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Restarting Life Out From Under Polio's Shadow

WBUR
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Polio has been a large part of author Gail Caldwell’s life, ever since she contracted the disease at the age of six months.

Though she was eventually able to walk, she couldn’t jump rope or play basketball. But Caldwell was able to swim, row and establish a distinguished career as a writer.

She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book criticism for The Boston Globe and she published two acclaimed memoirs: “A Strong West Wind” and “Let’s Take the Long Way Home.”

Throughout her life though, Caldwell walked with a limp. Along with the medical professionals she consulted, Caldwell attributed the often severe pain she experienced to polio. She considered it a chronic condition that couldn’t be treated.

But in her late 50s, Gail’s symptoms were so pronounced that friends urged her to seek a new opinion. The doctor she saw ordered an x-ray, and as Caldwell tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, “he called me as I was leaving my house and said ‘well no wonder you’re in so much pain, you have no hip left.’”

The doctor also gave Gail the news that surgery could help her pain, as well as her limp. Gail Caldwell’s new memoir “New Life, No Instructions tells the story of what it was like to change the preconceptions she’d had about her life and literally learn to walk again.

Book Excerpt: ‘New Life, No Instructions’

By Gail Caldwell

Book cover image of New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir by Gail Caldwell

My first tip-off that the world had shifted was that the dogs looked lower to the ground. I dismissed the perception as a visual misread: Because I was on crutches and couldn’t bend down to touch them, of course they would seem farther away. Then a friend came to visit, a striking woman whom I’d always considered tall. She was standing across the living room and I was smiling, happy to have her there, and I thought, Tink is small! And I never realized it before.

The fact is that Tink is about my size, but until that day I had looked up to her in more ways than one. I was just home from five days at New England Baptist Hospital, where the chief of joint reconstruction had built me a new hip and lengthened my right leg by five-eighths of an inch. The measurement sounds deceptively slight, but then pi, unexplained, doesn’t mean much, either. What the extended hip bought me was about two inches of additional height, because I was no longer bending forward in pain. It gave my leg something immeasurable: an ability to reach the ground, and the chance and anatomical equipment to walk right for the first time in my life.

Almost as dramatic, at least in the beginning, was the re-orientation of my physical self in space. My perspective had been jolted to the point that trees and cars and other markers of street life felt closer to me, within reach in a way they hadn’t before. I could sense the effort involved in making these neural adjustments: In a simple movement like a step forward, particularly outside, there would be a lurch of visual confusion, then acceptance. It happened quickly and brilliantly, and my comprehending it changed everything: What had seemed to be mere dizziness was in fact the brain’s ballet.

These were transient phenomena, the brain being a nimble choreographer of time and space. Within a few weeks I would be accustomed to the additional height and leg length; our bodies, perfect feats of design, respond to what is in front of them, usually without even bothering to let us know. But the dance I found myself doing with the physical world in the first few days and weeks after surgery signaled something larger, more long-lasting, that I would have to learn and relearn in the following year: the notion that life has an agency, some will and forward motion, greater than one’s own wish or intention. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Dylan Thomas called it. The idea that the whole blessed shebang doesn’t have to be a free fall after all.

I caught polio when I was six months old, in 1951, during one of the last years of the U.S. epidemic, before the vaccines. The virus, which destroys neurons, can lead to full or partial permanent paralysis; it affected the muscles in my right leg, and I didn’t walk until I was past the age of two. Still, the mark on my family’s door was relatively faint: no March of Dimes crutches or iron lung, just a faltering leg that often went unnoticed. The fact of the disease— important but hardly central—had long been incorporated into my shorthand self-description: writer, grew up in Texas, slight limp from polio. Part of the story I’d told myself all my life was that polio had made me a fighter—that I was hell-bent on being strong because of it—and that much was still true. But in the past few years, within the joys and demands of raising a young dog, I had begun to experience pain and lameness I’d never known before. The mystery of this decline cast a shroud of defeat over what I feared lay ahead. It seemed that the aftereffects of the disease had reemerged, ghostly and conniving, like a stalker who’d never left town.

And then: A standard X-ray, ordered probably fifteen years after it was called for, revealed that the scaffolding of my hip was a junkyard of bone. However compromised my leg had been by polio, muscles can’t work without a structure to hold them up. That I had been walking around at all, I was told, was astounding—and a lot of my recent decline could be addressed by one of the most common surgeries in modern medicine. The rest—the retraining and possible strengthening of a rebuilt leg—would be up to me.

What do you do when the story changes in midlife? When a tale you have told yourself turns out to be a little untrue, just enough to throw the world off-kilter? It’s like leaving the train at the wrong stop: You are still you, but in a new place, there by accident or grace, and you will need your wits about you to proceed.

Excerpted from the book NEW LIFE, NO INSTRUCTIONS by Gail Caldwell. Copyright © 2014 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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