My mother’s birthday and World AIDS Day dovetailed each other for years, until my mother’s death at age 92, four December’s ago. She lived a grace-filled life, battling Polio for all of her existence, living with the disease as an example of courage, love and compassion for others. Two years before my mother’s death, I brought her an advanced-copy DVD of an HBO-produced story about FDR’s years in Warm Springs, Georgia, as he tenaciously did his physical therapy, day after day, to prevent further deterioration of his paralyzed muscles.
As my mother and I watched the HBO film together, she gave a stream of commentary about how she, born with Polio in the epidemic of 1915, was put into a crippled chlidren’s home, kept out of NYC’s public swimming pools, and as a New York Times Fresh Air Fund Kid, taken by bus to a special upstate summer camp for poor kids with Polio. On the ride into the Catskill Mountains, my mother remembered passing through town along the way with signs at their entrance that read: “No Polio Kids Allowed.”
“It’s the same as with AIDS,” this remarkable Italian woman, than 90 years old,” said. “Some people don’t give you a chance if you have a disease, but you can never let them get the best of you. And, it helps to have some powerful advocates like FDR and the March of Dimes.”
For years until the Polio Vaccine was discovered in 1954–some 60 years after the virus was identified–my mother dutifully dealt out her supply of dimes to the March of Dimes, convinced she was part of something far bigger than herself. Her help, she was convinced, would make it possible for medical researchers to find a cure for the disease that had paralyzed her on one side of her body, and spare another child from the same kind of suffering and stigma she endured.
My mother was right. Thousands of others with a strong sense of compassion and social responsibility just like my mother’s, contributed tens of millions of dimes, and kept the search for a cure for polio on the top of the public’s priority list of public health imperatives for decades to come.
“If only people would support a March of Dimes for AIDS,” she would say. “If only you had a fighter like FDR to find a vaccine for AIDS. And if only, you could convince the public that everyone has a responsibility to help each other.”
That was my mother’s recipe for social responsibility. She saw clearly the connection between Polio and AIDS, between caring and compassion, between love and social action. And she new, each time she lifted her paralyzed arm up with her “good arm”, to diaper four children, cook simple and delicious Italian meals for her family, or to write a small check to one of her many charities, that giving up was never an option.