized the situation she’d only once passively listened to me discuss.
She and her family live 500 miles away, and had driven up for a brief vacation. Having a major spine problem herself, I knew the long drive back on Sunday was going to be difficult for her, but, instead, I joked about her two young children being considerate and never fighting on long car trips as she and her siblings had done.
We hugged at the door, and the four of them got into their coupe for the tedious trip back to Cincinnati. She caught an expression on her father’s face and correctly ‘read’ it as uncertainty. She learned he was going to have an x-ray with contrast dye on Tuesday; it wasn’t going to be the same dye used before, but he had a look as if he were beholding her for the last time.
In her private pain, and tired from 500 miles in the car with only one stop for lunch, she telephoned to tell us they were safely home that Sunday but were all driving back on Monday so she could be at her dad’s hospital bedside on Tuesday; then they’d drive back on Wednesday. It was a family decision, and her husband, Stan, already told his boss, and the children voted to spend another 500 miles next day and then another 500 miles home again. She would not listen to me about the intense distress she’d have with so much sitting again, the probability of quicker damage to her own already damaged vertebrae.
“He needs me. I am a nurse and will find a way to be with him throughout the whole film. But, more importantly, I will be able to care for him if he needs instant attention during those hours afterwards as the dye leaves his system.”
Nothing could talk her out of it.
The four of them returned to Rochester, New York, next day. Sheryl was on her feet at the hospital most of Tuesday. She telephoned me at home, where I was with her children and her husband, begged me to not tell her dad of her personal and excessive pain, which she wouldn’t mask with medicine; I respected her wishes.
A nurse, who makes rounds on each patient every 30 minutes, checked in on my husband who seemed okay, then left the room. During the next ten minutes, the color changed on his face. Something small, perhaps, but Sheryl’s training taught her to recognize small signs. He then passed out. As she called for help, she knew to not wait as she lowered his head and initiated life-saving processes. Life saving ... in the totally real sense of that statement, for he would not have been able to depress the call button to signal for himself, and twenty minutes before the next nurse-check might have been too long.
Sheryl brought him home that night. He was stable, but she observed his pulse and other signs periodically for many hours. She was satisfied that she’d been there, and, as she’d said, just because she selected to be a stay-at-home mother didn’t mean she forgotten her nursing skills. And, she reminded, her dad provided for those skills and never made her feel his money at an Ivy League school, and earning two Summa Cum Laude parchments, was wasted when she pocketed the degrees for full-time motherhood.
She, once again, actually kept life from leaving her dad.
Attempting to mask her spinal pain, and with not one sound from any in her family about the 500 mile trip once again, they drove back to Cincinnati Wednesday.
How few would go through that kind of hard driving even under the best of circumstances and not in her small 2-door coupe when it wasn’t even as if her dad were having surgery? What young children wouldn’t have complained or whined when hearing “I think that Grandpa needs me, and I’d like you to let me know how you feel about turning around tomorrow and driving another 500 miles only to repeat it Wednesday?” And how many sons-in-law, since he’d have to do all the driving, would use up precious vacation days from work, and span those miles without even a whimper?
My mother once said that a woman was the hub of the family wheel, and the members were the spokes. Sheryl’s ‘hub’ is that of an unselfish hero... that everyday hero that quietly goes about the business of caring.
©2003 Panther Publishing
reprinted 2010 The Jewish Press