It’s the dancing that June Middleton misses the most; the Saturday nights spent “tripping the light fantastic” at the local hall in the arms of her sweetheart, Noel.
In early 1949 the pair was engaged and planning a December wedding, but three weeks before her 23rd birthday June was struck with a headache so severe it felt as if her head was exploding.
Thinking it was the flu she made dinner for her father, laid the fire for the next morning and went to bed.
When the paralysis took hold just over a week later her legs went first. Her arms were next and “the breathing’ was the last thing”. The doctors at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital told her parents they should prepare to lose their only child to polio.
But June was tougher than that. When she woke the only parts of her body she could move were her mouth and eyes, and she was told she would need to spend up to 18 hours a day in an iron lung. That was 60 years ago.
When I first arrive at Yooralla’s Ventilator Accommodation Support Service in Thornbury, to meet her, staff cheerfully announce that “June is out of her box,” – having her daily break from the respirator, or iron lung. Her new companion dog, Angel, a golden-haired Labrador, sits quietly beside her on a table converted to allow her to be close to her charge. It’s the first time in her life June has had a dog, and she tells her everything.
June’s bed has been maneuvered into a corner of the sunny informal kitchen area where staff and residents mill around. Two residents steer their motorised beds around and staff chat amiably as they cruise past. It’s confronting at first; these twisted bodies dwarfed by the metal and mechanics of their conveyances, but as June quickly demonstrates, the power of personality easily transcends a broken body.
During her time ‘out’, a portable respirator breathes for her. The machine sits on her lower abdomen under the blankets, I touch it and it is hard, mechanical, vibrating as it fills June’s lungs with oxygen.
You have to wonder how this qualifies as a life, and how someone could manage to remain sane, let alone optimistic, in the face of such devastating loss, but June has done both with aplomb.
Her Christmas party for staff and patients was a triumph, they’re still talking about the food; she knows the best place in Melbourne to get tender chicken, and most delicious chocolates and when I visit she has boxes of presents wrapped and labeled ready to be distributed to friends, and another box of gifts she has received.
I have to remind myself that she only has a voice, and expressive eyes to achieve all this with. As we chat I keep thinking of more everyday things she is unable to do, I’m trying to get the idea of complete paralysis into my head, but it won’t fit.
She’s worried when I suggest taking a quick look in her room; it’s a mess in there she says, but lets me go anyway. The room is dominated by her ‘box’ which it turns out is not iron at all, but cheap wood, painted pale hospital blue. It’s a relic from a former time, and fills the room with the haunting sound of regular, disembodied breathing.
The box, which is the size and shape of a coffin is at odds with the cheerfulness of the room; with a courtyard garden outside sliding glass doors and June’s life reflected in photos lined along the shelf. Her parents are there, as they were almost every day after she got sick. After 18 years of constant daily visits doctors threatened June’s mum that she’d be the next one to get sick if she didn’t take a break.
Before he retired her dad brought her fish and chips on Tuesday nights, and came most Sundays. In the early days June could go home every second weekend with all her machines and equipment. It wasn’t normal life, but it was wonderful.
Another photo shows June, young and beautiful in a trailing debutante dress and gloves, a bunch of flowers self-consciously in her hand.
“We were already 21,” she laughs, “already out at dances, but the mayor’s wife said it wasn’t fair that we had missed out on our debutante ball because of the war. So when it finished she held a special one for the girls who had missed out.”
June was a sportswoman; she loved tennis, hiking, golf, swimming and dancing of any sort. Noel was a particularly good dancer and even now June can remember how it felt to be in his arms – the memory hasn’t diminished in six decades “it was just wonderful; every day my feet itch to dance again”.
She let Noel go; there was no sense in wasting two lives she says. He stayed by her for five years and then moved into a new life; eventually married, had a daughter who died in infancy and later, a son.
She still loves him. “I’d have to say yes to that,” she answers softly and loss hangs heavy between us. They’d planned four children; twins would have been nice. June wanted a “normal life as a wife and mother,” nothing special.
After her future was obliterated June “just got on” she couldn’t see any other choice. Yes, there were times when she thought maybe it would have been best if she had died, but that wasn’t to be her fate she says, her eyes resigned.
She still likes to get out into the world as much as possible. From the window of a van she bought with another patient years ago she can watch Angel run on the beach, tumbling back to her rough with the sand and the briny smell of the ocean.
It’s a life. It’s her life and it’s as full as she has been able to make it. She is Aunty June to dozens of children, she has friends who have enriched her life, and although polio may have paralysed her body, it hasn’t diminished her spirit, which continues to dance.
Postscript: Sadly June Middleton died on November 30, 2009, aged 83.