Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Torn Inside Out…

A little over a decade ago, I was completing my Bachelor of Business Administration degree at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I needed some upper level electives to complete my credit requirement, and was browsing the course catalog for options.

I have always been drawn to people older than me. I spent a great deal of time with my great-grandparents, grandparents, and their friends as a child - more so than with people my own age - and as a result have always been able to chat easily with people of any age. As I read through the course catalog, I was drawn to a 300-level Psychology class called Adult Development and Aging. Psychology had also been a long time interest of mine, but as a non-traditional (adult) student, I knew myself well enough to know that I would not remain in school long enough to earn the requisite doctoral degree that is needed for so many careers in that field.

My major was Human Resource Management, and I felt this Psych class would compliment my degree. As soon as the semester began, I knew I was in the right place. The professor, Dr. Susan McFadden, was mesmerizing. I hung on every word, learning about aging, best practices of caring for the aged, and their dependency on our kindness as they move through the final years of life. I thought often of my grandmother who was still living, and the grandparents who had already passed, hoping I had shown them and their peers the sort of kindness and caring they so deserved.

Mid-way through the semester, Dr. McFadden announced that our class would be pairing with another group on campus for something called "The Polio Project". Our class would conduct interviews of older adults who had lived through the polio epidemic in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin in the 1950's. The other class would catalog and archive the interviews. A sign up sheet was passed around the class with the names of 30 survivors listed on it. Some had contracted polio themselves and lived to tell of their experience. Others had close relatives who had the disease. All we knew were their names. The stories would come later.

When I received the list, I first scanned for names I knew. Believe it or not, I am actually shy when I first meet someone out of the blue like this. Remember, I would just be showing up at their door with a tape recorder and a set of questions. If any of my grandparents or great-grandparents' friends were on the list, I was jumping at the chance to speak with them.

Long story short: there were none.

Instead, I picked a lady who shared a family name. I've spoken on this blog in the past about my Aunt Betty. She was one of my great-grandpa's seven siblings, was a prominent fixture in my childhood, and struggled with Alzheimer's in old age as so many of their other siblings did. Betty's married name was Koch (pronounced "Cook") and there was a Koch on the list. I scribbled my name next to that of Jo Ann Koch and proceeded to set up an appointment with her in the week following.

Jo was (and still is) a lovely woman and she invited me into her home with open arms. She was quiet, and was very open about the fact that she was not used to discussing her polio story. The words flowed freely between us, but her pain was evident. She relayed the story of how her family of six became a family of four within the span of six days in August of 1955. First her sister Jeanie contracted polio and passed away. As her mother was returning from the hospital in Madison after Jeanie's death, she was unknowingly passed on the highway by an ambulance taking Jeanie's twin Georgie to the same hospital where he, too, would die only six days after his sister. Shortly thereafter, their oldest sibling Jack also contracted the disease, but he survived after a prolonged stay in Madison and many therapy sessions in Oshkosh.

I remember the story vividly. I remember sitting in a small sunroom in her home on a hard wooden chair as Jo spoke through tears, and relived these heart breaking moments of her childhood. She spoke about gamma-globulin (I remember stopping her to make sure I was spelling it correctly), a drug that she and other children had been given to prevent them from also contracting the disease. She spoke of her parents, of how the family moved through their loss.

I remember writing up my transcript and submitting it. I remember Dr. McFadden commenting on the story after the fact, about the heart break and the impact it had on her as well.

Time moved on, and I finished the class. One thing lead to another and graduation came and went. I have never stopped thinking of Jo and her siblings. They've never left my mind. Her home is not that far from mine and I've often thought of stopping over just to chat, but who does that these days? That small action that used to be second nature to so many now seems like a potential inconvenience to someone, doesn't it? When did that happen?

Needless to say, I never stopped over to visit. Life moved on. I completed my Bachelor's and then my Masters degree. We had babies. In 2006, as you know if you follow this blog, our son Henry passed away. Shortly thereafter, I ran into Jo at a local restaurant and she commented about the article that had been in the newspaper about our family and Henry's death. We chatted for awhile, promised to stay in touch, and went our separate ways. Last year I ran into Jo and her husband one more time. Butch, Jo's husband, proudly told me of a book his wife wrote about her life story, the death of her siblings, and the many ways polio had touched her life. I remember wanting to read it, but once again failed to follow through.

Fast forward to this past weekend when I was working a booth at a local craft fair with my Origami Owl jewelry. Jo happened past my booth and asked, as she always does, if I was Sarah. I told her I thought of her often and that I would still like to purchase a copy of the book she had written. She went to the car and returned with a book complete with a personal inscription inside noting, among other things, that "our introduction has a meaning that is very special." I wholeheartedly agree.

We chatted a bit more and said our goodbyes. At the next break in customers, I sat down and started to flip through the book. So many newspaper clippings and photographs of her family filled the pages along with her words. I had to close the book as tears threatened to fall, and I relayed Jo's story to my mom who was sitting with me. I also told my mom that for as much as I would love to read the book, and was grateful to have it, I truly didn't know if I could get through it. Having lost a child myself, I find it nearly impossible to read about other children dying, no matter what the cause.

I put the book in my bag and didn't give it another thought until this morning when I picked it up around 8am to flip through the pages again and maybe read a few excerpt. I wanted to see if it was something I thought I could handle. Then I found myself starting at the beginning and before I knew it 40 pages had passed. Off and on, throughout the day, I tackled chapter after chapter. Much of the information was familiar to me - all things she had shared with me during my interview ten years ago. All things I had never forgotten. Somehow though, the stories were so much more personal and meaningful. I laughed. I cried. I mourned for this family with a different heart… the heart of someone now who has also buried a child.

There is a part in the book where Jo shares their 1955 family Christmas letter. She comments afterwards that no where in the letter did her mother mention the twin's deaths. I could relate instantly. It took me years before I was able to say the words dead or died in relation to my son. In some ways, it is still hard for me today. If I was talking about Henry in those early days, I would say things like, "since Henry's passing." Somehow, that hurt less and felt less permanent.

I also realized very early on in my reading that this gamma-globulin that Jo had told me about receiving was the earliest form of IVIG, the treatment my son Jack receives every four weeks at Childrens Hospital of Wisconsin. It is an artificial immune system of sorts… Once thought to help ward off polio, now used to help ward off every sort of disease in the immune compromised.

In addition to small coincidences like these, it occurred to me that Mrs. Wentland was someone I have looked up to without even knowing it. After losing Henry, I spent many days at the cemetery, just walking around. A bypasser would think I was wandering, lost in thought. What I was really doing was looking for survivors. I would walk the rows of the cemetery until I found the grave of a child. Then I would look to see how much longer the mother lived, and think silently that if she could do it… if she could live with that burden of grief… so could I.  Mrs. Wentland survived three of her four children. Although grief touched her life in many ways, she continued to live and to love her family and move through the years after each loss with grace and dignity. She never forgot them. The grief was never far from her heart. But still she continued to work, and travel, and dance. She continued to live. This is what I aspire to do. Women like her are who I look to when the load of grief I carry seems to heavy. They survived by the grace of God, and I will too.

In closing, Jo speaks openly about her faith and the many ways it has helped and comforted her throughout the years. I have often said the same thing. I don't think it was coincidence that I chose her as my interviewee. I believe that our paths were meant to cross. That in some way, we each helped each other to heal just the tiniest bit. I will forever be grateful for this experience; for this introduction.

If you are interested in reading Jo's book, and I hope you are, you will find it available for purchase on Amazon {HERE}.

Torn Inside Out: Releasing Grief 40 Years Later by Jo Ann Wentland Koch

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1 comment:

Sue from Oregon said...

Thanks for sharing this Sarah. ♥ Sue K

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