« Seeking Closure | Main | Things I love about Lag B'Omer »

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A life well spent

Seldom would one think of turning to the obituary pages in order to find uplifting stories or comfort... unless of course, one finds inspiration or comfort in seeing printed proof of having outlived another human being.

But thanks to one of my favorite daily blog reads, I started my day with a smile on my face (and a happy tear in my eye) after reading the following New York Times obituary.  I feel strange saying this about a death notice, but enjoy:

Martha Mason, Who Wrote Book About Her Decades in an Iron Lung, Dies at 71

                                    [photograph (c) Wake Forest University]


Published: May 9, 2009

Ever since the 1940s, when she was a girl in a small Southern town, Martha Mason dreamed of being a writer. But it was not till nearly half a century later, with the aid of a voice-activated computer, that she could begin setting a memoir down on paper.

Published in 2003, Ms. Mason’s memoir, “Breath,” is not well known outside the Southeast, or perhaps even outside North Carolina, where she was born, grew up and died. It was published by a small regional house, Down Home Press, and was not widely reviewed. But the truly significant thing is that the book was written at all.

Ms. Mason died on Monday at her home in Lattimore, N.C. She was 71 and had lived for more than 60 years in an iron lung.

Her death was confirmed by a friend, Mary Dalton, who said Ms. Mason had died in her sleep.

Paralyzed from the neck down as a result of childhood polio, Ms. Mason was one of the last handful of Americans, perhaps 30 people, who live full time in iron lungs. There is no documented case of any American’s having done so for quite as long as she, David W. Rose, the archivist of the March of Dimes Foundation, said on Friday.

Ms. Mason is the subject of a documentary film, “Martha in Lattimore,” released in 2005 and directed by Ms. Dalton. She also appeared in “The Final Inch,” a documentary about polio that was nominated for a Academy Award this year.

From her horizontal world — a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder that encased all but her head — Ms. Mason lived a life that was by her own account fine and full, reading voraciously, graduating with highest honors from high school and college, entertaining and eventually writing.

She chose to remain in an iron lung, she often said, for the freedom it gave her. It let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays, as newer, smaller ventilators might require. It took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.

“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Ms. Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.”

Ms. Mason’s only immediate survivors are her aides, Ginger Justice and Melissa Boheler, whom she considered family.

Martha Ann Mason was born on May 31, 1937, and reared in Lattimore, a small town about 50 miles west of Charlotte. In September 1948, when she was 11, Martha went to bed one night feeling achy. She did not tell her parents because she did not want to compound their sorrow: that day, they had buried her 13-year-old brother, Gaston, who had died of polio a few days before.

Martha spent the next year in hospitals before being sent home in an iron lung. Doctors told her parents she would live another year at most.

She survived, she later said, because she was endlessly curious and there was so much to learn.

With daily visits from her teachers, Martha resumed her studies, graduating first in her high school class. She entered Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, N.C., receiving an associate’s degree in 1958.

Afterward, Ms. Mason and her iron lung were transported by bakery truck to Winston-Salem, where she enrolled in Wake Forest College. There, she joined a student group seeking to integrate the campus. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Wake Forest in 1960.

At both colleges — they are now universities — Ms. Mason lived with her parents in a campus apartment and attended lectures by intercom. At both colleges, she graduated first in her class.

Returning to Lattimore, Ms. Mason began writing for the local newspaper, dictating her articles to her mother, Euphra. Not long afterward, Ms. Mason’s father, Willard, suffered a major heart attack and became an invalid, requiring Euphra to care for him, too. There was no more time for taking dictation. For decades afterward, Ms. Mason wrote only in her head, publishing nothing. Her father died in 1977.

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. So did members of the local fire department, who came by during power failures to make sure her backup generator was working.

Ms. Mason often gave dinner parties — she ate lying down, with her guests around the table and the iron lung pushed up beside it — and savored lively conversation, good gossip and the occasional bawdy story. Amid the rhythmic whoosh ... whoosh of the iron lung, the local book club met in her home. High school graduates stopped by so she could admire them in their caps and gowns, as did just-married couples in their wedding finery. Souvenir magnets from faraway places, gifts from traveling friends, adorned the yellow exterior of Ms. Mason’s iron lung like labels on a steamer trunk.

But small-town life could have its drawbacks. “She’s an intellectual, yet the local video store was not going to have ‘Wild Strawberries’ for her to rent,” Ms. Dalton, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “She could talk to anybody, but she needed that kind of intellectual stimulation, too. And there were years when I imagine that was a little hard to come by.”

That changed in the mid-1990s, when Ms. Mason acquired a voice-activated computer with e-mail capability and Internet access. The computer brought her the world. It also let her contemplate writing her memoir, which is subtitled “Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung.”

She began the book in tribute to her mother. In the late 1980s, after a series of strokes, Euphra Mason descended into dementia and abusiveness, occasionally slapping and cursing her daughter. Ms. Mason insisted that her mother remain at home. From her iron lung, she took over the running of the household, planning meals, paying bills and arranging for her mother’s care.

After her mother’s death in 1998, Ms. Mason began work on her book in earnest. There, in her childhood home, with a microphone at her mouth and the music of the iron lung for company, she wrote her life story sentence by sentence in her soft Southern voice, with her own breath.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 10, 2009, on page A29 of the New York edition.

Posted by David Bogner on May 12, 2009 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A life well spent:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Wow. As a friend of ours says, "all of my problems are good problems. What can I complain about?" Next time I decide I just can't cope because of a sinus headache, I think I'll pull up this post and renew my humility license.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | May 12, 2009 2:07:56 PM

I have to remember that phrase, "humility license." Apt. ;)

What an inspiring story.

Posted by: Alissa | May 12, 2009 4:30:46 PM

I am speechless.

In the daily Shemoneh Esrei, we thank the Almighty for everyday miracles, of which the ability to breathe unassisted is one.

After reading this, I should think long and hard before griping about anything.

Posted by: Elisson | May 12, 2009 5:26:06 PM

And since it is my job, I will point out that even though you and I and probably everyone who reads your blog has had the polio vaccine, polio is still paralyzing a couple thousand kids a year (mostly in India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.) The World Health Organization and a number of nonprofits are trying to do to polio what's been done to smallpox, and are getting closer--but not there yet.


You can also see an interview with Miss Mason here:


Posted by: uberimma | May 12, 2009 7:29:44 PM

You have to be of a certain age to remember how horrible polio was before the vaccination was discovered. We even have celebrities here encouraging parents to avoid vaccinating their children.

Posted by: David Bailey | May 12, 2009 8:59:30 PM

I want to remind you all that just a ew years ago some polio germs were found in the water system here in Israel. Please vaccinate your kids....

Posted by: rickismom | May 13, 2009 2:18:19 AM

I want to remind you all that just a ew years ago some polio germs were found in the water system here in Israel. Please vaccinate your kids....

Posted by: rickismom | May 13, 2009 2:20:27 AM

At age 16,my Mother lost the use of her left arm due to polio.When the Salk vacine first came available,she insisted I be one of the first to receive the shots.The effects of Polio returned in her 80`s, and indirectly caused her death.

Posted by: ED | May 13, 2009 5:15:03 AM

Wow, I gotta find that book!

As I was reading this, I wondered why nobody has ever come up with an iron lung that would only cover the upper body, so the person could walk around. (dunno how a person can survive so long without exercise) Well, it turns out somebody has!

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | May 13, 2009 9:54:09 AM

Kiwi the Geek... Um, since the iron lung was designed for people who are paralyzed from the neck down, I don't see how making their legs accessible would be a big design feature. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | May 14, 2009 8:41:48 AM

Without the iron lung, she could have used a wheelchair and gone almost anywhere. And sat up and seen people upright. She was so content after all this time, maybe she wouldn't have cared. But for somebody who just became paralyzed, I'd guess it would make a huge difference.

Also, it would be a lot easier to care for them. Can you imagine giving a bed bath to somebody whose entire body is confined in a pressurized chamber, and if the chamber is depressurized even a few minutes, they die? Pressure sores. Changing Poise pads. Etc.

Posted by: Kiwi the Geek | May 15, 2009 8:07:45 AM

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In