A couple of weeks ago, I read an obituary in the New York Times (5/10/09) about Martha Mason who died in her home in Lattimore, North Carolina, at the age of 71. For more than 60 years, Martha lived in an iron lung; nobody has ever lived in one longer.
Martha was 11 years old when she went to bed one night feeling achy. She didn’t tell her parents about it because they had just buried her 13-year-old brother who had died of polio only days before. Martha spent the next year in hospitals and was sent home in the iron lung.
Lattimore, North Carolina, may have been the only situation in which she could have thrived so well. Being encased in a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder made it hard to move around easily; so in a town of 400 people Martha didn’t have to go to town, the town came to her. In Lattimore, everybody was a neighbor, or a neighbor’s neighbor. The teachers came, the family doctor visited regularly, and so did members of the fire department who came by during terrible weather and power failures to make sure her backup generator was working.
Martha Mason graduated number one from her high school and university class and began writing for the local newspaper. Fifty years later, with the aid of voice activated computer, she wrote a book (Breath, Down-Home Press, 2003). High School graduates would stop by before graduation so Martha could admire them in their caps and gowns. Newly married couples came by in their wedding finery, and town celebrations always included her. She was an Associate Professor of Communications at Wake Forest, had friends all over the world, and her iron lung was adorned with magnets from their home towns. Martha often gave dinner parties where she ate lying down with her guests around the dinner table. Pushed up beside the table, and bedecked with magnets, her iron lung looked “like a steamer trunk.”
Martha said she survived because she was endlessly curious, and there was so much to learn. She chose to remain in an iron lung because of the freedom it gave her. Martha didn’t want to try one of the newer, smaller ventilators because of the tubes in her throat it might require. Also, the iron lung didn’t require professional training to operate, so she could live in her house in her hometown where she knew she could be independent.
In an age where freedom is generally measured by how far we can go and how fast we can get there, Martha Mason told us she was free in an iron lung. She said, “I’m happy with who I am, and where I am. I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I probably had the best situation anyone could ask for… a fine and full life.”
To live a life of radical self-acceptance and come to everyday with the joyful anticipation of learning something new, Martha Mason epitomizes the person I want to be.