The day my father awoke, with both legs paralyzed, America was in the throes of the polio epidemic. It was a frightening time. Our family doctor hurried to the house that morning, tidy black medical kit in hand, and best I recall, the doc stayed with us until the ambulance pulled into the driveway and whisked my dad away to the hospital.
All that was well over a half-century ago, yet it is painful for me to recall it these many years later. Only five years old, I didn’t see or talk to him again for six months, until the day he came home, fiercely gripping a wooden cane and inching his way deliberately, painfully, up the steps to our front door. Silly for me still to feel emotional about it, I suppose, but I do, and bear with me here because it gets a little sillier, though I wish it weren’t so.
It’s about my father’s weights. I still have them. They are in my basement, which desperately needs to be cleaned out, and I’m intent on getting the job done this summer before “Hoarding: Buried Alive” comes knocking at our door.
My father used the weights, the clunky “Healthways Hollywood’’ cast iron weights, to put himself back together. His initial diagnosis was polio, the disease we all feared. In our neighborhood, and true in towns and cities throughout the land in the 1950s, each day grew eerily quiet in the afternoon, parents advised to have children nap in hopes of warding off the affliction. My father went to bed a seemingly healthy man one night, awoke the next morning with his legs lifeless, and it was no surprise, given the hysteria of the times, that the doctors immediately diagnosed polio.
Which, family legend had it, was not the same day my mother, a considerably smaller woman, plucked my dad out of the hospital bed at the Jamaica Plain VA and briefly dragged him around the room. No, by then the doctors had properly diagnosed it as GBS, or Guillain-Barré syndrome, another dreadful disease that mirrors some of polio’s most severe symptoms. Though it can be lethal, GBS typically is recoverable.
My mother dragged him around the hospital room because the doctors and nurses, by her eye, needed prodding. So did her husband. Nothing subtle about the patient’s wife.
“He’s not getting anywhere if you don’t send him to physical therapy!’’ she admonished the lot, including the patient, the man then only in his mid-30s, who came to England during World War II, married her, brought her back to the US. “He’ll never walk again if you don’t get his legs moving.’’
He was in therapy the next day. They got him moving. My dad recovered, enough at first to come home and then eventually in full. But it took a very long time. The clunky cast iron “Hollywood’’ weights were essential to his comeback. So, too, was skating.
For the 30-plus more years he lived, my father worked those weights faithfully. Virtually every night, sitting atop a sturdy handmade workbench in our basement, he would pull on the Healthways Hollywood Healthboot — a Medieval contraption by today’s refined gym equipment standards — and do 10, 15, 20 reps, typically 30 pounds of boot and accompanying weights strapped to a bottom of his leather shoe. He would keep the iron boot propped on the seat of a straightback wooden chair, strap in his foot, yank the chair out from under it all, and then repeatedly flex his knee to lift and lower the foot. He then would dismantle the boot and fashion the weights (2½ or 5 pounds each) into a small barbell set. More reps. Night after night.
Whether his account was accurate or not, I’m not sure, but he contended the GBS permanently paralyzed some of his leg muscles, leaving him to build up “the good ones that are left.’’ True or not, that belief made him keep going.
He also skated, fluidly, effortlessly, up to three times a week, dotting around from one rink to the next, be it MDC or private. Boston Skating Club was a favorite, even if it lacked his preferred deep-freeze factor. It was impossible for a rink to be too cold for my old man. He believed cold was better for his legs.
I often sat with him when he did his weights, the workbench rocking back and forth in rhythm with his leg lifts, classical music playing intermittently on the old Zenith radio in the basement. I went skating with him on school nights more than I should have, my word accepted far too readily that my homework was complete. We played catch in the backyard every summer, from Little League all the way through high school. I can still throw the knuckleball he taught me.
Next month will be 25 years since he died. I have hung on all this time to his old weights, his nicked leather skates, his trusty first baseman’s mitt.
They are the tangible relics of what we shared, testament to how dedicated he was to get better. If I hold these things, I hear his voice, clear as day, and that is precisely what makes cleaning out the basement now so difficult.
The cellar is full of paint cans, vinyl LPs, an old radio here, a bunch of broken hockey sticks there. Too much. Old clothes, bric-a-brac, bits of hardware, scrapbooks, entire newspapers. Junk. I know there really never will be a good time to let it all go. Right or wrong, now’s the time.
My father’s Healthways Hollywood weights are headed to the dustbin. They were the work, the worry, the way back. In his feet and hands, they were what gave him strength. Having the muscle to let it go is a much different story.