The story of a boy from Hardscrabble, Illinois, and his courageous mother.
I suppose the first memory I have of her was when I was about 5. We were sitting on the bathroom floor, and I was crying. My older brother, Jim, had dressed and had run out into the warm Illinois sunshine.
My mother, Iris, was trying to put my steel leg brace on, tying the orthopedic shoe, the leather calf strap, the knee pad, the thigh strap and buckling the steel belt around my waist. The room was hot and the heavy belt bit into my hips as she struggled to pull up my jeans over the shoe and the brace.
“Why me, Mom? Why did I have to get polio?” She stopped and took my hands in hers. She was then about 30, beautiful with wavy chestnut hair to her shoulders, and hazel eyes. “But Kurt, Jesus only chooses the bravest boys. God picked you above all the boys in town.”
Our little town was once known as Hardscrabble. It is now Streator. The three of us—she, my brother, and I—had returned there from the East Coast to live with her mother when my father died suddenly after World War II.
It was there, while working as a secretary at the newly completed Pentagon, that she met my father, a young soldier. It was there she met President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The awe of reaching down to shake his powerful hand never left her.
I bit into my lower lip in an attempt to live up to her words. “Am I brave?” I asked. “Of course you are. And God will always watch out for you.” She pressed her handkerchief to my face, and ran her hand through my blond hair.
“Now you go and play with Jimmy, and close the door because I want to do some sewing.”
Our bathroom consisted of a toilet, a yellow linoleum floor, a big closet and a Singer sewing machine. A bathtub and hot water out of tap were yet to come. I closed the door and expected to hear the tap of her foot on the pedal of the machine. I heard sounds but knew I shouldn’t open the door. When I came back into the house, she was just walking out of the room. The machine was still covered, and she avoided my eyes while touching at hers with a handkerchief.
Eventually, she married again and was there through my therapy and operations, the wheelchairs and crutches, stoic and accepting. And she was there with her arms crossed in front of her chest, all five feet of her, when she made me crawl into the raspberry bushes where I’d thrown my brace in frustration one day. “Don’t you want to get well?” she cried out.
By the time she had a new baby boy she named Pat, and my older brother was studying physics at Virginia Military Institute, I had left the braces behind.
For quite a while, things went well. But at my brother’s graduation, like all mothers who never stop being mothers, she pushed when she saw fit.
“Now you get that mole on your neck looked at, Jim.” At the end of two years, Jim had a wife and a one-week-old girl named Felicia, and he lay dying at home with melanoma. On weekends from college, I would help him into his wheelchair and sit by the side of his bed, talking.
Mom prepared her youngest as he faced the wall, his eyes tightly shut. “Pat, the doctors say that Jimmy is going to die.” He whirled around, furious. “No, he’s not! They’re only people—what do they know? Only God knows that.” It was the indefatigable logic of a 9-year-old. She was resolute. “Jimmy’s going to die, and you have to be brave.”
On a cold February morning, he was buried. It was, except for one time in the future, the only time I would see her cry. She faced the church, the chilly wind at her back, her chin against her chest, arms at her sides, and cried like a little girl. Same God, different son.
I was about to graduate in journalism from Northern Illinois University. She held my hand at the reception after the funeral. “Well, I have you and your brother Pat,” she consoled herself. “But Mom,” I began. “I’ve accepted a job in Australia. I’m leaving right after graduation. A man named Rupert Murdoch has hired me to be a reporter.”
Again, the hazel eyes. Maybe she thought of her young dead husband and her young dead son. “Yes, you go.”
We wrote through the years. She and my stepfather visited me once in Sydney, but had no interest in coming to Paris when I moved there. By then, they were happy and had settled in Sycamore, and were busy with a new life and new friends. She wrote of them, including a Mrs. Crawford, whose granddaughter, Cindy, wanted so much to be a model. Life was good.
And then her second husband died suddenly. It was later remarked by friends how strong she was, how she didn’t cry. But there was a crust now. She never talked about bad things. She had developed an ability to store those things someplace in her mind where they were not touched and could not touch her.
Again, she prospered. Back in Streator, she rented a split-level garden apartment and began dating an old friend, a widower. There were dances and dinners and visits to me here in Palm Desert, Calif. She celebrated her last birthday, her 80th, here with those closest to her.
Then a car crash near Springfield, recovery, confusion. Then a fall, a broken hip and more confusion.
My brother and I headed back to our hometown.
We got her settled, hired caregivers and rearranged the furniture so her walker would not catch on a rug or table. My brother headed back to Inverness.
I stayed to help Mom walk again. Her hip ached, her unused legs ached. Her mind was not sharp now. We had to tackle the stairs. “No, it’ll hurt,” she said. I guided her forward. “Don’t you want to get well?” I cried out. I stood at the top and watched her pull herself up by the railings. She pulled and rested again and again. Tears filled her eyes. Eventually she made it to the top, exhausted.
She started to cry. “Why me, Kurt? “Why did this have to happen to me?”
The words barely left her lips as she looked at me with those hazel eyes, clouded now, and we both went back to that room at my grandmother’s. I took her hands in mine. “Mom, there’s no answer. Bad things happen, and it’s not anyone’s fault.”
Could she have thought that of herself all these years? We sat at the top of the stairs for a long time, saying nothing, thinking. Doctors discovered cancer soon after.
She died on Nov. 30, 1998. It was 50 years to the day I was diagnosed with polio.
Read more on The Good Life.
Image credit: Tony Fischer Photography/Flickr