I am a child of the sun, a Leo, and my birthday occurs in the hottest part of the summer. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, my birthdays usually were festive occasions, held outdoors in our back yard.
My mother came from a family of eight children, and her parents, hard-working and new to America, had no understanding or inclination to celebrate birthdays. There was no extra money for birthday parties or presents, so my mother was determined that my birthdays would make up for her missed ones.
It was the summer of my ninth birthday, and my parents' artist friends had banded together and made colorful gauze decorations for a backyard party.
There were giant wire and gauze butterflies strung on lines over the yard. It was a beautiful day, magical with the decorations that floated above us. My friends from the neighborhood were there. My mother wore a sunsuit to bring out her freckles and ruffled her fingers through her short hair. Less than a year before, we had visited her sister in California, where she had chopped off her thick black hair, leaving it like a cap against her head.
The artists were inside on the screened porch, laughing, drinking and smiling out at the children's party, pleased with their creation.
Much later I lay on the couch in the dim, shade-drawn living room, surrounded by little presents my friends had brought. My head hurt, and I was as hot as our coal furnace in winter. I fingered the plastic pop beads, trying to make a bracelet, but it was hard to pop them together.
Someone came to the door. My mother's friend Ruth. She was out walking her Borzoi dog Prince Andrei and thought she'd come over. She and my mother hugged and sat down in chairs opposite me. Ruth was newly divorced, and she often talked to my mother about her problems. Prince Andrei sat at her feet, shaking his head, making his collar tags rattle.
"Can I pet him?" I called from the couch.
"Sure," Ruth said. "Come over here. I have a present for my birthday girl."
As I sat up, my whole body ached, and shooting pains danced up and down my arms and legs.
"I don't feel good," I said.
"She has a bad headache," my mother explained. "Too much sun and cake and ice cream."
I slid off the couch, and instead of standing, my legs collapsed under me like an umbrella closing.
When I woke up next, I was lying in my bed upstairs, and the doctor was examining me.
"I want to pet Prince Andrei," I said.
"There'll be plenty of time for that soon enough," she said, pushing the stethoscope over my heart. "I want you to wiggle your fingers for me."
It was at that moment I realized that I couldn't move my arms or legs. I didn't know how to make them work any more. For a whole week people came and went from my bedroom.
My father, who hadn't been around the house as much, took off time from his job as a lawyer and carried me to the bathroom several times a day. Ruth sat watch with my parents, spelling my mother so she could nap. Once she brought Prince Andrei to see me. His large body loomed in the shadows of my room, and later I thought his visit had been a dream.
I knew I was really sick. Never did my brother or I stay upstairs when we were sick _ we always lay on the couch in the living room. The words paralyzed and polio drifted in from the hallway.
This was a year or so before the Salk vaccine. I knew about polio. It was the illness that struck in summer, during the very time of my birthday. I thought about all the icy water I had guzzled after racing a friend down the block and of how I had gone swimming after eating a big lunch _ the sure ways to contract polio.
For one week I lay frozen in bed, too sick to know how worried everyone was. Then one morning I woke up and concentrated hard and was able to wiggle my little finger. It felt like ice cracking inside. Gradually my whole body felt like ice cracking, and by the time my mother had me in a taxi, an unheard-of luxury, to go to the doctor, I was moving all my parts.
"Walk across the room," the doctor said, and I walked to her on unsteady feet but made it without crumbling.
Later that year, long after my birthday had scared my parents enough to stand over my bed, arms entwined, Ruth stopped coming over to our house. I begged for Prince Andrei to visit us again so I could pet his silky fur. All my mother said was, "We'll see" and gave me a far-away look.
I was to find out soon enough that Ruth would become my stepmother, after my parents' divorce, which my mother thought was for the best and later regretted to the deepest corners of her soul.
That ninth birthday, which had started out so promising with the decorations drifting above us in the yard and the fancy cake from the German bakery in Hyde Park, was my last gala one.
We moved shortly afterward to a third-floor walk-up apartment across the city. The side of the building had a billboard advertising beer, and there was no back yard that I could ever find.
Karen Loeb lives in Eau Claire, Wis. Her collection of stories, Jump Rope Queen, will be published by New Rivers Press. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.