Im 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.
Ive 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 theyd 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. Shed 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 Childrens 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 couldnt do without me.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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