Aunt Jane’s Story

My dad was stricken with polio in 1954 at the age of thirty and was a quadriplegic as a result of the disease. For twenty-five years until his death in 1980, he lived dependent on a respirator or his rocking bed for breathing and in his wheelchair … and this is one of our memories.

It’s serendipitous that I just wrote about my family’s excursions and getting dad out of the house as one of my aunt’s memories was about going to summer theater with Nancy and Mac (Mom and Dad). Because Aunt Jane is blind, she recited this to me in a telephone conversation we recently had.

My aside… when we went places, we were always the first to arrive and the last to leave. Being early was important as getting Dad into some buildings was not easy and we needed help to get him up steps if there were some (no handicap ramps back then). We left later so that we didn’t block the aisles or exit doors as our progress was slow pushing dad in his wheelchair.

Aunt Jane started off by saying that people were always amazed that Nancy and Mac went to so many places and were surprised to see them attending various functions. She remembers one summer evening attending an outdoor theater production with them. When they got back to the car, Nancy realized she had locked the doors with the keys in the ignition. Aunt Jane stayed with Mac and Nancy walked back to the theater looking for help. By this time the parking lot was empty and everyone had left the premises (no cell phones back then). While she was gone Mac thought about the situation. Upon Nancy’s return, he suggested that she take one of the stays from his corset and slide it on the inside of a car window left slightly open. After many tries and much persistence, Nancy was able to unlock the car and off they went.

It’s a perfect example of Dad’s ingenuity and a great memory from my 92 year-old aunt (Mom’s sister).

Note: Dad had to wear a corset that contained an inflatable bladder. When he needed assistance in breathing a hose from a respirator would be plugged into the corset and the pressure in the bladder would force his lungs to expand and air would be pushed into his nose and airways.

Posted in Not An Ordinary Man.

Lessons Learned – Love and Commitment

My parents were married over thirty-three years and after Dad’s death, Mom remarried for another thirty-two years. My brother and I are quite verbal and filled with pride and gratitude when it comes to talking about our mother. Mom was committed to my dad; she was faithful, caring, and she loved deeply. She gave my father his life back after he was diagnosed with polio in 1954. Their marriage vows “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part” were sacred and they were committed to each other. Dad would not have survived without her. Not only did she take care of him and care for him, but she supported our family and took care of my brother and me. For those who didn’t know my dad or haven’t read the previous post… Dad was a quadriplegic with limited breathing capacity who lived in his rocking bed or wheelchair from the age of thirty until he died days shy of age fifty-six. Caring for my dad meant feeding him and putting him to bed every night for twenty-five years and taking care of all his personal needs. Mom was never off the clock except for a few weeks in the summer. She was selfless.

It does sound like this marriage was one-sided, but it really wasn’t. Dad was pragmatic, smart and had a wicked sense of humor that helped in their daily living. His great memory saved Mom from the day-to-day running of the household. He kept track of the bills and finances, planned the meals and knew what groceries were needed… all in his head. He honored her. And he gave her his love and gratitude.

A highlight of Dad’s week was just getting out of the house, similar to moms who stay home with their kids and can’t wait for some adult conversation and entertainment. Mom always made sure that dad got out in the world. Now taking Dad out was not an easy task, especially in the winter when it was snowy and freezing cold. There was a ramp along the side of our house so he could be pushed down to the driveway (no attached garage). There was a hoist on the roof of the station wagon which, with a harness, straps and chains, could move him from the wheelchair to the front seat. The hoist was difficult to operate in the winter as the oil would thicken making cranking difficult. Mom would need someone to help put the wheelchair in the back of the car as she couldn’t lift it herself. Of course when we got older, we could help. Remember this was during the fifties and sixties when technology for the disabled was just developing. There were no vans with chair lifts.

I think our family visited more places and attended more events than the average family during the fifties and sixties. We went shopping, to church, to plays and musicals, to high school basketball games, to movies (no swearing, sex or violence, please), to our gramma’s for Sunday dinner and on trips to visit relatives hundreds of miles away. We went to the Smithsonian and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing as well as other Washington D.C. landmarks. I have a visual in my head of standing on a catwalk made of metal overlooking the production floor where the printers were printing U.S. paper currency and Dad being pushed between the equipment because wheelchairs couldn’t go on the catwalks. We even went to the New York City World’s Fair in 1964. We pushed Dad through the corporate and country pavilions and exhibits. I especially remember GE’s Carousel of Progress, probably because it still exists today in Disneyworld, albeit updated to retain its relevancy.

It’s said that when daughters get married, we choose someone like our dad. When I got married, I did exactly that! He was smart and educated, had a sense of humor and common sense, and knew how to build and fix stuff. He was industrious, a great cook and from a wonderful, warm and loving Italian family. I did not know that he lacked love and commitment… to me and to his children. Thirty years later, I still can’t believe I chose so poorly. And I am still in awe of my parents’ marriage and of those I know who found the love, commitment and faithfulness that is often so lacking in today’s world!

Posted in Not An Ordinary Man.

Introduction to My Dad

“Not An Ordinary Man” is a celebration of the life of my father who was stricken with polio in 1954 at the age of thirty, the same year that the Salk vaccine began field trials. There is no cure for polio once infected and Dad became a quadriplegic as a result. For twenty-five years until his death in 1980, he lived dependent on a respirator or his rocking bed when lying down and in a wheelchair when sitting up… a life of quiet dignity with great strength, wisdom and always with a wonderful sense of humor… an inspiration to all who met him.

It’s been said that each time we recall a memory, it changes slightly… similar to the “telephone game” of whispering a story from one person to another until the last person recites a somewhat skewed version of the original story. Likewise, memories apparently include distortions of facts and bending of truths as we recreate the memory. It’s why words in a diary, recorded close to the time of the experience are a more accurate recollection. You are recording your thoughts and occurrences at a moment in time close to when the memory was formed. So before additional time passes and the risk of embellishment further distorts my memories or worse, before my memories are lost altogether, I commit my memories to the words on this blog. “Not An Ordinary Man”, dedicated to my dad will capture and preserve not only my memories, but those of family and friends. I would especially welcome the reminiscences of my aunts and uncles who are in their late seventies, eighties and early nineties. Their longevity gives me the hope that they will have much to add to the memory of my not so ordinary dad.

What is normal? Can it really be defined? In the case of my dad, his limitations were normal to me. One of my favorite memories explains how normal a presence he was in our lives. In 1975 he and my mom were visiting for Christmas. Since my husband and I had the first grandchildren on both sides of our families, we celebrated Christmas Day in our home (also our son’s birthday). As my mom and I were discussing the crowd of people coming for Christmas dinner and who would be coming, she realized that she had forgotten to purchase a gift for my sister-in-law’s newborn baby girl. It was Christmas Eve so we quickly scrambled to get to the store. As we were rushing out the door Mom told Dad “to take care of the kids” and I told the kids “to take care of grandpa” and off we went. Now picture this, my dad sitting in his wheelchair, having no movement in his body except for his head and a slight squeeze of his left hand and his two grandchildren, never questioning that grandpa’s in charge, even though he can’t move. Needless to say, the children’s clothing shop was mobbed with people doing their last-minute shopping. As we were standing at the cash register waiting patiently to be rung up, I looked at Mom, stunned and mortified and said “do you realize what we just did? We left a four and five-year old with dad and if anything happens, no one will know what to do”.  We rushed home in a panic to find the kids chatting away, happily playing at his feet and blissfully unaware of the stupidity of the adults.  That was my normal.

I write these memories for my children. I have great hopes that family and friends will send their thoughts and memories that I may share. I know that my dad is only one of many “not so ordinary men” who have inspired us and they are not forgotten.

Posted in Not An Ordinary Man.