WHEN AUDREY DIED a year ago I wanted to write something about her, an extraordinary human being who enriched all of us who came in contact with her. But I didn't write anything, partly because I felt that eulogizing would have been insufficient, partly because it probably would have appeared to be private sadness expressed publicly. Perhaps most importantly, I didn't know what to say.
Then I read about Hobart Wilson, the Montgomery County man who was paralyzed by an injury at the age of 5, did everything he could during his youth and adulthood to be antisocial, and finally killed himself and an innocent motorist when he swerved over the center line while driving 100 miles an hour. Wilson's wife says that he had a grudge against the world.
Now I know how to tell about Audrey, and why.
In 1952, some three years before Hobart Wilson was born, Audrey was 23 years old, married, and the mother of two daughters, one an infant and the other two years old. That was one of the terrible last years for polio, just before Dr. Salk's miracle injections. Audrey caught polio, and she caught it bad, almost becoming one of that year's many polio deaths. When the terrible pain and nausea and fever subsided, Audrey found herself encased in an iron lung, completely paralyzed below the rubberized gasket around her neck that sealed her into the respirator and isolated her head from the rest of her body.
With changing governmental means of caring for post-polios, and with the vicissitudes of business and the ability of now one, now another nursing home to handle the job, Audrey moved from hospital to hospital and nursing home to nursing home. With the technologic advances made in the medicine field, she was able to progress agonizingly out of the tank into an upper body Monahan respirator and finally to a positive pressure device that forced rhythmic pulses of air through her open trachea and into her lungs. Always, of course, with the slightest cold or flu -- and they came frequently -- it was back into that awful, frightening iron lung.
For 28 years Audrey lay helpless, never regaining the functional use of any voluntary muscle below her neck. Everything from the most fundamental bodily needs to the slighest thing that might give her pleasure, depended on others -- medical professionals, visiting friends, kind volunteers. But often she had to wait, because the professionals had too many other Audreys to care for, friends had other interests and obligations, and volunteers were few. Audrey spent much of those 28 years waiting. The word "wait" must have had a disappointing and wearying meaning to her, one that probably included such emotional loads as anxiety, impatience, frustration -- often reaching something surpassing even despair.
If you have lost the big things in life, the little ones become very important. For example, television. Today there are devices that attach to the bed, with which a person like Audrey can turn the TV on or off, change channels, or adjust the volume by rocking the head against it or nudging it with the tongue. But 25 years ago those didn't exist, and one relied on ablebodied people to do the job.
Once I came to visit, and Audrey was visibly agitated as I had rarely seen her, with silent tears rolling past her ears to dampen the pillow. There was a particular program or film that she had been looking forward to for some time. It had been one of those anchors that Audrey would put out ahead of her, a moment of anticipated pleasure on which to fasten her attention and make the intervening boredom pass easier. Came the day. A nurse or volunteer had promised to be there in time, after the rush of lunch hour or afternoon medications, to fix the set. As Audrey's clock ticked off the last few minutes before the show and nobody came to help, her excitement became anxiety and then frustration and, by degrees, a silent rage.
Nobody came. The one thing that she wanted today, the only thing that she asked for, was not to be. Had they forgotten? Were they taking a coffee break? Would the program ever be shown again? She couldn't call to them -- it takes breath and lungs for that. Her voice was little more than a whisper. Audrey even cried silently.
Order and neatness were also extremely important to her. We friends or doctors could come and go, being now at her bedside and later in other parts of our worlds. But Audrey's world consisted of half of a small two-patient room: herself and her bed, a cabinet, some shelves, a chair, and her respirator cabinet. It was important that each thing be in its place, so that she could direct a volunteer letter writer to her stationery, or so a visitor could readily find the latest photos of Audrey's girls and later her grandchildren. It was also important that things be correct, that her coverlet not clash with her blouse, that no piece of waste paper be carelessly left on her cabinet.
Sadly, we friends and doctors could easily overlook the importance of such little things and inadvertently cause Audrey discomfort that she could do nothing to alleviate. If someone left the magazine on the chair, rather than to return it to its shelf, it would be there to silently annoy her until someone happened by. Once I visited Audrey after a month's absence. She was overjoyed to see me. She kissed me hello and asked how I was, and would I please take the towel off the foot of her bed and fold it and put in in the drawer.
Soon after her illness, Audrey's husband decided there was nothing left for him in that tank, and left her without even a goodbye. As if that were not enough, the 2-year-old had caught polio with Audrey, and was disabled in one small leg. Through the years Audrey silently suffered the torment of the child's operations and therapy, unable to reach out and soothe her. Then, too, she helplessly watched her husband desert the girls as he had deserted her, and watched them grow to womanhood calling someone else mother. And she was painfully aware as, year by year, her fellow post-polios died in childhood or adulthood, but always prematurely, of after-effects or bodily failures related to their physical condition.
She couldn't fight back, or sit by a child's hospital bed, or have the emotional catharsis of attending a funeral. She was denied all of the relief or satisfaction that might have come from doing something. She could just lie here and wait and try not to think.
Locked as she was inside a useless body, connected on one side to a urine jar and on the other to a respirator, Audrey could not hold hands with a friend or turn off the light. Even Audrey's speech was controlled by her respirator. She either had to speak in short, choppy sentences timed to the exhalation part of the machine's cycle, or in longer sentences interrupted by awkward pauses while air entered her lungs.
In conversations, especially on the phone, the other person would interpret Audrey's pause as an end to her statement. But Audrey wasn't done; she was frustratedly waiting for the machine to finish putting air in her. She still had the second part of her idea to express, and now the other person was speaking. I suspect that Audrey never got to say many things she wanted to.
Polio never affected Audrey's sense of humor or her desire to be a decent human being. She was interested in what her friends did on the outside, and she was deeply concerned about their problems. Twenty-eight years on her back had removed her from much of what we might call "reality." She couldn't fill out a tax form or arrange for the plumber, she had never dealt with her daughters' teachers or helped guide them through adolescence. Inflation was academic to her and family financial planning was a mystery. So Audrey could not give much advice. But she listened, and she cared.
Television and magazines notwithstanding, her family and friends, were the only things she had, and she cherished them. Small gifts, when she had the money, and letters or cards, when she had a volunteer, were tangible evidence that she remembered.
For 28 years Audrey, under an unimaginable burden of frustration, did her utmost to be a kind and loving human being. Audrey, in dealing so humanely with her great problems, helped many of us deal with our small ones.
She caught a cold one day in April of last year. As had occurred so many times before, fluid collected in her breathing passages, but this time the suction machine was unable to clear them. Audrey realized she was dying, and dealt with it peacefully, as she had dealt with life. She died at age 51.
Hers was not a spectacular death, in the sense that Hobart Wilson's was. But after reading of his angry life, I think it is important to remember hers