The first time I saw my friend Andy put into the iron lung I felt frightened. And I wasn’t the one being put in there to sleep. She was.
I was visiting her with some college friends near the University of Michigan. Andy had just graduated with honors the year before, having attended classes in her wheelchair with her respirator in tow. And my new friends were her old friends. And they told me she was in need of an aide, someone to help her out at night to get ready for bed.
Her bed was the iron lung. No one had told me that.
I walked in just as Andy, all 82 pounds of her, was being put into the lung. The thing I noticed was her eyes. She kept them on my face and I hoped she wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t grin or smile at her. I thought it sucked that she had to go in that big iron thing.
Everyone else left the room. There was a mirror over Andy’s face so that she could look up . Her breath showed on it.
“They do that to make sure I’m still breathing,” she said.
I nodded, unable in my 19 year old self conscious state to think of anything much to say except “I guess that’s good.”
“Tell me a joke,” she said.
I couldn’t think of any. Then, of all things, I thought of a stupid knock knock joke. I told it to her before realizing the irony of telling a knock knock joke to someone laying in an iron lung.
Andy giggled at the irony of what I had done and couldn’t stop giggling. And when our friends came back in the room and asked what was so funny, she said “Ruth told me a knock knock joke.”
“You didn’t!” one of them said.
“I hope you don’t expect me to make the knocking sounds. I don’t think I can reach,” Andy said, her face in a huge grin.
Andy later told me about all of the different nervous reactions people had when they first saw her in the iron lung. My knock knock joke , apparently, ranked right up there in the top ten.
I did become her aide and her friend. And I spent many nights listening to giggles from an iron lung.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan