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Scarvey column: A view of rainbows and roses — from an iron lung

My wonderful friend Mary Dalton, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University, knows a lot of interesting people, and I’m fortunate to get to meet them sometimes.
Some years back, she began telling me about Martha Mason. Mary began working to arrange a trip so I could meet this bright new star in her firmament of friends. Soon, she was part of my firmament as well. Who can resist a star?
Martha was smart, witty, warm, wise ó an altogether radiant presence.
On May 4, I was saddened to receive word that Martha had died in her sleep. The death of this woman who spent most of her 71 years in the tiny town of Lattimore made the New York Times.
Martha’s passing was newsworthy because she had lived for 61 years in an iron lung ó longer, in all likelihood, than anyone ever has.
Martha fell ill with polio at 11 ó on the same day her brother was buried of the same disease, which paralyzed her from the neck down.
When I met this remarkable woman, Mary and I were both navigating our own tough patches of road. It hadn’t been long since my daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and not long after that, Mary’s son (who is almost exactly Quinn’s age) was struck by a car, resulting in a coma.
The outcome for both our children has been miraculously good ó but that was a period of time in which our conversations were often somber and philosophical, exploring pain and loss. Considering Martha and her fixed but luminous place in the universe helped us, I believe, put our pain in perspective.
I knew that my daughter’s life would be altered by her brain cancer, even if she recovered. Martha’s example provided the most blessed assurance that her life need not be diminished by circumstances.
I visited Martha several times with Mary. Once, at Martha’s urging, Quinn accompanied us.
Quinn was struck, as I was, by seeing the 7-foot-long bright yellow metal cylinder that encased Martha. Although newer technology eventually came along, she chose to stick with her old reliable machine because she knew it and trusted it; it didn’t require her to have tubes in her throat to enable her to breathe, and her aides were well-equipped to handle it. She had a back-up generator, and the local fire department checked up on her when there were power outages.
I suppose that someone hearing about Martha’s situation without meeting the flesh and blood Martha might have considered her a curiosity, an object of pity, perhaps, and assumed that her existence had been tragically limited by the machine that kept her paralyzed body alive.
More than a half century ago, Martha’s doctor called her body “a prison.”
“Can you live with that?” he asked her.
“No, but I can live above it,” she replied.
Her iron lung was anything but a straitjacket for Martha. With its gentle, rhythmic whooshing sounds, it breathed for her by pulling air in and out of her lungs with the changes of air pressure inside. And when Martha was breathing, she was learning. She was connecting to her world.
After getting an associate’s degree from Gardner-Webb in 1958, graduating first in her class, she rode in the back of a bread truck to Winston-Salem, to begin her studies at Wake Forest College. Of course she couldn’t actually attend class, but she was linked from her Faculty Drive apartment to the classroom through an intercom system. Her mother, Euphra, was her devoted scribe.
In 1960, Martha graduated first in the very first class to graduate from Wake Forest’s new campus.
She remained a ferocious supporter of Wake Forest sports and loved a gleeful Tar Heel slur as well as any self-respecting Deacon fan. (She, Mary and I had that in common.)
I can picture Martha in her sunny living room, snugly embraced by her iron lung ó the perfect banana yellow color for someone with Martha’s sunny disposition.
That was the room in which Martha lived most of her life, faithfully tended in later years by the steadfast women she considered her family, Ginger and Melissa.
In 1994, Martha’s horizons expanded when she got a computer that could transform her voice into text. That technology enabled her to write her memoir, “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung,” published in 2003.
When Mary reported to me that Martha had liked my review in the Post better than any other press the book had received, I was as proud as I have ever been as a journalist. The book provides an unflinching look at Martha’s life.”I live with a stable of nightmares,” she wrote, “but hope keeps them in harness.”
In 2005, Mary told Martha’s story in the film “Martha in Lattimore,” a loving documentary that beautifully captures the flavor of Martha’s small town life.
An obituary about Martha in the New York Times put it well: “Perhaps only in a place like Lattimore, whose current population is not much more than 400, could Ms. Mason have thrived as well as she did. For if Ms. Mason could not go to the town, then the town was quite prepared to come to her. The doctor visited regularly, of course, but so did all the neighbors and the neighbors’ neighbors.”
When I went to Lattimore with Mary to visit Martha, it was difficult to keep Mayberry from springing to mind, for Lattimore is one of those quirky Southern towns that seems trapped in a sweeter, simpler time. When entertaining her numerous visitors, Martha would need to pause frequently to breathe and she could not speak loudly, which meant that her guests needed to lean in to hear her gentle Southern voice.
In Martha’s horizontal presence, I always felt like a fascinating person, and I’m pretty sure she made everybody who visited her feel that way.
Martha has described herself as a collector of people ó and I was glad to be a “splendid new ingredient” in her “salad of life,” which is what she deemed me in an e-mail she sent after our first meeting.
Martha loved books and movies, and I sometimes gave her DVDs that came across my desk. On the last occasion, I enclosed a disclaimer, since I felt bad about sending her made-for-TV movies of dubious quality. Always gracious, she set me at ease on that count. “If it’s good,” she wrote me, “it transports me to a world beyond my fatigue. If the picture is lousy, I fall asleep.
“Thank you for giving me films for fun, relaxation, knowledge, and sleeping.
“At 71, I need all the help I can get. But I’m still finding rainbows and roses at my door every day!”
Can a prancing unicorn be far behind? Indeed, Martha was sometimes accused of being a Pollyanna, Mary says.
But to be unfailingly optimistic and appreciative of what the world had to offer, to be slow to see the dark side, to always see the good in other people ó is that really a bad thing? Martha refused to be absorbed by her physical limitations, always using her intellect and curiosity to keep herself vibrantly connected to the life of the mind ó and to the lives of her friends, beloved collectors’ items all.
Contact Katie Scarvey at kscarvey@salisburypost.com

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