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You Know What She Means

Elizabeth Schultz

This mostly takes place in that other time, the time they call The Fifties. Imagine it’s your birthday. In the movie your father takes — the segment is later flawlessly spliced into the reel for 1955 – little girls in frothy pastel party dresses light on the sofa like so many butterflies. All remember to cross their ankles and all except Suzy Wheelock wear black patent leather Mary Janes. Suzy Wheelock’s Mary Janes are white.

The presents they bring are paper dolls and board games and pencil cases for first grade which starts in two weeks. Your mother, pregnant and smiling broadly, leans over her huge belly to place the cake in front of you. It is home-baked, chocolate frosted, and inscribed Happy Birthday Trisha. The words form a pink frosting circle, and there is a big pink 6 in the middle. The candles blaze and you puff your cheeks and blow boldly. Five go out on the first try and your friends in their cone-shaped party hats giggle and clap and wave at the camera as you blow out the last one. Your mother cuts the cake.

But you do not remember any of it; memory for you begins two weeks later when the family doctor comes to check your throat. He asks you to touch your chin to your chest, and lifts and bends your legs. Downstairs, he calls the hospital from the phone in the hall.

And here is another thing you do not remember: your parents telling you that you have polio, and that they are taking you to St. Margaret’s Hospital in Northridge. You have known it as the town where your mother’s aunt lives, the drive there the long beginning to a long day of tedious politeness. But this time you do not share the station wagon’s broad middle seat with your seven-year-old brother; you do not sing songs, or count red cars, or watch from the corner of your eye for any momentary incursion he might risk onto your side. This time both rear seats have been put down and your father carries you out to the mattress that has been laid in the back. Your brother stays with a neighbor.

At the hospital, two black-habited nuns shift you onto a stretcher and wheel you inside. And though nuns have not featured in your life before – your family is nominally Protestant, if anything – you remember no recognition of the strangeness of these darkly draped women, their strangeness just one other aspect of the larger strangeness which is engulfing you.

The hospital is pseudo-gothic – the lobby ceiling vaulted, the front elevator an intricate cage of black and gilt, and as you wait for it you try to sit up and look around. But the nuns say you must lie flat so you make do with turning your head the little you are able. 

Across the hall through open double doors, you can see into an enormous room that you later know to call the babies’ ward. Both long walls are lined with white hospital cribs; a double row stretches down the middle. Infants and toddlers babble and cry as nuns attend them, and just inside the door you see five gleaming iron lungs. A man sits at the head of the center one, balancing a shopping bag on his knee with one hand as he strokes a woman’s graying hair with the other. Her head rests on a small metal shelf.

A mural decorates the far wall above the windows. Against a background of shimmering blue sky and puffy white clouds, a haloed Jesus sits on a tree-shaded rock, gazing with sorrow, with pity, with love at the little girl perched on his knee, the toddler clutching his robe, the boy standing to the side with his crutch.

The elevator comes, and as you go up in it, the nuns tell you how lucky it is that you have just turned six because it means you can be with the big girls.  Then they wheel your stretcher into a room similar to the one below except that there are no iron lungs or mural, and there are long rows of tall narrow beds instead of cribs.

They position your stretcher next to one of the beds along the inside wall, a bed that’s closer to the door than to the tall white cabinet where they keep thermometers and files, and then they slide you over. And it must be now that your parents leave, though you do not remember. Some things are best not remembered.

All the other beds in your row are empty. In fact, of the forty beds in the ward only fifteen are currently occupied and they are all at the far end of the room. From where you lie, you can hear the other girls – the big girls — laughing and talking, can see, from time to time, one of them being pushed between beds on a stretcher or in a wheelchair and you would like to hide your head under your pillow because you are crying but there are no pillows in a polio hospital, only hard flat mattresses and crisp sheets.

The nuns on your ward are Sister Catherine and Sister Teresa, and the next day they bring a girl in a wheelchair to your bed. The girl is older than you, and she explains that if you have a fever, your mother can come. If you cry, your mother can’t come. When you don’t have a fever and don’t cry, they’ll move you to a bed near the other girls. 

So you try to control your tears, and for the next three afternoons your mother visits for an hour. And then on the fourth day, Sister Catherine moves you to a bed in the middle row between two of the other girls – Pat and Diane. Sister Catherine says she is proud of you, that you will like your new friends. But now your parents can only come on Visiting Days.

The morning after you are moved, you are included for the first time in the big girls’ routine. After breakfast, after temperatures have been taken and teeth brushed and bedpans used, you and Pat and three other girls – not Diane, she is in a full body cast — are wheeled down a long corridor to the physical therapy rooms. Here, different nuns change you out of your pajamas into a coarse cotton shirt and coarse cotton bottoms that tie on the sides like diapers. They wheel your stretcher to a high table covered in brown leather worn shiny with use, lift you onto it and place a backboard behind you. (At the polio hospital, you never sit unsupported; if you are allowed to sit at all, you must lean back against a wooden board with your legs stretched straight out in front.) 

Another nun comes over – Sister Mary Clare. She is older and shorter than the others; her face is round and lined and her cheeks are pinched by her starched wimple. Sister Mary Clare is head of physical therapy.

You do not remember that she smiles. You do not remember a moment of gentling. You only remember that she straightens your legs in front of you and then, holding them flat against the table, tells you to lean over and touch your forehead to your knees. 

You cannot do it, can barely bend your torso at all, but she tells you to try again. Still your forehead is nowhere near your knees.

Briskly, she straps each knee into a leather harness that holds it flat against the table, then shows you how to position your hands for Ten Little Indians with the pinkie of your left hand — Indian number ten – resting on a kneestrap and your other fingers stretched out so your left thumb points towards the ceiling and your three middle Indians fan out straight. Then she places your right pinkie on your left thumb and stretches this hand, too, making your finger ladder ten Indians high. 

Again she tells you to bend down, this time to touch your forehead to the top little Indian but even this you cannot do and your back and your legs burn as you strain forward. You lean back against the wooden board. Your eyes fill with tears. You look to her for a sign but she tells you to try again, says you must try until you can touch your head to each of the little Indians, counting all the way down  to number ten. 

She pulls a canvas curtain around your table and leaves. And though you spend many hours in the physical therapy rooms while you are in the hospital, it is being left in the curtained cubicle that first time with your strapped knees and your Ten Little Indians and the searing pain in your back and your legs as you strain to lean over – the searing pain – it is this that you remember most. And you remember that when Sister Mary Clare comes back, she is not pleased to see that you have given up and are sitting with many inches between your back and the backboard. She is not pleased that you have only reached Indian number one.

Afternoons, you play Ginny dolls with Pat and Diane, elaborate little girl games  you can manage lying flat on beds three feet apart. Sometimes you play board games. They are harder because you must convince Sister Catherine to set up a table between your beds. Even then it is difficult for Diane, encased in plaster as she is, to move her marker when it’s on your side of the board – or for you to resist propping yourself on an elbow, sitting up, reaching too far when moving your piece. If Sister Catherine sees you, the game is put away for two days.

The biggest girls – three high schoolers – have their beds against the end wall under the windows. They have a radio and whisper among themselves. Because you hear the song so often, you learn all the words to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”  You have little to do with these teenagers..

A new girl comes. Her bed is head-to-head with Diane’s, and at night Sister Catherine and Sister Teresa lace her feet into heavy brown shoes that go up over her ankles. Steel bars hold the shoes parallel and straight, twelve inches apart. The new girl screams and tries to kick as the nuns put on the shoes, so they wheel her bed into a small room off the ward. She is often being wheeled into this small room. She is nine and should know better. The rest of you are impatient with her noise.

Another new girl comes. She is seven and is put in one of the solitary beds in that row where you began. Pat says the new girl had the polio vaccine and got polio anyway. You do not know how Pat knows, but you accept the news without question and it fills you with a clangorous sense of hopes dashed. You are only six, yet already you know about polio, though even here at the polio hospital you do not understand what it means. Your summers have been marked by long hours resting after lunch so you will not catch it, by avoidance of public swimming pools and other crowded places. Like the other girls, you have heard about the promise of a polio vaccine, have seen Sister Kenny coin cards at the drug store flanked by collection canisters showing the March of Dimes poster child – cute, you have always thought, in her party dress, hair bow, and leg braces.

The new girl never graduates to the center row of beds. You are aware of bustle, and her parents, and then she is gone.

Pat gets braces. Straps, buckles, and steel, they lie on her bed like an exoskeleton. Sister Catherine shows her how to put them on: back and neck braces laced and buckled first, then the stiff ankle shoes and the leg braces with their intricate knee pads. Sister Catherine shows Pat how to lock the metal hinges so she can stand, release them so she can sit, and watching from your bed you envy Pat the glamour of her braces. On Pat’s last day, Sister Catherine shows Pat’s mother how to put the braces on, how to manage the wheelchair – and then Pat, too, is gone.

Sundays are Visiting Days. Hours: one to four. Your parents come with shopping bags brimming with surprises — cards and presents, clean pajamas with teddy bears, and gingerbread children. In your letters – at the hospital school, you are learning to read and write – you ask for Fritos and KulaWai, and Sunday after Sunday they bring the sweet pineapple soft drink in the green bottle with the White Rock mermaid on the label. For the first hour of the three, Sister Catherine lets you sit up with the backboard.

Pasting get-well cards in your scrapbook takes most of the visit. The cards come from neighbors and friends, the girls and boys who would have been your classmates in first grade, aunts and uncles, grandparents. Some duplicate; most do not. Many come in series: a get-well zoo animal for every day of the week, a joke a day to speed your recovery, seven circus clowns who will make you laugh.  Your brother’s piano teacher sends two cards every week the whole time you are in the hospital, signing each with a different colored pencil in the same florid script she uses to record your brother’s lessons. You have the scrapbook still.

One Sunday, your father comes alone because you have a new baby sister. The following week, the whole family drives to Northridge but only your father comes up: children are never allowed; your mother is concerned about germs. But as your father leaves, Sister Catherine shifts you to a stretcher and wheels you across the room so you can wave out the window to your brother and your mother and the infant she holds in her arms. It is the first time you have looked outside since coming to the hospital, and you can picture it still: the neatly trimmed grass, the gracefully drooping firs, and your mother and brother on the pebbled path waving and moving their lips incomprehensibly. 

Your father joins them on the path and your mother blows a kiss before they all turn away. You start to cry, but Sister Catherine reminds you how lucky you are: Diane’s mother has only visited once the whole time Diane has been in the hospital, and her father has never come. It scares you to wonder why, and  you stop  your tears.

Bedpans are a problem. All the other girls use them lying down, but every time you try you soak the bedding so Sister Catherine has you sit up with the backboard, though she makes it clear it’s an added chore to get you arranged. And you feel ashamed perched high on your bedpan throne while the others do their business primly covered with sheets.

Tuesdays the doctor comes, and because yours is the first occupied bed in the row, he always starts with you. He is young, with dark brown hair and magically sparkly eyes, and you think he is the handsomest man you have ever seen. Often he lets you listen to your heart with his stethoscope. One time, he makes three pennies disappear and then pulls them out of your ear.  

Years later, your mother reveals that the nuns had said you called, “Doctor, doctor,” to him like Sarah Bernhardt on her deathbed. “Sarah Heartburn,” your father amends. It is one of the few times they ever refer to your hospitalization. 

But it must be that you clamor too much for the doctor’s attention because Sister Catherine warns that if you call out to him again, she will wheel your bed into that small room for bad girls before he even comes, and you will not be able to see him at all. You are mortified; and the next time the doctor makes his rounds with Sister Catherine, you do not call to him, do not smile at him, do not answer his questions with anything more than a mumbled “yes” or “no.” 

“Cat got your tongue?” he asks. You shake your head, raising your eyes only to the knot of his blue polka dotted necktie. He tousles your hair before turning to Diane, but you refuse to smile. 

In physical therapy, things get easier. Now you can bend as far as the eighth little Indian and are working on the ninth. Sister Mary Clare often leaves the curtain open as you exercise, and sometimes she brings you to her special private room where she spends the whole hour working just with you.

One day you are brought down early, while the boys are finishing up. They are in a different part of the hospital; other than school, this is the only time you have ever seen them. Sister Mary Clare herself changes you into your exercise clothes, then tells you to watch as a boy about your age walks — unassisted — across the room. The nuns praise him extravagantly. Sister Mary Clare turns to you and says that one day you’ll be able to walk like that, too. 

You look at her, confused, but she is already asking if you would like to try and of course you say “yes.” Carefully, you are lifted down, are supported as you are allowed to stand for the first time since entering the hospital. The tile floor is cold under your bare feet, but boldly you step forward. And falter. And are held. And step forward again. Sister Mary Clare is beaming. The other nuns stop to watch. Sister Mary Clare tells you to take another step, and then another. And when you reach the wall you are lifted onto a waiting stretcher as the nuns gather round and applaud. But your eyes fill as you look down at the legs that have betrayed you. Until this moment, you have not known that you could not walk.

Meal times, the nuns distribute trays from a serving window at the opposite end of the ward, and one evening Sister Catherine announces that there is ice cream for dessert. But there are peas for dinner – too many – mushy and sickly green. You hate them. And by the time you finally finish, the ice cream has melted and been thrown away.

You have trouble moving your bowels. Every night, Sister Catherine asks and you know it is bad to have to say “no,” but with bedpans, this is not something you can lie about. So they give you pills but they do not help.

One day after physical therapy, Sister Catherine does not return you to your bed on the ward. She does not wheel your stretcher into the room for bad girls – the whole time you are in the hospital you are never put there – no, she takes you through another door, past the room with the four big tubs where all the girls are bathed every Sunday night, past the room with the huge metal sterilizers where the bedpans and sheets are kept, around two corners to the end of a broad empty passage. Sunlight filters in through a high frosted window.

She pushes your stretcher up against the wall, leaves, and returns after a time pushing a cart with a bedpan and white enamel pitcher. She wheels the cart over to your stretcher and adjusts the rubber tube that attaches to the pitcher. Does she tell you what she is about to do? You do not remember. You do not remember her pushing the rubber tube into your rectum; do not remember the release of liquid; do not remember when she leaves. What you do remember is lying on a reeking bedpan after your bowels have emptied, and calling for her to come get you. “I’m done,” you call out again and again. “Sister Catherine, I’m done.” But she does not come for you. No one comes. You call again, but still no one comes. And lying helpless on that pan of excrement in that bright deserted passageway, you call until you are hoarse. You cry. You call again. You wait. And when Sister Catherine does finally return, she tells you to stop making a fuss, wipes you, and wheels you back onto the ward. 

But you are ashamed of what she has done to you, ashamed that the others might know. And once you have been returned to your bed, you turn your back on Diane and pull the sheet over your head. 

You are fitted for braces. Not the full-body braces that Pat wore but only a back brace and half leg brace. You are allowed to sit up to put on the back brace, crossing the laces over and back, looping them over the hooks, tying a double bow. It is a push to get your feet into the brown ankle shoes, but the leg brace is easy to buckle. And the following Sunday, your parents stay only long enough to change you into a loose-fitting dress before helping you into a wheelchair for your first venture outside the hospital – an afternoon visit to your mother’s aunt. 

Propped by pillows on her sofa, you eat ice cream as you watch your mother give a bottle to your baby sister, now two months old. And when they bring you back, you cover your face as you cry from exhaustion and homesickness. But the next Sunday, they come to take you away for good. There are no movies to record the event.

You enter first grade and find that the hospital school has kept you up with the others. When it is your turn to be sandman during rest period, your brace clunks as you try to tiptoe around the room so no one gets caught with their eyes open that day. And during the Christmas play, you have to stand in the row of gingerbread boys because of course you cannot dance with the gingerbread girls. But you are lucky. Your parents make a family ritual of the exercises you still must do — your brother never does touch his head to his knees – and before the school year is over, the braces are gone. And though you will still have to visit the hospital every six months for a check-up, you are pronounced cured. 

Soon your friends stop talking about it – about the fact that everyone at your birthday party had to get a gamma globulin shot, about your braces. And after they all get the Salk vaccine, polio seems to slip completely from their minds. So it comes as a surprise when your friend Peter yells out a question about it as you speed home from fifth grade on your bike.  

You slow your helter-skelter pedaling and say what you have learned to say: That you were in the hospital for three months; that there were lots of girls there who were paralyzed; that you were lucky – you had a mild case of polio and are completely cured. Never about the little Indians, or the room for bad girls, or the passageway where they left you on the reeking bedpan.

Though one night in college when you and your roommate are talking through the dark about these kinds of things and you repeat your patent litany about polio and the hospital, you leave off the part about being lucky. But your roommate adds it for you. And you surprise yourself by saying, “No, you were.”

“You know what I mean,” she says in a huff. And you give it up, because of course you do.  

It is only years later, in a different kind of therapy and a different kind of pain, that you ever reveal what it was like. And doing so helps soften the realization that you will never find one of those little gadgets like the one your father had – the kind that will hold the film while you splice out the frames with the ten little Indians and the reeking bedpan and the clunky brace, that kind that will keep the ends from shifting while the glue dries so that when he puts up the screen and your mother turns off the lights, you will finally see the same movie as everyone else.

Besides, yours was just a mild case of polio. You were cured; you are lucky. It’s what everyone’s always said.