I’m sitting with my legs straight out on an examining table at the Georgia Warm Springs Polio Foundation, where I have just arrived. Four doctors lean over my legs, their elbows on the table, talking back and forth. The doctors are looking for traces.
Traces are little whispers of life in muscles destroyed by the polio virus. They promise the possibility of a new future. My part in this examination, not the first in my life with polio, is to concentrate with all my might on each muscle, one at a time, in the hope that with my undivided attention, there will be a shiver of response and the doctors will rise up, smiling, and announce that the audition has been a success and there is reason for hope.
Muscle to muscle, trace to trace, I am looking for a sign of possibility.
At Warm Springs, traces is the word for hope.
When I think of the word traces” now, it is as a footprint or a shadow or a verb, like unearth” or expose” or reveal.” I’ve been looking for traces in my childhood that will bring the years I spent in Warm Springs into some kind of focus. In its intention, the process is very much the same as it was when I lived there and turned my attention to discovering what remained.
Warm Springs, 1952
On the morning Joey Buckley got his wheelchair back, got to leave his bed and move about the hospital grounds alone, I had been up at dawn, before the Georgia sun turned the soft air yellow as butter. I lived in the eighth bed in a sixteen-bed ward of girls at the Warm Springs Polio Foundation and had been living there, off and mostly on, since I was eleven years old. That morning, at the beginning of April, I was wide awake with plans to slip out of the room without any of the fifteen other girls knowing I was gone until they woke to the rancid smell of grits and eggs to see my empty bed carefully made.
I was wearing blue jeans, cut up the seam so they’d fit around my leg cast, a starchy white shirt with the collar up, a red bandanna tied around my neck like Dale Evans, my hair shoulder length, in a side part, the June Allyson bangs swept up in a floppy red grosgrain bow. A cowgirl without the hat and horse, a look I cultivated, boy enough to be in any company.
I wheeled past Avie Crider on the first bed, lying on her left side, her right leg hanging in traction above her hip, a kidney-shaped throw-up pan by her cheek. She’d come out of surgery the day before, screaming all night, but we were used to that in one another and could sleep through noises of pain and sadness, or talk through them, about movies and boyfriends and sex and God, back and forth across the beds. Never pain and sadness.
I shut the door. The Girls’ Ward (called Ward 8 by the staff), on the second floor of Second Medical, was at one end of a long hall, and the Boys’ Ward was at the other end. The long corridor, with the nurses’ station between the wards, was empty at dawn, too early for the smell of breakfast, for the morning nursing staff to click up and down the corridors with trays of thermometers and medicines, even for the bedpans, which were my responsibility.
I wanted to go straight to the Boys’ Ward, where Joey Buckley might be waiting for me, but it was too early for that also, too early for mail, which was my other job, or for orderlies to take the surgery patients down to the first-floor pre-op waiting room, or for the domestic staff to begin mopping the linoleum for a new day. Too early for anything but the Babies’ Ward (officially called the Children’s Ward), where I went every afternoon to take the babies in my lap for a wheelchair spin around the walkways, pretending they were mine for keeps, these orphan babies whose parents were off in their own houses in other towns, like my parents three hundred long miles away in Washington. These babies couldn’t do without me.
But this morning, days away from thirteen, a girl of high temperament and little patience, I was burning with anticipation. I wanted to go as fast as a girl could go, a winged runner with hair on fire, hanging over the side of an open cockpit, a high wind blowing my clothes off.
I passed Miss Riley, the red-haired head nurse, her long, freckled legs stretched straight out from the chair where she was sleeping, her head thrown back against the wall, her mouth hanging open. My wheelchair was standard issue, made of wood with yellowed wicker on the seat and back, and it was squeaky so I pushed it softly by Miss Riley’s office, down the corridor to the elevator, hoping not to get caught before I carried out my plan.
When the elevator doors opened onto the first floor, Dr. Iler was rushing out of the Babies’ Ward, and I waved, but he looked right at me without regiistering who I was or wondering, as he ought to have, what I was doing up and dressed at dawn. Running away? That’s what he would have thought if hhhhhe’d seen me through his own preoccupations. On bad days, running away was what we talked about doing, as if we had legs for running or anywhere to go, stuck in the Georgia countryside, prisoners of our own limitations.
Suzie Richards.” Dr. Iler suddenly stopped and turned around, as if my presence had come to him in memory after he had seen me in person. What are you doing up at the crack of dawn?” I couldn’t sleep,” I said.
Well, be careful,” he said, and I thought to say Of what?” out here in the middle of mainly nowhere with doctors and nurses and priests and orderlies, no danger here except the invisible one of my own secret desires. But what did I know then about fear of what was inside myself?
I will be careful,” I said, and he was gone.
Outside the front door, the air was New England chilly, fresh with the beginning of spring, and I wheeled my chair through the big door, down the ramp onto the sidewalk, thinking of Joey Buckley’s brown eyes, deep and dark as winter ponds.
The buildings of the Warm Springs Polio Foundation had a kind of fading beauty. It had been a late-nineteenth-century spa, rebuilt, after Roosevelt purchased the old Meriwether Inn and grounds, with low white buildings in wings around a grassy courtyard with walkways, some covered like porticoes. I thought of myself as living in a hotel. I was grown-up and beautiful and walking without the aid of crutches or braces, walking in high heels, and I had come to this hotel on a holiday to find the man of my dreams.
I wheeled over to the wing where the Boys’ Ward was located, stopping just below it so Joey Buckley, if he happened to be looking out the window beside his bed, would see me there.
Behind me, the door to the main building opened and shut, and I kept my back to whoever was coming out, hoping to pass unobserved, but the invader of my private romance was Father James, another recipient of my unguarded affection, and he had seen me. I could feel him headed in my direction.
Mary,” he said, coming up behind me, out of breath.
He called me Mary because I had told him my middle name was Mary and I was called by that name at home, although my middle name was really Lynn. But neither Susan nor Lynn seemed right for a Quaker girl converting to Catholicism, as I had been in the process of doing with Father James, wishing to fill the long empty hours with something commensurate with my desire and because I loved him and believed he would like me better with a name like Mary.
Much of my free time at Warm Springs was spent figuring out the best way to be liked by the people I wanted to like me. Not everyone. Only the ones who judged me bad for reasons I could never understand, neither the reasons nor the meaning of bad. And the ones I adored, since I was at an age and had an inclination to love without reservation.
What are you doing up so early?” Father James gave my wheelchair a gentle push.
I couldn’t sleep,” I said. What about you?” He hesitated, and I could tell even before he spoke that he was inventing some excuse for being in the hospital when he normally would be getting ready to serve at the 6 a.m. Mass, generally attended by the staff at Warm Springs either on their way to work or on their way home.
Did something happen to one of the babies?” I asked. I saw Dr. Iler.” Dr. Iler was in the Babies’ Ward,” he said.
Were you there for a sick baby?” I asked.
And I suddenly remembered our recent conversation in catechism class about last rites. I had been fascinated and repelled by the idea of a priest, a man in a stiff white collar and black robe but still a man, ridding the dying of leftover sins so that, fresh as a daisy, as my mother would say, the dead could pass into heaven. I loved the Roman Catholic Church, with the body and blood of Jesus popped into our mouths and incense burning and bells and chanting in Latin. But passing into heaven held no appeal at all.
Were you in the Babies’ Ward doing last rites?” I asked, my mind running through the cribs of babies, Eliza Jane, little Maria, Tommy Boy, Rosie, Sue Sue, Violet Blue, Johnny Go-Go, all those babies of mine with the nicknames I had given them.
Don’t go into the Babies’ Ward today, Mary.” Can you tell me which baby?” I asked.
He tousled my hair.
Not just now,” he said, and I watched him walk away in his black cassock, his muddy shoes showing below the skirt, his long thinning hair flying above his head in threads.
Halfway across the courtyard, he turned and, with his cassock blowing behind him, walked back toward me.
Mary,” he said, kneeling so we were face to face. I know you’re thinking you’ll go to the Babies ’Ward as soon as I’m out of sight, but you can’t. This was not a patient you knew.” Instinctively I didn’t believe him.
I watched until he was out of sight and then I crossed the courtyard on a diagonal toward the movie theater not an actual movie theater but a large room where current Hollywood films were shown to the patients, mostly children, either sitting in wheelchairs or lying on stretchers in body casts, everyone in the hospital who could breathe without an iron lung, in rows of white sheets.
The next afternoon, a Saturday, I would be going with Joey Buckley to see High Noon that was the description of my Saturday I would tell my parents during our Sunday telephone call, always just after noon, a ritual of longing and dread.
I went to see High Noon with Joey Buckley,” I’d say. We do everything together lately.” I knew it would please them to hear that I had a best and steady friend, a Joey Buckley whom they’d met but didn’t know, filling the gap their absence had left. It would please them to think of me doing the things that normal children in the sixth grade did, like going to movies.
It wasn’t necessarily true about Joey Buckley. I’d usually be in line with all the girls from the Girls’ Ward in wheelchairs, and we’d follow the stretchers moved by push boys, and behind would be the line of wheelchairs from the Boys’ Ward, and then the grown-ups who had the freedom to move, if they could move, out of the lineup. When I saw Joey, he would be in a line of wheelchairs behind me, several boys away.
I saved stories for my parents to make them happy, to soften their sadness over not being with me, which I knew they wished they could be, which I wanted to believe they wished they could be. And the stories had some truth, along with the addition of a happy ending. I added the happy ending perhaps by nature, perhaps in my own defense. A child can cover a multitude of sadness simply by inventing happiness, can escape the kind of sympathy that smothers her spirit, and save her fledgling self in its slow and lonely process of definition.
All week I’d think of the conversation I’d have with my parents the following Sunday after church, collecting imagined victories, social engagements, popularity, good behavior, although I had not told them I was going to Mass every Sunday or how little I missed the long silence of Quaker Meeting, only that noon was the best time for them to call.
I had it in mind to draw the picture of a busy twelve-year-old girl living an ordinary life in a hospital at which children got better and better and never died. I would tell them of crushes and best friends and compliments from doctors on my progress and athleticism, from nurses on my good citizenship and work on behalf of others. I was, in short, deliriously happy at Warm Springs, as they desperately hoped I would be, and grateful for the opportunity to get better for free, costing my parents almost nothing, as a result of President Roosevelt’s March of Dimes, money collected in a highly successful campaign held every year on the anniversary of the president’s birth, which supported, among other things, the treatment of children at Warm Springs.
Stopped in my wheelchair in a corner of the courtyard, thinking of the dead baby, some dead baby passing sinless into heaven, substantial or insubstantial I just didn’t think it was possible or desirable, and the thought of it, dying and going to heaven, was unacceptable. I wanted to call my mother, my darling mother, and tell her, A baby died today in the Babies’ Ward,” and hear her soft, magical voice pressed to the receiver, saying my name. Susan.” But of course I would never tell my parents that a baby had died. It would frighten them, so far away from me, so vulnerable to my fate.
My plan for the day, after Joey Buckley got his wheelchair, was to go with him to the candy shop, where we got to go sometimes twice a week, always on Fridays, and this was a Friday. We’d get cheese crunchies and Grapette and sit in the sun behind the buildings, where no one would expect to see two patients sunning. I’d buy him bubblegum with baseball cards as a present for getting over surgery and we’d talk. I was an excellent listener.
And when we’d finished our snacks and I had hold of little pieces of Joey Buckley’s life, we’d race our wheelchairs down the steep paved hill where on Saturday afternoons the stretchers and wheelchairs wound their way down the path between the buildings from the courtyard to the movie theater.
I wheeled across the courtyard to the top of the paved hill and looked down. I was good with a wheelchair. I could push the chair up to a high speed, take hold of the right wheel with a strong grip, and make a 180- degree spin so that my body, like a keeling racing sailboat, was nearly parallel to the sidewalk. I could wheel up that hill without stopping, without slipping backward, my hands like little vises on the wheels, the bone showing through the skin. I wanted to move as fast as the chair would go crouch my body down low so my head was just over my knees stretched out in front of me. I stopped at the top of the hill on level ground just before the bend, but if I were to move inches into the downgrade, the chair would be off on its wild ride to the bottom of the hill and I’d be holding on for dear life. That’s how I saw myself, and imagining the speed, imagining Joey Buckley flying beside me, our hands on the wheels, ready to stop on a dime, I decided we’d do just that we’d race down the hill this morning, early, before too many people were sitting around the courtyard on such a fine day. First, before doing anything else, we’d race to the bottom and secure our friendship like surviving warriors. We’d make it to the bottom and fall into each other’s arms.
I had arrived at Warm Springs in the late summer of 1950, on the same day that Joey Buckley arrived in his leather and aluminum chair, both legs crippled, in long leg braces, a motherless boy from a small town in Alabama. I was alert to his presence, greeting every new face as a possibility, and I liked the way he looked with his square face and wide-set brown eyes. In the waiting room as we checked into the hospital, his father sat next to my mother and I remember the image of him exactly: olive skin, broad face, and long shiny hair, his head held in his big hands as if it had cut loose from his body.
Joey would have been an athlete. He would have been a great athlete, this boy,” his father told my parents. He would’ve played football at Alabama, and now what?” Now I’m going to be fixed, Papa,” Joey said. You too?” he asked me.
It was still early morning, breakfast trays collected in the wards, meds distributed, plans in place for the rest of the day. Joey and I were parked at the top of the steep hill, looking down.
It’s a long way to the bottom,” he said.
I was checking Joey’s casts, sticking out in front of him propped on pillows, blood seeping through the plaster at the top of both of the casts.
The blood’s from my stabilization incision,” he said, conscious that I was looking at it. You bled too, right?” Right,” I said, a shadow of doubt, a cloud floating across my sun. But I had only one stabilization and you had two, so that’s a lot of blood.” It’ll dry up,” he said. So why are we doing this?” For fun,” I said. Just for fun, don’t you think?” Yes, for fun,” he said. He was smiling and his eyes lit up and I knew we were ready to push off.
Hand in hand?” I called to him.
I can’t push if we’re holding hands,” he said.
And lined up side by side, we gave a huge push on the metal ring on the wheels of our chairs and we were off down the hill, faster and faster, and I think I was squealing with excitement and so was Joey and maybe he called out How do we stop?” but maybe he didn’t. We were going so fast, so much faster than I even imagined in my dreams of this adventure, I felt that I was losing control, the bottom of the hill rising to meet us as we sailed down side by side, and I grabbed the right wheel to stop the momentum, grabbed it with all my might so the chair would turn 180 degrees and stop there at the bottom. And as I did, sensing that the chair would stop, that I had taken control in the nick of time, I saw Joey fly into the air just ahead, out of his wheelchair, the chair tipped on its side and Joey gliding above me, his arms flailing, his heavy white casts pulling him down, down, down to the cement walk and then the heavy thud of the casts hitting the ground or the thud of his head and silence.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.