Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ventilation, Part 8 (fictionalized history)

(In 1952, polio reached its peak in the United States with 21,000 cases of paralytic polio. The first polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. By 1965, the total paralytic cases had fallen to 61. In this fictionalized history series, we will be experiencing the aftermath of polio, before the dramatic triumph of a vaccine. If you're just joining us, go back to Part 1.)

Six Months After Hospital Admission
December 1952

The nurse scrubbed shampoo into Julia's hair. A folded towel darkened under her head. They used as little water as possible to minimize the mess.

Of course, it was easier to wash at the sink. But the girl hated being pulled from the iron lung. She panicked at the struggle to breathe.

"Are feeling okay today, honey?"

The girl didn't answer. Just stared.

"Your mom's coming today. Aren't you happy about that?"

The girl didn't even blink.

"Don't you want to see your family?"


Barely a whisper.

The nurse began carefully rinsing.

"You don't mean that, honey."

Julia's head snapped up off its rest. The nurse jerked back in shock.

"YES! I DO!"

Her head splashed back onto the towel and sprayed suds onto the nurse's lap.


The nurse gaped as tears spilled over the girl's cheeks.


The girl squeezed her eyes shut and tried to control her voice. "I know what today is."


"I know! Don't you think I do? Don't you think I hear things?"

"Julia, what do you think you--"

"Six months. That's what it is." The girl choked out the words. "I haven't gotten any better. You're going to tell my mother I'm not going to get better."


The girl shook her head back and forth, back and forth, but it was weak. The polio even crippled her anger.

"Julia, nobody knows that. You can still get better."

She sobbed harder.

"Julia. You never know. Anything can happen."

The nurse glanced at the clock. How late it was. The kid was getting hysterical.

"I have to finish you hair."

Back and forth, back and forth.

"Julia, I have to finish your hair."

Getting late. The kid sputtering.

Out of time.

"Now you listen!"

The nurse grasped Julia's head in her hands and glared into the upside down eyes.

"Stop it! Right now!" she said.

Flooded blue eyes. Quivering lips.

"Your mother can't see you like this! You have to be strong for her, Julia. You have to be strong!"

The girl sniffled as the nurse mashed the soap from the rest of her hair. The roughness quieted the child.

When the nurse paused at the doorway with her sopping bundle of laundry, she saw Julia's stoic eyes turned upward.


They had gone to stone.

On to Part 9.
Back to Part 7.


Charles Gramlich said...

A tough read. Well written, of course, but the subject matter is wonderfully rendered and it takes you back. Polio was certainly a horrid disease.

Sarah Hina said...

Even her emotions must be paralyzed.

The nurse's anger was such a great touch. Sympathy can be extended, as long as everything is under control. Not that that flimsy comfort is enough for Julia, anyway. She understands her fate.

So heartbreaking that her identity is being stolen, too. The photo is the perfect accompaniment, Jason.

Aine said...

Yes-- Sarah put into words what has been bothering me since I saw the photo. Her identity is being stolen. It has always been difficult to think "what if..." when meeting people who are seemingly random victims of disease, but this one has taken those emotions to a new level for me. And that level became crystal clear when I saw what you did to the photo of my own daughter....

Thanks(?) Your writing certainly adds dimension to my existence.

Perhaps that's why I chose you...

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece of writing. Very emotive/atmospheric. I felt quite tense while reading it. Brilliant last line.

ChrisEldin said...

The photo is haunting, and together with the writing it creates an honest and disturbing look at what disease can do.

Milly said...

This is heart wrenching, yet I’m always wanting to read more.

iamnasra said...

Im touched and aching at reading the story ..thank you for lighting us a history some of us dont even know

Anonymous said...

Charles, it has been difficult to grab onto these themes and tunnel into them without shying away. Thanks for the support!

Sarah, as much as we want the world to cuddle up around this cheated child and protect her, it just won't. This part is a turning point for Julia. After this, she will have to embrace the realities of her condition and move on the best she can.

Aine, to be honest, I can't look at the picture very long. It disturbs me too, being based on our own child. It rams the horror home. That's the dark road I'm walking. In a small way, I'm trying to live the what-ifs. And I'm glad that road is something I can share with you. :)

Strangers, if you felt tense, then I did my job. Thanks for telling me so!

Chris, it's hard not to weep for her. For everyone like her.

Milly, I think this series is going to have the greatest impact of all my fictionalized history series. We are going to live the essense of Julia's life with her.

Nasra, thank you, my friend. It's those quiet connections across distance and darkness that I'm shooting for. I'm happy that these glimpses have meaning for you.

Geraldine said...

What a gripping read with a powerful and memorable ending. Well done Jason.

I recently wrote a short story for the first time in a long time and it was such a good experience and to 'stretch' a bit once again, in terms of my writing. The Homecoming has been very well received over at MPP and I'm thinking now that I may continue with this story idea and see where it takes me. Feedback is so helpful, isn't it. I always value yours and my other reader's too. So grateful for continued support and encouragement.

Are you working on this series about polio with thoughts of novel? I think it would make a very good one.

Look forward to your upcoming posts Jason. You continue to keep me interested in 'what's next' at Clarity of Night and also inspired too.

Thanks again, Hi and hugs to you and Aine and BFN, G

Anonymous said...

She is so helpless in that iron lung. She is entombed. Her inability to complete an ordinary task like washing her hair highlights her hopelessness. This is so good. I almost can't bear to read any more but your writing is so potent I am reeled in every time!

Patricia J. Hale said...


Anonymous said...

Geraldine, growing by sharing writing in this format for a wide audience is a great gift. Writers should take advantage of it more than they do. The ability to grow quickly is enormous.

Selma, such a terrible adjustment for the child to make. But I think she will. I think she will learn how to still enjoy the life she has. Thank you for the kind words about my writing!

Patricia, thanks so much!

JaneyV said...

This was so uncomfortable - brilliantly so. It would've done a great disservice to the many thousands whose prognosis was such, had it not been. I can't imagine what it must feel like to be entombed for six months - the anguish, helplessness, isolation, boredom… it must diminish the self so greatly.

In many ways the story of Julia is the easier one to tell - what I love about this series is how you have portrayed the other victims so clearly as well - the parents, the nurses - each one diminished in their own way by the sadness of the situation.

As always with your writing Jason, so much food for thought.

paisley said...

be strong for her.. taking the focus off that which must be playing over and over and over in the rhythmical pattern of air within that iron long.. forever has become the enemy.. wow...