Polio in Chicago, 1946
A typical mid-summer morning in the city, the air weighted with swelter late August 1946. My brother is four and on his way to Riverview Amusement Park with our Mom, who is lumbering into the second half of her pregnancy with me. An outing, just the two of them and roller coasters seem a good distraction today, The Comet, The Bobs and The Silver Flash whoosh into the imagination of every kid, especially the ones too young to ride yet. There’s plenty to do and see anyway; the air is alive with excitement and bustle.
Tom’s a good boy, a helper. But today he’s squirmy, cranky and sluggish. Well into the morning, Mom asks if he would like and ice cream, he shakes his head “no”, sits down on the curb, puts his head in his hands. This is how polio arrived to us that summer and changed everything forever.
My brother has no lasting physical effect from the virus, but my mother contracted polio and was the one most damaged by it for the rest of her life. This should be her story, except that her script has not been available for a long time. I’m writing this as a bystander, that is, the fetus who would emerge alive five months later.
The end of 1945 and the early months of 1946 introduced the Post World-War II economic boom in the U.S. Prosperity was within reach for those who knew how to capture it, and my dad was eager for the challenge. At the height of the summer heat of 1946, city beaches on Lake Michigan closed due to what would be remembered as one of the worst polio outbreaks in U.S. history. My mother’s chest collapsed; the muscles too weak to expand and contract. In August of 1946 my mother and I were instantly shuttled off to Columbus Extension Hospital, for women and children.
Later, in the fall of ’46, my dad was cautioned by the doctors that the outcome of my mother’s “situation” could not be predicted. I don’t remember how I know this fact, but I do know that euphemisms were abundant in our household regarding any situation that carried serious emotional weight.
In my recollection, no one has ever spoken to me about the circumstances of my birth, or about the impact it had on my family. As a youngster, I remember feeling a pervasive, free-floating urgency to do better and to work harder to “fix” things, whatever the things were that needed fixing. Even though I knew I couldn’t fix my mother’s illness, I felt that I was somehow a part of the situation that made her feel so bad.
My mother didn’t last long at the Columbus Hospital, because she was now sicker than the hospital could manage. That same day, we were trundled over to Wesley Memorial Hospital on the north side of Chicago. So, in late August 1946, my mother and I had moved into an iron lung where the two of us lived on the 14th floor. I was a bystander floating around in amniotic fluid. What I know about this experience is hearsay. Perhaps I might have had a memory of muted clanging and whooshing, or I might have envisioned myself as a small fetal ball, blissful, and unaware.
Pregnant women were more susceptible to the virus, and complications during pregnancy were more frequent including pre-eclampsia, a higher frequency of caesarean section, and a much higher rate of neonatal death – up to 45%, if polio symptoms occur in the first trimester. We were at the end of her second trimester.
*The person using the iron lung is placed into the central chamber, a cylindrical steel drum. A door allowing the head and neck to remain free is then closed, forming a sealed, air-tight compartment enclosing the rest of the person’s body. Pumps that control airflow periodically decrease and increase the air pressure within the chamber, and particularly, on the chest. When the pressure is below that within the lungs, the lungs expand and atmospheric pressure pushes air from outside the chamber in via the person’s nose and airways to keep the lungs filled; this is a form of non-invasive therapy.
*Here’s a polio ward circa 1950:
And here’s a firsthand report from someone who had used the iron lung throughout most of their adulthood:
Over the years, I’ve been able to escape this machine for a few hours at a time by teaching myself voluntary breathing. I have to consciously push air into my lungs, something that’s done involuntarily by just about everyone else. This allows me to escape this infernal device, if only for a little while. It is my cage, but it’s also my cocoon. The iron lung issues a noticeable whishing sound, an almost uncanny replication of normal breathing. There is a psychological element at work in all of us in our relationship to the lung. The metal respirator assumed an almost animate personality and became a symbol of protection and security. We were incomplete embryos in a metal womb. Anonymous, 1954
It seems that life inside a womb would be safe, quiet, and gravity-free, like floating among the clouds, unlike the clanging sterility of a machine that pumps air into and out of the body.
My mother and I lived in tune with the machine’s fabricated inhalation—it breathed, we did not. Though, to be inside the steel tube might seem safe, she longed to escape at any cost. Though we were inside the iron drum together, we were never at home.
December 6, 1946 I was given a reprieve by being C-sectioned alive into the world; I became a member of the family, but she could not.
After I was rescued, my mother wasn’t so lucky; she had to live submerged, trolling for breath inside the iron lung for many more months; I don’t know how many months, and there is no one to ask who knows.
The polio epidemic led to a catastrophe that necessitated big adjustments for everyone, and in our household the changes became permanent.
The caregivers in my family were my maternal grandmother May, and my great aunt and uncle Bea and Hugo, who lived upstairs. They were matter–of–fact people who dealt with things thoroughly, efficiently and without emotion. At home, my brother, age four, stayed put in the second floor apartment with Dad. He had to have sensed the importance of events, that he was likely given little information about. I have no idea how his mother’s long absence was explained to him, or what he made of all the emotional static in the household.
As a stand-in for my mother, and in charge of the household, Gran worked constantly. She would head to the kitchen and snatch a match from the brass sconce on the wall inside the pantry in order to light the oven, or she would say to whomever was around, “Hand me a match from Joe”, the sconce, made of brass, that hung inside the pantry.
While Gran managed the household upstairs, my father lived mostly at his drafting table in the basement, a musty, dark space with a large table, a desk and a few chairs. He’d camp out there most days studying building plans, and near the phone in order to manage laborers’ trucks that slowly moved past the front of the house, headed to various job sites. After I was born, he must have worked hard to pay the hospital bills, even though we were a “March of Dimes” family.
From the time I was born and throughout my childhood, polio was a part of every aspect of daily life. Cases of polio in the Midwest had spread like brush fire during the late 40’s and early 50’s despite all our hand washing. Parents who could afford it snatched their kids out of the city and headed to what was hoped to be a germ-free oasis somewhere remote. This little virus that spread a scary, paralyzing disease caused enormous disruption to everyone. Lots of children got the worst of it.
Summer was polio’s high season when groups of unvaccinated, sweaty children became polio’s favorite playground. It seemed that adults were expert at enforcing rules that made sure their kids were bored for weeks on end during the summer.
Here’s the list of the polio rules in our neighborhood:
- Stay quiet and calm (while walking on homemade stilts up and down the alleyway behind the house?)
- Don’t get dirty (while crouching in the crawl space under the house during endless games of hide-n-seek?)
- Keep your hands washed (while digging for tadpoles in the ditch next to the park?)
- Stay away from other children (while rolling around together in the grass?)
- Don’t breathe in deeply around others (while huffing through hours of kick-the-can?)
- Avoid schools, cinemas, public swimming pools, sports arenas and events (all… summer…long).
Every summer, for years before I was born, the family made the trek around the southern tip of Lake Michigan up to “Paw Paw”, as we called it. One-hundred and two steps above Paw Paw Lake just north of Watervliet, Michigan, Bea and Hugo owned a three-family summer home called Topside, the family’s haven from the worries of the city. ( See The Role of Raspberry )
By the time I was in second grade, every class in my school had at least one polio family. In the third grade I remember my class walking down a tunnel-like hall at the hospital, with our teacher Mrs. Miller leading the way. The entire length of the hall echoed our footfalls and murmurs. We were there to visit a classmate I liked named Stephen. Through a glass wall we peered at him in his iron lung. His twin brother Bruce wasn’t sick. We waved at Stephen as we filed by. I don’t remember if he could see us or not, but he didn’t wave back; that was the last time I saw him.
During my early childhood, our home felt like an emergency. There was no “911” back then, but urgency permeated the space, with adults bustling around making all their activity seem important. Childlike behavior was discouraged as we were all in this together. I sat at the table for meals as soon as I could see over the top of the plate.
Before polio, my mother was a painter and a pianist surrounded by air and light, color and melody. When she first came home from the hospital, her left side was severely damaged, and she was angry. This never changed. Although she survived physically, she never regained her self, that is, the mother my brother had known. To me she seemed like and important stranger. Adults’ held an expectation that I would long to be with her in a close and loving way. I did not feel it.
Mostly, I was wary and uncomfortable in her presence; I didn’t understand what to do, or how to act around her, other than to keep a distance. In a stilted manner, I tried to comply with adults’ urging, by going through the motions of hugging her, but I would move away quickly. She had to have felt the rebuff.
The most vivid memory I have of her is of her frustration and rage, palpable from across the living room, where she sat tilting in her wheelchair. Her empty stare lasered into the space beyond me as though I wasn’t there. In a dark corner of the living room, the wheelchair took on a silent, sinister presence. Soon, I would learn to run as fast as I could go through the dining room toward the light in the kitchen. Light was a relief. There I could climb into a kitchen chair, swing my legs under the table, and feel safe even when no one else was there.
Our discomfort and awkwardness around each other never changed.
Nine years later, my mother confided in me that, had she been able to get out of the iron lung, to walk across the hospital room and open the window, she would have jumped. At age nine, I felt her rage and anguish, but I had no words to speak of that, and no one to speak with about it—her words became my secret, her anger brought on, I thought, by some offense of mine that I didn’t understand, but felt I had played a part in—I also had no proportional understanding of the height of a fourteen story window. Her “confession” felt like a glancing blow that didn’t land into my consciousness until many years later. Why would she tell me that?
So, in reaction to her words, I adopted a keen sense of urgency exhibited by my trying to be good and trying to help people who seemed to be in distress. This became a mission. For my birthday party that year, I invited a girl in my class who wore really thick glasses and walked with a limp. My father asked me her name and I told him that I wasn’t sure, but I thought it was Junie. I told him she needed to be invited somewhere so she could have some fun.
At family gatherings, I would sit at a slight angle to my mother’s side, in order to avoid her eyes. She could display a body language that few others would be able to decipher: her soulful smile, a languid expression, a slightly raised eyebrow. She could give a quick stinging glance reserved for only a few; I knew it well. I would love to have met the mother my brother had known.
Her illness and disability were not spoken of at home when I was around. I suppose the silence was seen as a kindness back then, years before the idiom, “elephant in the room” was coined.
I lived with my mother for thirteen years, from the time I was four, when she was finally strong enough to be at home, until I left for good at age seventeen.
Several years ago, visiting with a few close cousins near my age, I spoke about my family’s experience with polio, and its effect on us. . They sat quietly listening and, to a person, said they had had no idea, and had never heard the story. Astounding, I thought, how completely my family had hidden the situation from view. In doing that, they also had cut off the possibility of the benefit of emotional support; it seems that privacy and self–sufficiency were considered strengths.
My mother never spoke with me about her past or about herself, and I did not know how to ask. The breadth of the chasm between us was so profound, I never found out who or what she really loved. I used to think that I should want to learn more about her, that I should want to recreate in my imagination what her life before polio might have been like—or that I could want to know about her talents and her dreams. I could try to think of her as joyful and excited with a creative spark in her eye, or at the piano or the easel doing what she was good at and what she loved to do. But actually, all that was possible for me then was to feel relieved of the burden of her unhappiness.
In 1974, my mother died. I was in my 20s, busy arranging my own life, so I did not grasp the enormity of what had happened to her early in her life. I also didn’t understand how her illness had affected our story together—a story that ended prematurely, so we were never able to remedy the loss, or re-create something better between us. When I close my eyes, I can’t picture my mother’s face anymore. I understand that this is called aphantasia, the idea that what our minds eye can no longer envision becomes phantom-like.
This painting was done by my mom, Mary Frances Kartholl c.1933, when she was in her early 20s, and the Art Institute of Chicago through Mundelein College. I’ve called the work Toward the Clearing a title that is a comfort to me. It’s my tribute to her, and a way I bid her peace now, beyond pain and fear.