The sun was streaming into my room. The rooftops of Neuilly were sharp against the sky beyond the garden. But my mind reeled instantly from the assault of the word Dr. Lipsitch had just uttered.
Polio … the terrifying disease that struck every summer back home in Michigan … danger lurking in swimming pools and movie theatres … paralysis … wheelchair … braces … iron lung …
Polio … a grade school friend rushed to the hospital … then confined to a wheelchair … even months later, thin, tired, trembling. Wasn’t I trembling all the time, too?
Polio … a playmate of my little brother’s … suddenly in an iron lung, then out again. But when he’d come back from the hospital he was weak, and cried at the slightest thing. Wasn’t that a description of me?
Polio … trying to get the newly approved vaccine just before I left for Europe, but being told to come back later, as there were enough supplies for children only …
Dr. Lipsitch was still giving me his incongruous smile as these appalling thoughts reverberated through my brain.
“People are afraid of the word polio,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t want to tell you until your fever had gone down.”
“When did … you know … ?” I managed to say.
“I was fairly sure when Carol Stein called me from Fontainebleau. That’s why I had you brought to the polio wing.”
The polio wing! He had known right from the beginning? And he hadn’t told me? Cheerfully, smilingly, he had chosen the moment of revelation?
None of this could be real, could it? He was standing here telling me I’d had polio, but the sun was still bright and he was still smiling and I was still me, somewhere underneath the weakness and the trembling and the weepiness. My polio must be different from anyone else’s polio.
In the midst of this unreality, one all-consuming question was pushing its way into my consciousness. I was afraid to ask and yet was compelled to do so. I couldn’t conceive of a negative answer.
“I’ll be … able to …” I hesitated. I had been going to say “play the piano,” but Dr. Lipsitch jumped in with his own interpretation.
“You’ll be able to walk out of the hospital when you leave.”
Walk? It had never occurred to me that I might not walk again. That shocking thought crowded out everything else for the moment.