Several weeks before my Aunt Marion, my father’s most unfavourite sister died, she said to my mother, “You and Saul were giants.” After years of snubs, put downs and an imposed snobbery, my mother appreciated my aunt’s words. Perhaps being confined to bed and contemplating how she might manage with a recently amputated leg, Marion was expressing empathy for my parents’ struggle in life, and in particular how polio had effected them.
And it’s true, unless you personally experience a travail, you can put your thoughts into empathy, particularly if you are a sympathetic person, but living something is very different than imagining it. Such reflection had been previously expressed by Howard; however when he tripped and fell in Berlin recently, he was able to truly empathize with the life my dad lead. Being his regular curmudgeon self, Howard soldiered on- as my father did when polio took his legs at age 28. Now on crutches, Howard wonders how did my father do it? Steps are a problem, especially if there is no railing to hold on to, going up as bad as going down. At the Pergamon and Deutsches Museum in Germany where they did have elevators, he comprehended anew what obstacles must be overcome in daily existence. Surprisingly, many airports, believe it or not, do not make it easy for the handicapped either.
I recalled our trip to Los Angeles as a kid and how my father had to navigate the staircase up to the plane. And again, in Europe, we too just two weeks ago, had not the luxury of an entrance or exit to the plane, but steep metal steps to be navigated up onto the plane, passengers stomach to back, bunching , trying to avoid the rain showering down. My father didn’t talk about his disability, except to resent the word “cripple.” I wondered freshly, how does one trundle on in life, always encumbered with a burden that physically sets you apart? And how does that work on your attitude towards getting out of bed, moving from sitting to standing, swinging your legs or standing upright when on a moving platform? Are you caught in closing doors on an elevator, eschew of course escalators, cross the street in time while the light threatens and does change?These seem small considerations when you can pop up from your chair, stretch out your legs and bound to the door.
As an adolescent, it bothered me my father would not wear shorts. I pestered him insistently, for what possible reason, I wonder now why. He finally spit out the words at me, concerning the ugliness of his braces. I had consciously refused to consider him different to anyone else, arrogantly so and because we differed on so many things, my hardness only added fuel to opposing him, never giving any consideration at how mounting three flights of stairs to use a washroom at the CNE might exhaust him? True, he grew up a male or in a macho kind of world where men especially did not display any weakness( do men ever?) My mother confided how the ancient aunts scoffed at his lost manhood that no doubt floored them when the miraculous birth of my sister post polio occurred.
We want to believe our parents are invincible and will always be there for us. That’s one of the things about aging and approaching or exceeding the years when our parents left us. Too late, we wish we could have spoken or expressed appreciation for them. Yet, it is only when we have matured, spent the years, reflected and encountered the difficulties that aging encumbers us with do we understand and experience the ravages of time.
In Berlin, Howard and I read East West Street by Philippe Sand. Upon the death of his grandfather Leon, the author explores his grandfather’s lost years during the holocaust years never discussed or shared. Eventually as the story unravels, along with concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, we arrive at The Nuremberg War Trials and the need for some to create a wall between the past and present in order to go on living. One woman explains that although she will not speak of it, nothing has been forgotten, the horrors always a part of her.One wonders at the bravery of so many to go forward into a future.
I think about my father and his rugged attitude towards life, only warm towards my sister and adoring to my mother: just keep on. Go out on service calls, absorb yourself in your music, don’t talk about the past. I understand now it would have been like pulling a bandaid off a wound that hasn’t healed. Too painful, too agonizing and why go back to a bad place, where you lost your legs, your independence, your partial sense of self. Why speak of the place where your dreams were extinguished and your manhood put on trial.
These are daunting journeys and I as well would not want to descend into the hell of those days.
However, there are the Eli Weisels, the writers who have returned to the Gehenna of Hell to relate he stories, some almost forgotten .Philippe Sand dispassionately takes us on a journey to a world where Jews were unwanted, despised, tortured, experimented on and made to disappear because they were Jews. The disabled and handicapped followed, like my father, afflicted by polio, their twisted stories, ghosts that shadow them. And my mind leaps to the parents refusing to vaccinate their children, believing the lies of movie stars or uninformed worriers, ignoring a future that will be corrupted and capable of ensnaring the healthy bodies of those blissfully unaware of sharing a cup of juice or kissing a chubby cheek. Propaganda that will impact on their and our world and destroy the limbs of helpless children, ruining their lives, separating them from the life they deserve. Years of research ignored, years of hard work to extend childhoods of safety.
These barbarians, dictators, the misinformed and worse are the poisoners of our world. Their narratives, told or hidden, the rocky roads that will detour the safety of untold journeys.
May we never relive those traumas of children or parents.