“Mummy, my throat hurts.”
That is what I remember of the descent into hell.
From a darkened room, a cold wet cloth over my forehead, my stomach churning; to a hospital isolation ward full of moaning children, a long journey of pain and darkness began.
The sun had risen on a summer morning, its mystical shards of light piercing my bedroom window, but unlike other mornings where I looked eagerly towards a day romping in the paddocks with my beloved dog, Charlie, and other best friend, Dobby the horse, I cowered under the blankets, a huge band of agony wrapping itself around my skull, my throat felt full of angry bull ants, biting and biting.
The daily sound of my mother’s heels on the wooden floor came closer, coming to rouse me from my bed, the door gave its usual creaking as she pushed it open and called my name.
Under the blankets my agony increased. When my poor mother pulled the sheets back and laid her hand on my arm to gently shake me awake, my scream of pain sent a shock through her that I can still feel to this day.
I was eight years old when my life changed forever. From a sunny morning in the mountains to a sterile hospital ward with which I will always associate the colour white, my life changed. Maybe that is why I detest white. After my mother had taken in the enormity of my pain, and realised that I had possibly been struck down by the dreaded disease, I was bundled into our old station wagon, and driven down the long dirt road to the nearest doctor. My screams had become whimpers as the pain drained my energy.
Polio. It was every parent’s nightmare. Infantile paralysis. But it did not only strike down infants.
Shaking his head, the man who had pulled me from my mother’s womb confirmed that it was polio, and that I should be taken to the hospital, some fifty miles away.
I cannot imagine my parent’s distress, nor the burden that they were facing, as this verdict was delivered. But to the hospital they took me, and after being denied entry to the ward, due to the infectious nature of the disease, I watched as their stricken faces disappeared from the ward window, too enveloped in my misery to recognise the separation that I was facing.
Pain was my new world. It started with a long needle into my spine, the searing fire in my legs, the hot packs, and manipulation of my muscles. Gradually an awareness of my new life as a cripple descended on me, and tears of self-pity wet my pillow often, even though I knew that in the next ward, the whooshing sounds meant life for the children in iron lungs. Overheard snippets from the nurses educated me on the many facets of my disease.
I learnt that I was lucky. My case had been diagnosed quickly, and I had been admitted to treatment with a good chance of recovery, to a certain extent. The pain was fading, although the atrophied muscles in my legs would never allow me to run again in the paddocks with my Charlie, nor clamber onto the back of Dobby, the braces being fitted to my limbs would allow me to walk, and return to school.
My parents visited every Sunday. The long drive, the time away from the farm and the cost; I never realised until much later, their sacrifices. But as the nurses and therapists worked hard to return some life back into my useless legs, to learn to control them in the braces, to use the walking cane, my hope rose that maybe soon, I would return home with my parents, one of those Sundays. Back to the normality of my pre polio life.
Looking back, I can now see how naive I was.
The day did come. My mother’s eyes were streaming as she brought a brown paper package for me to unwrap, revealing a beautiful organza dress, white cotton socks and frilly knickers. They were a band aid for the metal that encased my legs, as I hobbled slowly out to the car.
My hurt knew no bounds as my Charlie sniffed cautiously around and up and down me, warily, as if I were a stranger, but as his nose read the many layers of strange scents I had acquired, sifting through the mix, he arrived at the essence of me and went into a canine dance of pure delight. Collapsing sideways into the dirt, much to my mother’s dismay, I was jumped on, slobbered over, snuffled, and the beautiful dress that my mother had spent hard gotten coin on, became a rag in a matter of moments. But how I laughed, and cried, and laughed again, as this animated being showed me that I was still me, that I had not become something else trapped in the metal bindings.
The stark reality that my life had changed forever came as I realised the things I could not do. Without my braces, I could not walk down the brick path to the toilet. No more carefree running to collect the eggs, or climbing the Redgum in the horse paddock. Riding my bike the two mile to school was no longer an option, and the trip became a daily task for my mother, who learnt to drive so as she could take me there.
School. That was another big disappointment. I had missed so much that I had to repeat a year. My friends had moved up and I was back with younger children. I could not play elastics, or skip rope. I could not run in the egg and spoon race at the sports days, or swim at the creek. I could not, could not, could not…….I grew sick of could not.
Waking early one morning, I lay and watched the sun send prisms of light dancing over my bedroom walls, wondering if I would ever feel that lightness in me again.
What if I could feel as light as feather, what if I could feel the power of running free again?
The skin on my thighs tingled with a forgotten memory. I looked at the dancing light and saw two deep liquid brown eyes, with a swath of black forelock shyly covering them.
Dobby. I had been told not to go into the paddock with him. I would hobble to the fence, feeding him apples and carrots, crying at the agony of not being able to ride him. But never to be on his back again, that was a freedom that was torn from me.
The seed grew, my mind seeing me getting the bridle down from the hook in the shearing shed. Stroking his nose till he dropped his head down low enough to ease the bit into his mouth, and gently pull the headpiece over his ears. I sat up so quickly, my head spun. I could feel my heart banging in my chest. So eager was I to feel this freedom, I forgot that my legs, without braces, were useless, and as pushed myself out of bed, I crumpled to the floor.
And laughed. I lay there, giggling as my imagination showed me the way to my freedom. It would mean defying my parents. It would mean risking more pain. It would mean feeling alive.
Dragging myself up onto the bed, I reached over to the chair, grabbed my jeans, dragged them on, and strapped my braces onto my itching legs. Slowly, quietly, I went through the french doors of my bedroom, out onto the verandah. I could hear the murmur of my parents as they shared an early cup of tea in the kitchen. There was a very small doubt in my mind that maybe I was not doing the right thing. Very rarely did I defy my parents. Then the glorious memory of riding Dobby in a rocking canter up the slope to the top of the hill, the being at one with him, it came at me in full force and took my breath away. I looked out over the paddocks, and saw him under the Redgum, his tail swishing at the early blowflies.
I can do this. I will do this.
The first check was climbing through the fence. If I went around to the gate, my parents would see me. Holding onto the post, trying to avoid the barb wire wrapped around it, I lowered myself until I lay on the ground. Rolling beneath the bottom wire, the smell of green grass in my face, I repeated the process to drag myself to stand again.
The shearing shed steps were rickety and I realised how easily I had run up and down them in the past, as I gripped the slab walls with my fingers, stiffly swinging one leg at a time up each step. The joy I felt when my hand closed around the well-oiled leather of Dobb’s bridle made my spine tingle.
I paused and inhaled the rich smell of dust and lanolin, a perfume I had never appreciated before, as it was so readily accessible, remembering running into the shearing shed, running in the paddock. Running.
No more. No more running. But, there was riding. The devil sat on my shoulder and whispered in my ear. Remember the feeling of power, remember the freedom, the glorious being at one with a creation of Mother Nature.
My braces slid along the smooth silken floor of the board as I hurried as best I could towards the door, and down the ramp, hoping that my parents had not yet called me from my room.
Leaning against the rails of the ramp, I called softly to Dobby, “C’mon, come up.”
His ears flickered in recognition, he knew my voice after all the months away.
“Dobby, come up.”
Lazily, he turned his head towards the shearing shed, his liquid brown eyes searching for the familiar voice. Ears forward, he turned from under the tree and walked towards the shed.
Time slowed down.
I noticed the leaves lifting and swirling as a willy willy touched by. The crow perched on the dead tree by the chook yard cawed his cry. The dust muffled hoof beats of Dobby walking towards me were the sweetest music I had ever heard.
He came closer, his velvet muzzle outstretched, looking for the carrot I had always brought for him.
“Not today,” I whispered. “Sorry, but I need you to forgive me today. I promise I will give you some tomorrow.”
With my back against the ramp, I reached for his mane, winding my fingers into to the long strands of hair, feeling its strength. With my other hand, I spread the headband of the bridle and put it in front of his forehead.
As he had been taught, he lowered his head, allowing me to lean in against him, and use my other hand to guide the bit into his mouth. Doing up the cheek strap, drawing the reins up over his head and along his neck, my heart took flight.
I can do this.
One step at a time, his four hoof beats matching my stilted two steps, we walked over to the old strainer post that had fallen in the corner of the sheep yards. I grabbed Dobby’s mane and, by more luck than skill, I dragged my metal trapped legs one at a time, up onto the rounded wood.
Reaching my left hand forward, I encouraged Dobby to step closer, so that his back was level with my stomach. I giggled with the joy of what was about to happen. I had no doubt that it would. I held the reins in my left hand, fingers entwined in his mane. Reaching up on my tip toes I lay over his back, my weight evenly on each side of him.
The dragging of my legs stunned me. This is not how it would be!
Tears sprung into my eyes. No, just no.
Balancing across his wither, whispering softly to him, pleading with him not to move, I slid back down, leaning against his thick barrelled ribs. My fingers found the straps of the hated braces, quickly undoing the buckle and laces on my right leg. Gripping his mane again, I leant across his back and reaching down, grabbed the jeans at the knee, twisted, and pulled with everything I had.
My leg came up and over his back. I had surprised myself so much with this effort, I was momentarily stunned. A slight shuffle from Dobby reminded me of the precarious position I was in, so I leant forward, wriggled my backside into a position where I could sit up straight on my horse for the first time in over a year.
With one hand on the reins, and the other on his neck, I guided him towards the gate, grateful that the metal brace still on my left leg did not seem to worry him.
Dropping the reins on his neck, and holding tightly onto that lifeline of mane, I reached over and undid the gate latch. Dobby’s training kicked in and he side passed as I held the gate. We were through the last hurdle.
In front of us were the hills covered in Kurrajong and Yellow Box, the moss covered granite rocks grey against the green of the spring grass.
“Now Dobby, now!”
I clicked my tongue and let my weight push down to become one with this equine saviour of mine.
We cantered. And we galloped. And we flew.
Top 10 place Open Section – Elyne Mitchell Award 2018
Copyright Kim Winter – 2018