John was making slow but steady progress with his breathing. After a few weeks, he was able to breath on his own for over an hour. The nursing home was never mentioned again and his mother told him they were making renovations to the house so that he would eventually be able to come home.
One day, a young doctor came to John’s bedside and flashed him a wide grin: “So how about trying out a wheelchair today?”
John hadn’t felt this excited in a long time. “Right on,” he said.
Miss Foley came to assist the doctor in moving John to the wheelchair. They opened up the lung and Miss Foley wrapped a hospital gown around his naked body. It took the two of them to lift John out of the machine and into the wheelchair. John had only sat in a wheelchair a few times, during the early stages of his illness. Back then he had been able to use his arms to control the wheels, but now he was completely dependent on others to push him.
John hadn’t seen his body since he had been placed in the respirator, so it was a bit of a shock. His arms hung off the sides of the chair and Miss Foley lifted them to place them in his lap. His forearms were bone thin and his fingers curled up uselessly. His hospital gown was hiked up to reveal his boney legs, which Miss Foley placed in the leg rests for him so they didn’t drag along the ground. His muscles were too weak for him to even sit up by himself, so she had to strap him into the chair along his waist and his chest.
“How does it feel?” the doctor asked John, putting a hand on his thin shoulder.
“I feel like I’m about to go for a drive,” John commented, looking down at the straps.
The doctor laughed. “Well, at least you’re secure.” He turned to the nurse. “Miss Foley, why don’t you take John for a ride around the floor?”
John couldn’t help but feel a little superior as Miss Foley wheeled him past all the boys still in their lungs. He was so excited, he didn’t even feel like he was having any difficulty breathing. He wasn’t thrilled about the way his gown was hiked up, showing off his legs and even his diaper, but he wasn’t about to start complaining. He knew Miss Foley might revoke his wheelchair privileges if he said anything wrong.
The atmosphere outside the iron lung room was a lot lighter. There were boys on crutches and wheeling themselves around. Playing, laughing. Nobody out here was afraid of dying.
John watched two boys racing toward them in their wheelchairs. They were both laughing with pleasure and one of them knocked into John’s chair as they passed by. Miss Foley yelled at them to stop racing, although they were long gone by then. Both of John’s legs had become displaced from the footrests and Miss Foley bent down to put them back in place, mumbling angrily all the way.
John wished he could have raced like the other boys. Initially he had been exhilarated by the freedom of leaving the iron lung, but now he was starting to realize how limited he was. He was going to need someone just to push his chair from place to place.
Don’t focus on what you can’t do, he told himself, focus on what you can do.
The trip around the floor didn’t last long. Before John knew it, Miss Foley was wheeling him back to the respirator. “Couldn’t I stay out a little longer?” he asked.
Miss Foley snorted. “Do you think I have time for that?”
“I have time,” spoke up a voice from behind him.
John craned his neck around and saw Clara shrugging off her thin coat to reveal her tight, white nurse’s uniform. Clara was smiling down at John. “My shift doesn’t start for another fifteen minutes, but I’d be happy to take you around the ward again if you’d like.”
Despite all his practice at breathing, John suddenly felt a little breathless. He smiled at her. “That would be great. Thank you.”
Maybe it was just his imagination, but Clara’s push felt different than Miss Foley’s. Miss Foley shoved his wheelchair along, not giving him a chance to enjoy the scenery, but Clara was more leisurely. She pushed him all the way to the gym, which was now empty. John saw all the parallel bars set up to help boys walk again—he’d never be able to use those. He wondered if those crippled boys knew how lucky they were.
Clara pushed him inside the gym and pulled up a folding chair so that she could sit next to him. It felt strange to be sitting next to Clara instead of looking up at her from within the iron lung. As he looked at her, he was amazed at how beautiful she really was. He watched her reach into her pocket and pull out a pack of cigarettes. She deftly lit one of the cigarettes and took a long drag.
“There’s no smoking allowed in the gym,” Clara admitted to him. “But you won’t tell on me, will you?”
“What’s in it for me?” John said, smiling.
Clara returned his smile and held the cigarette out to him. “How about a drag?”
John used to enjoy a cigarette occasionally before he got sick, but he was worried that filling his lungs with smoke wasn’t a good idea in his condition. “I better not.”
Clara took one more long puff and stubbed out the cigarette on the floor. “So how is it being out of that terrible place?”
“It feels wonderful,” John said honestly. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Only a little while longer till you leave for good,” Clara said. She placed her smooth, perfect hand on top of his gnarled, paralyzed claw. John looked down at his lap and swallowed hard as she gently stroked his hand.
John felt like he could barely comprehend what was going on. Here was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on, and here he was, a badly crippled polio victim, with a paralyzed body and a diaper. But Clara was looking at him in a way that was very un-nursely. “You’re really beautiful, Clara,” John managed to say.
Her face turned red and she suddenly yanked her hand away. “I better get you back to your room. It’s almost time for my shift.”
John stared at her, his face burning. He wanted to kick himself for what he had just said. He had been so stupid to think she had even the slightest attraction for him and now he had humiliated himself. He imagined her talking to the other nurses about the crippled boy who had tried to hit on her. They would all have a good laugh at his expense.
Maybe he could make something of his life and there were a lot of things he could still do, but having a relationship with a woman wasn’t one of them. The sooner he got that into his head, the better.
The first thing David did when he got back to the hospital was throw down his crutches and collapse into a wheelchair. He felt exhausted from being on crutches all day, but also from spending the day with his family. His parents were desperately trying to pretend like nothing was different and Richie was silent the entire evening. It was a relief when they brought him back here.
The most painful part of the day had been when his old friend Sally came over and told him about Marilyn. He had known Marilyn was sort of superficial, but he had thought they’d built up something stronger than that. He had imagined she had been trying to contact him while he was in here, but that was clearly not true. He was such an idiot.
David thought back to the days of his relationship with Marilyn and how good he had it back then, without even knowing it. He really liked Marilyn, more than he ever let on to her. He remembered sitting beside her in his car and trying to keep her from noticing his hard-on. Of course, that wasn’t a problem anymore—he hadn’t gotten hard once since the illness set in, no matter how many nurses in tight-fitting uniforms walked into the room. He tried not to think about it, tried to tell himself that it would come back, unlike the strength in his legs.
David wheeled himself into his room, where the other boys were already in bed for the night. He parked himself by his bed and began unbuttoning his shirt. He was pulling off his sweaty undershirt when he heard a moan coming from the direction of Walt’s bed.
David wheeled himself over and saw that Walt’s eyes were cracked open and there was dampness covering his entire brow. “You okay?” David asked him.
“I had a surprise surgery today,” Walt croaked. “They didn’t even tell me. They just came in and wheeled me on a stretcher to the operating room.”
“What kind of surgery?”
“You know, the usual,” Walt said. “Trying to fuse my spine so that I can sit up enough to use a wheelchair.”
“So it’s good you had the surgery then, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but…” Walt’s eyes filled with tears. “Dave, I’m in so much pain. It… it hurts to breathe.”
A shudder went through Walt’s body and new beads of sweat broke out on his brow. His skin was deathly pale. “I hope it worked,” he said. “If I can get out of this bed and into a chair, it’ll be worth it.”
“I’m sure it’ll work,” David said.
“Based on what?” Walt muttered. “The other surgery didn’t do a damn thing.”
David didn’t know what to say to that. He looked down at his own useless legs and suddenly realized how lucky he was that the polio hadn’t affected him more than it did. Braces or not, he would be walking out of here. Walt would be lucky to wheel out of here.
David laced his fingers into Walt’s palm and gave his hand a squeeze. He sat there in silence until Walt’s eyes closed and he fell asleep.
to be continued...