The photo attached to this article was taken in the fall of 1951, on the shores of Lake Brownwood in Texas. It is a picture of me and my mother. She is sitting on a rock, and I am the one sitting naked in the water. By all appearances we were both having a good time. My mother told me many years later that for some reason my sister did not want to get in the water that day, so she stayed dry on the shore with my father—perhaps one of the best decisions she ever made.
Most likely it was on that day, in that place, that my healthy body came into contact with the polio virus floating in the water. Symptoms appeared a few weeks later, and that is the last picture I possess of my time with a fully functioning body.
We have never talked about it, but knowing my mother as I do, I suspect she has felt some guilt for putting me in the water that day. The primary goal of any loving mother is to protect her children from harm, to keep them away from the ravages of the world.
My health changed that day. Striving to keep me alive and able to regain some of what I lost was a significant driving factor in my family for the next few months. First, we moved to Fort Worth, where I lived in a hospital ward for children with polio, coming to within hours of being placed in an iron lung, one of those monstrous machines from which folks seldom escaped.
Daddy described the fear of polio that gripped people in 1951. Several times he was forced to relocate his family once others in the neighborhood learned they had a son with the disease. Many years later, after I moved my own family to Fort Worth, my mother told me how the city conjures up those memories in her mind. My mother has lived much of her life in fear.
She grew up in the Depression years on dusty farms in Oklahoma and Texas. Her family lived in constant concern about basic necessities from day to day. In her own words this is how she describes that time:
We never did have a large house, usually had three or four rooms. We did not have water in the house. We had a well and drew water with a bucket from the well and then carried it to the house. We did not have electricity or a bathroom in our home. We did not have a furnace. We heated our home with wood or coal in a stove which meant that one room was heated and in cold weather we all stayed in that one room. In real cold weather we would sometimes heat an iron that we ironed clothes with and wrap it in layers of cloth and put this in the bed at our feet. Sometimes we would have a kerosene heating stove. We also cooked with the kerosene stove. Each night the coal, wood or kerosene would have to be brought into the house for the next day. These were kid jobs. Another job was filling the kerosene lamps each night. None of these jobs were much fun!
Mama fell in love with her high school sweetheart, and he was sent off to war before they could marry. He came home after leaving a leg on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima, and spent three years in and out of army hospitals. Once he was discharged, they moved to Amarillo, Texas to begin a family.Three days after my sister was born, the worst tornado in the history of Amarillo hit the city, and did considerable damage to their new little home. Mama had already experienced a great deal of stress by the time I came along, and I can assure you that I have done more than my share to contribute even more throughout my whole life.
My father was a student when I got sick. He had to pause his education while they worked to combat the effects of polio on their young son. To show how times have changed, this is how Mama described life when I was in a in a rehab place called Warm Springs.
I shall never forget that day we left Terry at Warm Springs. He was examined extensively and was sent to a ward. Everything and everybody was strange! Terry cried so hard! I’m sure he was scared. We could not see him except once a week on Sundays and for only two hours. I didn’t see how I was going to leave him in this place, but I knew he had to have some treatment and we thought Warm Springs was the best place we knew of. It was a long week wondering what was happening to him and how he was doing. Then each Sunday we examined him to see what he could do different or if he had improved. The first month he didn’t seem to improve at all. He broke out with a terrible rash and the explanation we got was that the rash was caused by nerves. They started sitting him in a high chair after he had been there about a month. The chair was designed to make him sit straight and it had arm slings which helped him move his arms. Each week when we visited him we took a small toy. February 24, 1952 when he saw us, he said, “Whatcha got? I want a car.” In March we got to take him in the car away from the hospital. The last of March he was fitted with braces.
Every morning for the first ten to twelve years of my life, Mama administered physical therapy to my legs, stretching and bending them to keep the muscles limber. I clearly remember fighting the experience nearly every morning. However, she never gave up. She never gave up hope that I would walk. About once a week she would make me put on my braces, take my crutches, and try to walk. I hated it because I could barely move. But, like I said, she never gave up.
For some reason, one day in my eleventh year I decided I was going to start walking. On my own initiative, I put on the braces, took the crutches, and began to take steps. Every day I worked longer and harder, and in a short time I was out of the wheelchair more often than not. It would have never happened without my mother’s persistence.
For years, whenever she was with me, she always had one finger through one of my belt loops as we walked, just in case I lost my balance. I used to tell her that if I ever did fall she would either rip my pants off or fall down with me. She was not persuaded, and continued the practice.
My mother taught me many other things besides how to walk. She instilled within me tremendous respect for the Bible. She read hers often. You could usually find it next to a devotional book beside her favorite chair. As I child I had so much respect for her Bible that if she ever handed it to me I carefully guarded it. To this day it is nearly impossible for me to write on the pages of a Bible because she would never do it to her Bible.
I think there came a time when Mama felt like her work with me was complete. She wrote these words to me…
You are an adult now. I can no longer lift you and carry you – and protect you as I had in the past. I am very thankful that you can now take care of yourself both physically and financially. This is what I had hoped you would be able to do. Even though you had not experienced the physical healing I had hoped and prayed for, I am thankful for what you can do. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says that God’s grace was sufficient and through our weakness we had to look to His strength. Your personality, your patience, your smile, and concern for others has been an inspiration to many whose life you could never have touched otherwise.
In spite of her constant watch and care over me as a child, my mother and I never developed a strong emotional relationship. As I grew older, my emotional ties to home were stronger with my father. This was especially true when I became an adult. I spoke with him about once a week, but my mother seldom called. There was never any problem between us; I think it was just her way.
Four and half years ago, Daddy died, and my relationship with my mother changed again. She was in Amarillo, five hours away from any of us, and very lonely. It seems that all of the strong emotional connections in her life were attached through my father. When he was gone she was isolated.
She began to call one of us kids everyday complaining about loneliness. Finally, she called and was ready to move closer. My younger brothers made the arrangements to bring her to Fort Worth, and we found her a nice place. From the first day here, she wanted to return to Amarillo.
However, by this time her ability to live by herself was rapidly evaporating and that was not a viable option.
Mama is now in a difficult situation. Physically she is 90 years old and in tremendous health. Believe it or not, she takes absolutely no medicine, has blood pressure that would make a teenager envious, and has very few aches and pains. Mentally her life is a challenge. She has never forgotten who I am, although I think there has been a time or two when my name eluded her when she went to make an introduction, and I became “my son.”
I love my mother, and deeply appreciate everything she has done for me. I truly wish I could make her life better; somehow clearing the fog from her mind and allow her to enjoy her surroundings. I try to pray every day that she will have a day when her thoughts are clear and her mind is alert, but she seems to be worse each time we see her. I know she is ready to move to the next life and be with Daddy, but I guess God is not ready for that.
As I get older, that is one of the more difficult things to understand about life with God. I think I can make sense of death most of the time. However, making sense of life is not always easy, at least a life that seems to have lost purpose and meaning. Physically, Mama could live another decade, and that scares me for what it might mean mentally.
I wish I could do more than wish her happy Mother’s Day and give her some flowers. I wish I could do for her final years of life the same kinds of things she did for me during my first few years of life.