The Woman Who Always Wore Two Different Shoes
It wasn't a fashion statement
The Covid pandemic brought back memories of a woman I knew in university who had contracted polio, the epidemic of my childhood. Lynda and I met at the campus bar in my first year of university and fell into an easy friendship, lubricated by long afternoons and evenings of drinking.
I had spotted her before in the cafeteria of the Arts building. I noticed her pronounced limp because it reminded me of the boy who lived next door when I was around four years old. I would spy on him from my upstairs bedroom window, and if he happened to look up and spot me, I quickly ducked. My four-year-old imagination was intrigued by his limp as he walked down the street to go to school, the metal brace on one leg from his ankle to his thigh, and the brown shoes he always wore, one with a thicker sole than the other. But I was too young to understand this boy had been infected with polio.
Lynda and I became friends. She was shy, funny and whip-smart — studying math, statistics, and other equally genius subjects. Like the boy next door, she had polio as a child, spending months in an iron lung, wearing a brace on one leg and having multiple surgeries to correct the damage polio caused. She always wore two different coloured sneakers; one foot was smaller than the other, so she bought two different sizes and colours each time. People stared, so I guess it was her way to give them something to think about.
We only spoke about her polio once: missing school, the months of rehabilitation she endured and her physical limitations. While Lynda did not allow polio to define her, I could see this virus had changed the trajectory of her life. For one thing, she was older when she started university, having missed two years of school as a child.
We did talk a lot about our mothers. I complained about my mother’s expectations that I do well at school. Spending countless hours in the campus bar ensured I wouldn’t meet them anytime soon. I always assumed it was because her schooling had been interrupted, first by the sudden death of her father when she was eleven and then by the Second World War. Like all immigrant mothers before and after, mine was fully invested in her children having the opportunities she did not.
Hers never got over her daughter’s illness. She was overprotective and worried Lynda would somehow fall sick again.
“When I was a kid, she never let me go to the swimming pool or the movies. I never went to summer camp. Birthday parties were out of the question because she thought I might ‘catch’ polio again.”
At the height of the polio epidemic, public health officials quarantined homes and towns where the virus was diagnosed. Parents warned their children not to use public toilets, drink from water fountains, or use pay phones, and admonished them to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. And there were wild theories about how the virus spread involving stray cats or imported bananas. Lynda’s mother freaked out and kept her close to home. Still, the tiny virus found her.
Most people infected with the poliovirus were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, unknowingly spreading it in the community. Sound familiar?
“It felt like a cold with congestion and achy muscles, and then a week later, I had a high fever,” Lynda said.
In ten percent of polio cases, the poliovirus that initially settled in the gastrointestinal tract multiplied and moved on to hit the bull’s eye — the central nervous system. Lynda was one of the ten percent. Her legs gave out from under her, and she couldn’t move. Then, the virus attacked her respiratory system muscles, and she lost her ability to breathe. Lynda spent several weeks in an iron lung, a coffin-like contraption invented specifically for polio. The negative pressure in the iron lung compressed and decompressed her chest and enabled her to breathe.
I met Lynda’s mother several years later, and she seemed perfectly lovely. But by then I was a mother myself and understood the worry and heartbreak her mother might have felt.
Lynda and I were regulars at the campus bar for a while. But I have lost touch with her and wonder if she still wears two different shoes.
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