With a Covid pandemic still raging around the world, somehow this story from my childhood seems like the right one to tell for today’s topic – my favourite toy.
When I was three I had a stuffed toy, a bunny with the very original name of “Bunny”. He was small, gray and had a plastic face with painted eyes, a button nose and pursed mouth. I loved him, dearly.
Without Bunny, I couldn’t sleep. I sucked the index and middle fingers of my right hand while my ring finger pressed Bunny’s ear against the tip of my nose, slowly rubbing it back and forth or in circles. Over the years, I wore a hole right through his ear.
I woke up screaming in the middle of the night. “Daddy, I need to pee!”
When a three-year-old utters those words, parents move, and quickly. Dad came and carried me into the bathroom, pulling down my PJ bottoms and sitting me on the toilet. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing happened.
“If you’re not going to pee,” he said, “it’s back to bed with you.”
“But I neeeeed to,” I whined, “and my neck hurts – a lot.”
After a few more minutes Dad stood me up on the bathroom floor to pull my pants up, and I fell down, screaming “my neck hurts. I can’t stand up.”
I’m sure he thought I was faking it, but by then the whole household was awake. My Mum came in and felt my head. She said it was very hot and she ran to call the doctor.
In those days, doctors actually came to the house. I was back in bed, clutching Bunny and crying hysterically when he arrived.
I don’t remember what he did, but in short order I was bundled up in blankets while Mum and Dad carried me to his car. We crammed into the back seat while he drove us to the General Hospital in Saint John. It smelled of disinfectant and floor soap in the middle of the night.
I sat in a wheelchair, my parents on either side of me, still bundled in my blankets. But Bunny was left behind. Eyes wide, I looked around the cavernous waiting room with high faulted ceilings. There weren’t many people around at that time of night.
Finally the doctor came back with some nurses wearing white masks on their faces. One went behind me and grabbed the handles of the chair, pushing me toward the elevator.
“Dadeeeeeee” I screamed, thrashing in the chair. But, I couldn’t get out.
When the elevators opened, my white-masked captors pushed my chair down a long, dimly lit hallway. Then we went into a long, narrow room. There were windows facing the hallway and others on the outside of the wall. Later on I would find out this was called The Annex – a building actually separate from the main hospital. The room had baby’s cribs in it.
They lifted me into one of the high sided ones and started to walk away. I laid there, unable to rise up, and wailed.
“Daddy, Mummy I want Bunny. I want to go home. Help me.”
No one came.
At three years old, I was much too grown up to be in a crib. They were for babies. But, alone in the night, not even Bunny to keep me company, the small space was somehow comforting.
I laid in that crib for a long time. Kids in the other cribs cried or groaned, and wailed for their mummies and daddies. I felt so very alone and scared.
After a while one of the masked nurses came back. She wheeled my crib over to the hallway window and, on the other side, I could must see my Mum and Daddy. Mum waved to me, trying to smile through the tears falling down her face. She nudged my father and then he waved too. Dad was blind so he couldn’t see me. hHs wave was vague and off target a bit.
I howled and wailed more., terrified and with no understanding of why I was there, a prisoner in a barred bed.
The nurses talked about “polio” and “isolation” and “paralysis”, “prognosis” and many big words that I didn’t understand.
I tried to stand up, to climb out of that crib and escape. But my legs weren’t working.
“Help me! I can’t stand up!”
And Daddy cried.
I don’t remember the next several months other than visits through the window and people in white, wearing masks, doing things to me. There were periods in a whirlpool tub where a nurse held me while the water moved around me and someone else moved my legs. There was another room where we went to do more exercises, and someone else moved my scrawny legs.
Every night I buried my face in my pillow and cried. I no longer screamed, waking the other kids, but I sobbed. No mummy and daddy to comfort me. No Bunny to hold and rub. I couldn’t escape. I couldn’t walk.
Months later I went home. Some feeling had come back and I was no longer contagious or a danger to those close to me in that final year of the last great polio epidemic in Canada, 1953. But my needs were many. I was learning to walk again. I had physiotherapy appointments and exercises to do. My legs hurt when I moved them, and I cried, a lot.
But the worst? My Bunny was gone. In the fumigation of our flat that followed my polio diagnosis, all soft things I’d touched were burned – clothing, bedding, and Bunny.
Across the street Miss Cox, the neighbourhood spinster, had polio too. After months in an iron lung, she died.
One of my playmates, Heather, had a mild case too. While I was left with a short leg and clumsiness, she had to learn to live with a facial disfigurement that would make her look like a stroke victim for the rest of her life.
That same year, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, just a few months too late for us.
My parents bought a new Bunny for me and I learned to love him – just not as much.
But your first love is your best love, isn’t it?