Becky Marie Davis ran home today. The last time she ran was 1954. But today, her legs were unbound, her lungs filled with fresh air, her heart soaked in heavens glory. As I’ve watched the graceful withering of my Aunt Becky’s physical nature I’ve observed the astounding levity of her soul. One can easily suggest that life treated her unfairly. She would be the last to say so. Coming home from the hospital this exchange occurred between her and the ambulance attendant. “Are you going home?” Never one to mince words, Becky answered: “I’m going home to wait on the Lord.”
In an age of widespread entitlement, Becky never collected government disability and in a remarkable turn of grace, she was the source of charity rather than the recipient. I sat Monday night in a glide rocker in Becky’s living room visiting with her older sisters, Charlotte (my Mom) and Nordeen. Nordeen remarked, “Now I know why she paid so little income tax. She gave so much of her income away.” Her life is even more remarkable when you know the rest of the story. She was almost sixteen on Halloween 1954, the day Nordeen and Charlotte married Robert and Terrel in a double wedding ceremony (saving money on wedding cake I’m guessing). Nordeen, Kathy, Bud, Becky, Charlotte, Jessie
Four weeks later she viewed visitors through an angled mirror as she lay on her back in an iron lung at Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, telling jokes about the salesman startled by the woman opening the door. “You just about scared the pants off me lady!” To which the lady replied, “Boo, boo, boo!” Humor wasn’t the tenor of the times, however. American historian William O’Neill noted that, “Paralytic poliomyelitis was, if not the most serious, easily the most frightening public health problem of the postwar era.” By 1952, polio was killing more children than any other communicable disease. Nearly 58,000 cases were recorded in 1952, with 3,145 people dying and 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis. Parents kept children home from school, avoided parks and swimming pools, and played only in small groups with the closest of friends.
I would love to go back in time and see fifteen year old Becky at the Halloween wedding flirting with boys and serving punch. Spry, energetic, curly black hair and dark sparkling eyes, how could she have foreseen that fifty-nine years hence, Charlotte and Nordeen would sit in her living room contemplating the wonder of her remarkable temperament–her refusal to accept pity, her abundant generosity, her choice to live beyond the crutch of complaint with class and dignity. I recently saw a vision of what she looked like in 1955. She would return from the hospital to her home northeast of Boise City, OK in the summer of 1955, carried from the car to the house by my dad, braces framing her withered legs, the effects of polio dictating a tyranny of physical limitations for the rest of her life. The vision I saw was one of the most famous paintings by a U.S. artist in the 20th century.
Andrew Wyeth painted a picture of my Aunt Becky, lying in a dry field in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, facing her house. The painting is called Christina’s World. Christina Olson was Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine and he painted the picture in 1948 using Christina as a model. Christina was a polio victim and unable to walk, spending much of her time near her home at Cushing, Maine. The resemblance to Becky is stunning. Becky endured eight months at Children’s Hospital and then at a convalescence home rehabilitating. Becky spent the next year learning to walk and breath and live again. She never wanted pity, never complained, always feared herself a burden. Her life has been a picture of determination, grace, hard work, grit, strength and love.
And so I look at Wyeth’s picture of Christina and see Becky in 1955. Her atrophied legs splayed behind her unable to walk…her life before her but still unsure how to run home. Her black hair, the bend of her elbow, the distinctive paralytic distortion of the spine. Unlike Christina, Aunt Becky would walk again, after a time of healing and rehabilitation. It’s a wonder she survived the 325 mile ambulance ride from Boise City to Oklahoma City via two lane highways at 100 m.p.h. speeds, with her parents, Jess and Mildred frantically trying to keep pace, unsure of the fate of their daughter. A common image of the early 1950’s was of a father carrying a limply draped daughter or son, limbs flaccid and flopping as he walked grimly, helplessly, wondering if the child would live or die.
I never saw Becky run. I never saw convulsing fall-down-on-the-ground laughter (she laughed with a kind of expelled air wheezing that marked the limits of her lung capacity). I never saw her walk without her halting lyrically determined high-kneed gait. I have tried to see Becky as she looked during the summer of 1954 rather than the summer of 1955. Climbing trees, falling off corral fences breaking her arm, always curious, never limited by gravity or oxygen or withered legs. But that wouldn’t be true to her nature. That wouldn’t be true to the story she wrote with the rest of her life.
The rest of her story is that she was incredibly unlucky. She was the only child anyone could remember in the Boise City area to contract polio during that time…and the Salk vaccine was approved for safe use just months after she contracted the virus…widespread immunization beginning in April 1955. Salk actually vaccinated his family and a few researchers in 1952 and over one million children in 1954. But the fully approved injectable dead-virus form of immunization wouldn’t be administered to the broad population of the U.S. until April 1955. Just a few months later and Becky would have been immunized from this terrifying viral infection. It’s difficult for those born post-1955 to understand the terror of that time, especially for parents of children at risk. I recently read a letter written by Becky’s mom, my Grandma Mildred. She wrote, “…I guess I never stopped to question those things happening…thinking of some of the times I have been most afraid, I think of Becky having polio, Bud getting kicked in the head by a horse and the time Jesse and I drove to California…without brakes.” Grandma, like Aunt Becky, was never one for melodrama. She simply let her yes be yes and her no was no. And her terror? “I think of Becky having polio…” Grandma lived through a historic environmental & economic disaster (the Dust Bowl), two world wars, and FDR’s comforting national encouragement, “the only thing to fear is fear itself”. Yet, Grandma’s biggest fear was losing Becky. By 1962 there were only 910 reported cases of polio in the U.S.
We’ll never know what worlds she would have rocked given a pair of strong legs and lungs. But she never used that as an excuse and if you dare pity her, duck…she just might hit you. Her adventurous spirit and curiosity belied the meek and gentle bent of her personality. She once broke an arm climbing on the back of her high chair as a toddler. Later, walking the top of the corral fence in a contest to see who could keep their balance without falling, she fell. As Charlotte hurried her to the house for treatment of another broken arm, Becky told Charlotte to calm down and slow down. She’s been doing that ever since, a calming influence, slowing us down, putting us in our place, knocking us off our own high horse.
Here’s what I think about Becky’s wounds and the challenges she endured.
To imagine her physically perfect is an exercise in futility. Because that wasn’t her.
She was, in two words, a wounded healer….just like Jesus. The hurts she endured, the rehabilitation…learning to walk, move, breath…the many ways her body suffered, were part of what made her so wonderful. Don’t ever pity Aunt Becky. She lived as good a life, probably better, than any of us.
She was the cool aunt to many of her nephews because she drove the cars we wanted to drive. Those cars we coveted were her running legs… it was her way of overcoming Newton’s 1st Law of Physics…the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. She broke the law binding her legs using a Pontiac 455 HO engine under the hood of her gold GTO. It was her windows down, wind in my hair, get-outa-the-way, I’m finishing the walk around the corral fence moment. In the Sixties, she drove a yellow Volkswagen Bug all over Los Angeles while attending Pepperdine. Then a 1965 navy blue Pontiac Lemans, followed by the 1970 GTO, then a white 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass. She finally slowed down driving a 1998 Cadillac which she “handed down” to my Dad, Terrel. He still drives it. My brother Toby acquired Becky’s 1980 Olds after graduating from medical school and would cruise around town blaring AC/DC from 8-track tapes he found at yard sales. He was the only nephew who acted on the impulse to drive one of Becky’s cool cars.
A few days before she died Greg said to her, “God is pleased with you.” Becky responded, “How do you know?” How do we know? We don’t presume to be the holy judge and jury, but this we know. Becky managed her financial life with self-sufficiency and generosity. She made a good living as office administrator for my Dad’s construction company and then worked for Phillips Petroleum Company until her retirement. She lived within her means and was never a burden to anyone financially. She was the source of more than her share of household income and was a constant companion to my Grandma Mildred and later to sister Jessie. She gave money to those in need until it felt good and over time gave away an inordinately large amount of her earnings to the Dewey Church, missionaries and orphanages. She taught 3rd grade Bible school class. She worked with World Bible School ministry for many years. But she never had any sense that she was contributing anything more than what she was supposed to be contributing. And yet she always deflected, always pushed aside praise, never felt that it was enough. Last Monday night I sat with her and I asked her about teaching 3rd graders. She said, “I need you to gather all the third graders together.” I asked, “Why?” She replied, “I need to apologize for my bad teaching…I really struggled to explain things to third graders.” Then she told me this story. She was teaching about local church autonomy and asked a young boy where the headquarters of the Church was located. He replied, “In Charlie Tucker’s office.” (one of our elders) She understood her teaching, her ministering, her giving, her service, her work, her love, her family…were all gifts of grace…just as her life was a gift and even though she suffered and hurt and withstood pain with little or no complaint, through it all she’s been teaching me about grace…about how the wounded have the greatest capacity to heal. Becky is a wounded healer.
When Becky entered the hospital last week, my brother Greg was in the hospital room with her and Ralph Jackson walked in. Ralph said to Greg, “Becky is a classy lady. She has a queenly nature about her.” Ralph’s right ya know. But I’m guessing that queenly crown is going to have to wait a bit, because for now, Becky is climbing every tree in sight, chasing every rabbit, running home through the field, her dark hair flowing behind her like windswept wheat…Becky ran home today and I don’t thing she’ll stop for a long time.