Polio Boulevard
A Memoir
Karen Chase
(Excelsior/State University of
New York Albany)
Karen Chase has written a charming book about a fraught subject. That is, getting sick at a tender age, and, subsequently, having an horrific operation to undo the effects of the original sickness

One wonders about the difficulty of going through all this; but more, writing about it all in such a benign way. Imagine getting waylaid by an almost fatal case of polio, spending time in an iron lung, being in the hospital recuperating for months away from family and school. Then leaving the hospital, and somewhat later returning to have splints set and turned forcefully to straighten the backbone. Next, at age thirteen, there was surgery to fuse the spine. Finally, Chase spent almost a year locked in the plaster cast running from her head down to her knees.

And now, she is able to write a wistful, winsome book about it all and, including some fine stories about her marriage, having children, painting with her mother, falling in love with a Benedictine monk, falling in love with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and, on a train trip to Georgia, falling in love with herself.

It reminds one of Mary F. K. Fisher, but instead of writing about food, Chase is writing her history, the history of her disease, the history of her family with her disease, and ultimately, making it so that we are part of her history. I found myself mesmerized by her way of getting it all down:

    If you get sick and then get better, you have to give your powerlessness up. That means you are once again the captain of your ship. But by then you have tasted sweet powerlessness, and it is not easy to forget.

Note the contrarian words, for this is the rare person who can call powerlessness "sweet."

Or this, when she is in rehabilitation, in a therapeutic whirlpool, "I notice that my breasts are beginning to develop - - - it's sexy to see."

    When I am clothed and older, I will dive from a rowboat, flirt with a man so he will never get over seeing the clothed and wet me.

And then this unforgettable sequence:

    I have forgotten what it's like to want to run and to run at the same time. To think and do with no interruption in between. No chasm.

Chase calls herself an optimist. Which may mean denial. which she readily admits. (Denial, as those of us who have lived with it for so long, can be a life saver).

Now, long after those years, she decides to explore "the country of illness," where, as Susan Sontag so famously wrote, "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick."

We are pleasantly surprised by the lack of bitterness in Polio Boulevard, when compared to books by Wilfred Sheed, Charles Mee, Mark O'Brien, Hugh Gallagher, Nancy Mairs, Leonard Kriegel, and some unpleasantly noisy others. Like me.

It may have to do with Chase having found within herself a balance, equal to that of polio survivor Arnold Beisser, who can write movingly of his own disability, one that left him permanently in an iron lung, with a from-the-neck-down paralysis: "When I accept my fear, I accept and respect the power of my opponent, and he no longer dominates me. We join together."

    When I do surrender, my disability becomes female, and we are united in that special way that men and women can unite. We are in confluence, and the relationship is perfect. We are in agreement.

§   §   §

Polio Boulevard is a tale of just such an assimilation. During the course of preparing this book, the writer goes through her collection of illness photographs, including more than a dozen here at the end. She also interviews her family, brings in letters from friends, teachers, and from her mother (who recently died). At times it is their memories that jolt us.

Chase possibly has slid over her worst memories, perhaps just handed them over to others . . . such as her father. She was ten-years-old when infected, so she may not recall that for a couple of weeks her life hung in the balance. She knows now, but that might even be considered, as lawyers would have it, hearsay evidence. For her father, the immediate knowledge of the nature and extent of her sickness was "horrifying." He says of that time, in words that must echo for so many families in the same situation, Just keep functioning somehow, just shut everything out.

With Karen later in a cast for most of a year, he remembers, "You were hauled all over the place - - - upstairs, downstairs, outside, everywhere. [The cast] weighed over two hundred pounds. We dragged you all over the house. I'd carry you up and down the steps." And there is, too, his plaintive memory of her from before she took sick. He recalls that she was like "an otter."

    KC: I don't know what you mean.

    ZB: You swam. You loved being in water, and it's in the water that you reminded me of an otter. You'd have to see an otter to see how it swims on its back, and is playful in the water. Well, it's the most flexible, acrobatic water animal that you ever saw . . . and you were just so graceful and so swift . . .

I think that Chase is on to something, something that many of us old polios missed. That is, see if we can lay the worst agony of it on someone else's shoulders. Let friends and family have the scary memories, while you, like an otter, can float away on the gentle waters . . . float playfully off there away beyond those all too impossible experiences

--- Lorenzo Milam
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