The lives they had

I am awestruck over these two lives profiled in the NY Times Magazine; their stories included in the magazine’s look at notable deaths in 2009:

Martha Mason and Maurizio Montalbini: They Lived Apart

In 1948, polio came for the children of Willard and Euphra Mason of Lattimore, N.C. First it took 13-year-old Gaston, killing him in days. His sister, Martha, grief-stricken, terrified, knew on the day of her brother’s funeral that her aching muscles meant she was sick, too. She decided she would not go to bed: she would outrun the disease. But she could fight sleep for only so long, and she woke to her weeping mother mopping her forehead. At a hospital an hour away, she heard her mother say, when told to go home, that she had no home to go to. Instead, Mrs. Mason got a job at the hospital. When her daughter was transferred to another facility, she got a job there too.

An iron lung looks like an enormous metal coffin or a 19th-century rocket ship: only its occupant’s head is left outside, a tight seal around the neck. A series of pumps inflate and deflate the lungs. For Martha Mason, age 11, now a quadriplegic, the iron lung was a rocket ship home. After a year in the hospital, doctors sent her back to Lattimore in a machine paid for by the March of Dimes and told her parents to make her last year alive a happy one.

One day she noticed a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” on a bookshelf and read it. “Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away,” it said. “Sometimes I pretended that my brother had left ‘Meditations’ there for me,” she wrote later. She lived that year, and the next. Her high-school teachers brought lessons to her every afternoon; her parents moved with her to the campus of a local junior college, and then to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, where she attended class by intercom and majored in English. She graduated first in all three classes. Flat on her back, she’d outrun the disease after all.

Read on, and marvel;
I wonder if I would dare to give a dinner party while in an iron lung? I wonder why I do not give more dinner parties, now.

I love the Marcus Aurelius quote:

“Take away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed,’ and the harm is taken away,”

What sane, healthy advise in a world where everyone is perpetually offended and hurt. And how merciful it is both to others and to ourselves. I have put it on my wall.

We hear a lot of talk about “quality of life” issues -they go hand in hand with “Obamacare” issues and pro-life issues. My bottom line is always this: one person’s life may seem wasted, or unenviable, or horrifically difficult to another, but it is the life that person has -in all of its difficulties, challenges and “deficiencies,” it is still the life that person has; he or she should be allowed to live it. If we are to err, let it be on the side of life.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • retriever

    An inspiring story, thanks for retelling it.

    I remember visiting patients in the hospital who would tell me that before they got sick they would have said “put me out of my misery” if they were to become crippled/or lose a faculty/or have trouble breathing or eating. Except for the ones suffering from clinical depression, or in screaming agony,(and these two groups could usually be helped if compassionately given the right medicines and therapy) they all told me that their perspective had changed once the unthinkable had happened. Life was painful, terrifying at times, or all the time, certainly. And yet something in life, something of God or of simple human kindness could make them want to hold onto life.

    And flowers of love could sometimes spring up in the cracks of their broken hearts and aching bodies. God there.

  • Mimsy

    If your name is Martha, you must entertain…thanks for the incredible story. I read the link, too. People are amazing!

  • Patricia

    Wonderful, inspiring story that reminds me of the foolishness of my laziness and complaints.

  • MJ

    Thank you for that wonderful post. Those stories are inspiration for all!!

  • Elizabeth K.

    My family was touched by polio, and I found it incredibly moving to read abot someone else’s experiences–thank you!

  • newguy40

    Thanks. Another reminder of the value and sanctity of life on the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

  • Gayle Miller

    If you look around you with care, there are little miracles everywhere!

  • Anjalika

    Thank you so much for sharing this. My family, too, has been touched by polio. And, we have been so blessed that all of us in all of our subsequent illnesses have been covered by really exceptional insurance coverage. I thank God that the U.S. is getting closer to having most of our very, very poor have good health care available to them — so that even the poorest of our brothers and sisters will have the blessing of health care.

  • scmommy

    Thank you for the reminder of what God can do. My husband spent 4 months in ICU in 2008(ruptured Aeorta). Once I got him home, it took a year to get him back on his feet (literally). I was asked often (every other day) if I was willing to take his feeding tube out, that it was too much for me to deal with. Hubster now works part time doing his first love – carpentry. How beautiful is it that he does the same work as our savior?!

  • Gina Nakagawa

    It is God who is amazing. He will show us his works in the most hidden ways. “Martha, Martha, thou art busy about many things…” Let us praise God for it!

  • MamaT

    retriever in the first comment is absolutely right. I lost my mother last year after a long and valiant fight with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. As her health worsened, she became more and more housebound, dependent upon oxygen tanks 24/7. If you had asked her at 35 what she would want if she had come to that place, she would have cavalierly taken the “put me out of my misery” position. However, in real life, it didn’t work that way. Though limited, she saw her grandson grow to young manhood and was a loved and vital part of his life. He is twice the man he would have been had he not had an ailing grandmother to care for and love. With her suffering she purchased the virtues of patience, caring and compassion for the rest of us.

    Her life had value. To herself, certainly. But even more importantly, I think, to all of US, her family.

    Beware those thoughts that would so readily be rid of life. When circumstances change, minds change too. I’ve seen it.

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  • Kensington

    The poor already have access to healthcare, Anjalika, albeit not necessarily under the best of circumstances.

    What the US is moving closer to, unfortunately, is the sort of system where people like lovely Martha will be seen as a burden and far less likely to receive the sort of decades long care that she was able to receive under the current system.

    And America will be the worse for it.

  • Anjalika

    America will be the worse for continuing to allow our poor to die — we need a life affirming system that protects and respects life.

    Those in the United State who do not have insurance are 25% more likely to die in the hospital — link w/ PDF Last year, almost 45,000 adult deaths were related to a lack of insurance. And then, there are the children who die of curable illnesses and diseases. And, the fact that the U.S. ranks 16th or 28th in infant mortality (depending on whether you are looking at the WHO or CDC data — and acknowledging that some of it is the result of expensive fertility procedures that often result in multiple and premature births). We need a health insurance system that provides some protection for poor folks — both the working poor and the homeless poor. A system that would not deny a person like lovely Martha care or cut off her services because she has a preexisting condition.

    What has been proposed looks a lot like the Swiss system … which is pretty darned good.

  • dymphna

    Two years ago my MIL got sick. She had the “put me out of my misery” reaction and then she thought about her little grandaughter. She’s hanging in there now and is determined to make it to my niece’s wedding.

  • David


    Infant mortality data are not very reliable when compared between countries – there are multiple definitions of what it means to be a “live birth” and different ones are used by different countries. If corrections are made for those disctinctions, much of the discrepancy between the US and other countries in this area vanishes.

  • Anjalika

    If we err — let it be on the side of life.

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