My wife and I live in the same building with our son and daughter-in-law and their two children, Stella, five, and Zelda, eight months. Like everyone else, the coronavirus pandemic began to change our lives a week or so ago. Schools closed, and my daughter-in-law is working at home, so I have become Stella’s schoolteacher. She comes down in the morning about 8:00 o’clock and has a bite to eat with us before we begin reading class at 9:00 a.m. In the morning the radio is always on public radio news and though I wasn’t paying attention, Stella was. She said to me, “Grandpa, so this virus is still spreading?” So I had to tell her the truth, while at the same time trying not to alarm her. “Yes, it’s still spreading. But we’re going to wash our hands and keep away from other people until this is over.”
When I was a child in the early 1950s, I lived through the polio epidemic. In 1952 some 60,000 children became infected, thousands were paralyzed, and 3,000 died. As a child I knew about polio. If you got it, I’d heard, you became paralyzed and had to live in an ion lung, a big steel tube that breathed for you. One of those summers — I don’t know which and because my mother died last year I can’t ask her, but I am pretty sure it was 1952, which means I was seven years old or would be that August — I was diagnosed with polio.
We lived in Chicago and my parents had taken me to the crowded beaches at Lake Michigan. Soon afterwards I had the symptoms: fever, sore throat, headache, pain in my neck and legs, and weakness. I was taken to a doctor and then to a hospital to have something called a spinal tap. The doctor told me to lie on my stomach and then told me, “I’m going to put a needle in your back. You can’t move while I’m doing this or you could be paralyzed or even die.” I lay very still while he did the tap. Then he told me to stay still for another half hour. After it was over the doctor told my parents in front of me that I might have had a mild case of polio, but that I seemed to be fine now. So, I thought, no iron lung for me. The idea that I had to have a test that might paralyze me in order to prevent a disease that might paralyze me has stuck in my mind all of these years, that is, more than sixty-five years now.
After our reading class, Stella and I do some other activity. Yesterday we made masks. Then we went for a long walk down Eastern Parkway toward Prospect Park. We walked along by ourselves but we were not alone. There were hundreds on the streets: riding bikes, jogging, walking, couples, parents and children. People were keeping their distance. Stella and I sat down on a stone bench in front of the library, without touching it. We carried some hand sanitizer with which we washed our hands and then ate our fig bars and our tangerines.
Yes, Stella, the pandemic is still spreading. In fact, it is just beginning to spread. We all have to be careful. So far, there is no vaccine as there was for polio just a few years after my spinal tap. “We’ll be okay, Stella,” I told her. I told myself, I hope we’ll be okay.
“Okay, Stella, let’s walk through Prospect Park.”