Arriving home from choir practice, I found Dad sitting on the edge of his bed in his undergarments. I needed to leave immediately to get Mom to church on time, and I could not come back to get him right away because the choir was performing, and I was singing in the choir. “You go ahead and take Mom to church,” Dad read my mind. He seemed very tired, and without Mom to help him with his socks, and exhausted from yesterday’s long funeral, this Sunday seemed like a good day for him to rest. Mom and I had been sitting in our customary pew for only ten minutes when Dad appeared in the aisle beside us, hunched over his cane. Surprise understates my reaction—I was shocked. Mom and I leapt up to allow him into the pew (we could never have climbed over him to join the choir), where he huffed and heaved to regain his breath. He had walked to church with his cane in one hand and an umbrella in the other. “I tried 100 times to get my socks on,” he whispered, a bit too loud, as the young men distributed the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood. “I was collapsing—I wasn’t going to make it.” That is when a teenager in white shirt and tie jumped from his car and grabbed Dad, walking with him to the church doors. “You don’t really need my help,” the boy reassured as Dad leaned on him hard, “but I’ll just stay with you until we get into the church.” The boy helped him past the doors and down the chapel aisle to our bench. “I must have tried 20 times to get my socks over all of my toes,” he bemoaned. “My knees are still hurting.” After his breathing calmed, I reached over Mom and patted him on the knee, giving him a thumbs up sign. He smiled and brightened at my recognition of his heroism. “After you left, Rog, I realized how much I wanted to be in church.” Yes, I say heroism. Walking 50 feet to the mailbox is a major effort, taxing him for hours, and he had just walked 20 times that distance. “I only have this much strength in a day,” he gestured a distance of two feet, “and I have totally used it all up.” How many times have I decided ambivalently that I was too tired or discouraged to go to church? And this old man, nearly lame from post-Polio—this old man, with a big heart full of love for his Savior and humanity—he wanted very badly to go to church and worship, and he defied his circumstance and went.
(Pictured above: a fairly typical church meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Image used under the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Dad contracted polio in the early 1940s—so we believe—a mild case. His left leg developed with smaller muscles and no ligament support in the arch of the foot. Without thick homemade orthotics, he walks with his ankle bone on the floor. Ouch. Still, with resolve and grit, he compensated and persevered, taking up jogging as a health-hobby. He typically ran seven miles during his lunch break at work, and often 20 miles on Saturdays, for two decades. He clocked 13 marathons, and one 50-mile ultra-marathon (“I never got tired!”). For years, his resting heart rate was about 35 bpm. In his eighth decade of life, however, even walking has become nearly impossible. And not just due to the weak leg and foot, or from age, but from post-polio syndrome. No matter his exercise level, he cannot seem to strengthen, but continues to deteriorate. The Mayo Clinic says post-polio syndrome is characterized by progressive muscle and joint weakness and pain (check), general fatigue and exhaustion with minimal activity (check), and muscle atrophy (check). I have to remember, as we go to the gym, to walk the fine line between strengthening and debilitation, between rejuvenation and exhaustion. The last time we left the gym, he clung to my arm and worried, “I don’t know if I can make it to the car, Rog.” But Dad has such determination (“I am a fighter!”), and together we understand his desire to push himself right to the edge, to do all he can do, without tumbling over the cliff.
(This blog, author, and essay have no relationship with, and do not represent the views of, the Mayo Clinic.)
Dad stubbed his fourth toe against the couch at three in the morning. The toe pained him badly and turned black and purple. “I think I’ve broken my toe,” he announced to me the following day. Poor guy, I thought, there’s always one more thing. Fortunately, his regularly-scheduled podiatry appointment was only three days away. The podiatrist was so considerate as he clipped and ground, bandaged and lotioned, stockinged and shod. Childhood polio and 20 years of marathon running have taken their toll, eliminating ligaments and mashing bones. Was all that jogging and marathoning worth it? As a teenager, I saw Dad taking his pulse one evening. “Twenty-eight!” he cheered. His resting heart rate was about 30 beats per minute for two decades. I wondered how many heartbeats his exercise had saved him over those years, and if he were getting good use of them now at 85. His own father died of a heart attack at 59, before I was born. One Saturday morning in New Jersey, Dad did not come home from his 20-mile training run. I knew roughly his route, and Mom sent me in the station wagon to find him. That long run on that hot humid day had been too much, and I found him walking on Cranberry Road miles from home. I gave him a thermos of cool water, and we stopped at Claire’s market for fresh sweet corn on the cob, Jersey tomatoes, juicy peaches, and the most delicious crenshaw.