Kurt Sipolski – The Story of Iris

Kurt Sipolski

Credit: The Desert Sun

I suppose the first memory of her was when I was about 5. We were sitting on the bathroom floor, and I was crying. My older brother, Jim, had dressed and had run out into the warm Illinois sunshine.

My mother, Iris, was trying to put my steel leg brace on, tying the orthopedic shoe, the leather calf strap, the knee pad, the thigh strap and buckling the steel belt around my waist. The room was hot and the heavy belt bit into my hips as she struggled to pull up my jeans over the shoe and the brace.

“Why me, Mom? Why did I have to get polio?” She stopped and took my hands in hers. She was then about 30, beautiful with wavy chestnut hair to her shoulders, and hazel eyes. “But Kurt, Jesus only chooses the bravest boys. God picked you above all the boys in town.”

Our little town was once known as Hardscrabble. It is now Streator. The three of us – she, my brother, and I – had returned there from the East Coast to live with her mother when my father died suddenly after World War II.

It was there, while working as a secretary at the newly completed Pentagon, that she met my father, a young soldier. It was there she met President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The awe of reaching down to shake his powerful hand never left her.

The author at age 5.

I bit into my lower lip in an attempt to live up to her words. “Am I brave?” I asked. “Of course you are. And God will always watch out for you.” She pressed her handkerchief to my face, and ran her hand through my blond hair.

“Now you go and play with Jimmy, and close the door because I want to do some sewing.”

Our bathroom consisted of a toilet, a yellow linoleum floor, a big closet and a Singer sewing machine. A bathtub and hot water out of tap were yet to come. I closed the door and expected to hear the tap of her foot on the pedal of the machine. I heard sounds but knew I shouldn’t open the door. When I came back into the house, she was just walking out of the room. The machine was still covered, and she avoided my eyes while touching at hers with a handkerchief.

Eventually, she married again and was there through my therapy and operations, the wheelchairs and crutches, stoic and accepting. And she was there with her arms crossed in front of her chest, all 5 feet of her, when she made me crawl into the raspberry bushes where I’d thrown my brace in frustration one day. “Don’t you want to get well?” she cried out.

By the time she had a new baby boy she named Pat, and my older brother was studying physics at Virginia Military Institute, I had left the braces behind.

For quite a while, things went well. But at my brother’s graduation, like all mothers who never stop being mothers, she pushed when she saw fit.

“Now you get that mole on your neck looked at, Jim.” At the end of two years, Jim had a wife and a one-week-old girl named Felicia, and he lay dying at home with melanoma. On weekends from college, I would help him into his wheelchair and sit by the side of his bed, talking.

Mom prepared her youngest as he faced the wall, his eyes tightly shut. “Pat, the doctors say that Jimmy is going to die.” He whirled around, furious. “No, he’s not! They’re only people – what do they know?” It was the indefatigable logic of a 9-year-old. She was resolute. “Jimmy’s going to die, and you have to be brave.”

On a cold February morning, he was buried. It was, except for one time in the future, the only time I would see her cry. She faced the church, the chilly wind at her back, her chin against her chest, arms at her sides, and cried like a little girl. Same God, different son.

I was about to graduate in journalism from Northern Illinois University. She held my hand at the reception after the funeral. “Well, I have you and your brother Pat,” she consoled herself. “But Mom,” I began. “I’ve accepted a job in Australia. I’m leaving right after graduation. A man named Rupert Murdoch has hired me to be a reporter.”



Again, the hazel eyes. Maybe she thought of her young dead husband and her young dead son. “Yes, you go.”

We wrote through the years. She and my stepfather visited me once in Sydney, but had no interest in coming to Paris when I moved there. By then, they were happy and had settled in Sycamore, and were busy with a new life and new friends. She wrote of them, including a Mrs. Crawford, whose granddaughter, Cindy, wanted so much to be a model. Life was good.

And then her second husband died suddenly. It was later remarked by friends how strong she was, how she didn’t cry. But there was a crust now. She never talked about bad things. She had developed an ability to store those things someplace in her mind where they were not touched and could not touch her.

Again, she prospered. Back in Streator, she rented a split-level garden apartment and began dating an old friend, a widower. There were dances and dinners and visits to me here in Palm Desert, Calif. She celebrated her last birthday, her 80th, here with those closest to her.

Then a car crash near Springfield, recovery, confusion. Then a fall, a broken hip and more confusion.

My brother and I headed back to our hometown.

We got her settled, hired caregivers and rearranged the furniture so her walker would not catch on a rug or table. My brother headed back to Inverness.

I stayed to help Mom walk again. Her hip ached, her unused legs ached. Her mind was not sharp now. We had to tackle the stairs. “No, it’ll hurt,” she said. I guided her forward. “Don’t you want to get well?” I cried out. I stood at the top and watched her pull herself up by the railings. She pulled and rested again and again. Tears filled her eyes. Eventually she made it to the top, exhausted.

She started to cry. “Why me, Kurt? “Why did this have to happen to me?”

The words barely left her lips as she looked at me with those hazel eyes, clouded now, and we both went back to that room at my grandmother’s. I took her hands in mine. “Mom, there’s no answer. Bad things happen, and it’s not anyone’s fault.”

Could she have thought that of herself all these years? We sat at the top of the stairs for a long time, saying nothing, thinking. Doctors discovered cancer soon after.

She died on Nov. 30, 1998. It was 50 years to the day I was diagnosed with polio.

Kurt Sipolski is a freelance writer living in Palm Desert, Calif. He graduated from NIU in 1968.

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9 Responses to “Kurt Sipolski – The Story of Iris”

  1. Cheryl says:

    You write beautiful…………

  2. Irene says:

    I am not a very good writer, but dang, I can spell!! LOL One thing my mom was very proud of was her children’s education and brains. The beauty just goes without saying. It is funny as a grown woman of 58, that I realize more each day the strength of my mother, as well as my dad.

    I look at the beautiful babies my nieces and nephews have and can only imagine what it was like to have a 2 year old drop
    to the floor and not be able to get up again. The doctor came to the house and the scariest word I think to any parent of that era was diagnosed. My mother was pregnant and not able to be near me. She would go to the hospital and sit outside the ICU every day as they took children who didn’t make it out.

    I am always grateful for my parents progressive thinking and making sure I was always included. I am the middle one of 11 children, as I usually remind people the middle is the most well adjusted….my siblings would just give you mutual sets of rolling eyes on that statement. My father used to tell the story of how he was walking down the driveway and heard this little voice calling Daddy!! He looked up to the top of the hill and saw 2 leg braces at the base of a pine tree,and looked up and there I was sitting on a branch about 15 ft up. I was a great tree climber. because they let me…. I rode a 2 wheeler with a full metal/leather brace, because my father had the patience to teach me…… Ice Skating, he tried but even the Double blades were a bit tough to navigate…..I played jump rope ….played whiffle ball, softball, etc. just had a pinch runner….I was the “hiker” in my older brothers’ football games……..Basically, I thank my parents and siblings for never leaving me out of things. If my mom took me in to Boston for my appointments and people would stare, she would say don’t mind them,they just don’t know better.

    I am quite the blabber, albeit not a writer….but since I stopped talking for 30 days at age 2 due to the separation from my family, I always think , I stopped once and I perhaps overcompensate a bit….anyway… ADHD,OCD, Polio Survivor wanted to say what a wonderful story…and now you can say Goodnight Irene 🙂

  3. Janice Cootey says:

    Hi Kurt …. I loved the article honoring your mother. She sounds like a wonderful women, who stood up to life’s disappointments with courage. I was stricken with Polio when I was 9 years old, in September, while living in Wilmington Massachusetts. I was old enough that I have many vivid memories of my time in Boston Children’s Hospital. I was a very ill little girl, scared and alone. My mother went into denial, and did not stand by me through the whole ordeal. Neither during my time in the hospital, nor the time I spent in therapy over the years. She just couldn’t face the Polio part of my life.
    My father and Grandmother Kathleen were there for me all the time. Like your mother, they were Angels in my life. Loving, caring, and encouraging. I remember both of them with tremendous love. Because of them, I’m who I am today. Polio is still with me, a shadow hovering in my every move. But thanks to my Dad and Nana I learned how to face the pain and difficulties of every day. I graduated college, raised a fun family of sons, and I’m married to a wonderful man.
    Thank you for loving tribute to your mother, Janice

  4. Rosemary says:

    Hi Kurt,
    I received a card from my aunt in Steator along with this article that was published in the Streator Times Press. Why did she send it to me? I grew up next door to you. I always thought your mom was absolutely gorgeous! I may have photos of you or your brother somewhere, too.
    I remember you as a very happy kid who didn’t let polio slow you down. I used to ask my mom, Ann, how you got polio. At the time, we were told not to get overheated. I was a very active child—so I always thought that I would be next.

  5. Catherine McAliister says:

    Dear Kurt,
    I just learned of this website today and I feel very much “at home”. My father was diagnosed with polio in ’53, before the vaccine and though he regained use of his arms, he never walked again. The impact of my father’s confinement to a wheelchair and how it did and did not interrupt our father / daughter relationship is a story which is inexhaustible in length.
    I am currently between jobs which has afforded me the luxury of being able to participate in the fundraising supportive activities of the Salk Institute in La Jolla. If you attend the event in August, it would be an honor to meet you. I have a list of people in life whom I feel are heroes to my heart. My father is one, my daughter who was in a near fatal car accident, then shortly after was diagnosed with cancer, is another, my son, soon to serve in the US Navy after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, another…and I have added your you, your story.
    My gratitude to you for having the spirit to share your story with others.

  6. Jennifer says:

    What a wonderful tribute. Strange to come across this on November 30 (2013). I’m glad to learn about your mother and your story. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. bob williamson says:

    I’m glad this was posted on Facebook. Will be looking for the book.

  8. Muriel Jane Bundy Rafferty says:

    Kurt – What a beautiful story about your mother. You probably do not remember me but you were a big part of my life when I was a Senior at Hanover High School and you were going to NIU in DeKalb. I lost my mother in 2006 and I still miss her and she sure liked you.

  9. JAMES DAVIS says:

    Hello Kurt!

    It appears to have been a few years since you wrote your story and I am just seeing it. You are an excellent writer and thank you for sharing. I just revised my own life story a few days back which is on my website but I am no where near being the writer you are. Your Mom, like mine, were and inspiration to us both. Mine passed away in January 2016 at age 85. For about 30 of those years she was a paraplegic after an auto accident where she broke her neck and partially injured her spinal cord. Her recovery was amazing and why wouldn’t it be, she was the one who got me through those months and years after being stricken with the polio virus which affected both my legs. To this day I still wear full length steel braces.
    God bless you and I hope you are well.

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