When I was four years old, my sister, Suzanne, who was six, died of polio. I have vivid memories of the huge iron lung engulfing her in the living room of my grandmother’s apartment where my mother and I lived in Mullens, West Virginia. I remember being disappointed when I saw my father. My mother had summoned him because Suzanne was dying. He and my mother had been separated for so long that I didn’t remember what he looked like. I had hoped he was handsome. He wasn’t.
The function of the machine that held my sister—the iron lung—had to be paused for her to be allowed to swallow. At one point, when she was being spoon-fed her medicine, she said, “Let Daddy—” Then the lung came back on. When the medical staff paused it again, she said, “—do it.” So he fed her the medication.
Before Suzanne died, I was moved to my grandmother’s farm in the nearby hills. One of my great aunts took care of me. I remember asking why everyone was so sad about Suzanne. Didn’t anyone care about me? That made my aunt cry.
I have often wondered what would have happened if Suzanne hadn’t succumbed to infantile paralysis. My father’s visit at the time of her death led eventually to my parents’ reconciliation, and, as a result, I grew up in the San Francisco bay area. A few years after their reunion, he was in prison for embezzlement, and she was drunk much of the time. Now far away from my mother’s family, I was left on my own. One result was that I became a loner and fiercely self-reliant. My ability to depend on myself saved my life more than once during the years when I was on the battlefield in Vietnam and elsewhere.
How different would my life have been if Suzanne had lived?