I was fifteen years old when I met Zofia. I was delivering the local newspaper after school and she occupied what was called at the time “Greystone”, or the old folk's community, but many of the kids in school called it “Tombstone”, for obvious reasons. It was made up of one large residence and several smaller cottages, one of which she occupied.
Zofia was an immigrant from Poland, coming to the United States shortly after the end of World War II. Each night I would personally knock on the door and hand the paper to her just to see her smile and gentle eyes. She lived alone and was sick, I could tell but did not know at the time that she was in the early stages of dementia. She also had an arm that hung limp at her side, I didn’t know why and it was really none of my business but I sure was curious.
As the months went by, I grew closer to her. Her speech was affected by her illness but I could still understand her. Her deep blue eyes and expressive face gave me the answers I needed when the words eluded her. She would invite me in on hot days for a glass of cold water and during the winter, would be waiting for me with a cup of hot chocolate.
Then one evening, she motioned to me to come in and I saw a beautiful piece of apple pie and a scoop of ice cream waiting for me. She struggled for the words but managed to communicate to me that she made it herself. It was delicious. This piece of pie turned into a regular meal at least once every two weeks. I enjoyed my time with ‘Zoffy’, as I began calling her and eventually, I felt comfortable enough to ask her questions.
My first being about her arm. In my mind, she must have been in an accident, but she wrote the word “polio” on a piece of paper. Now I understood. She then stood up and went into her closet and pulled out a journal and gave it to me to read. What I learned about Zoffy was nothing short of remarkable.
According to her story, she had been married in her native Poland before coming to this country. Her husband, Wojciech, had fought for the Polish resistance during the German invasion of the country in 1939. It was during this attack that she lost her father to the brutality of the German troops. Her mother, who was at work when the invasion occurred, never returned home again.
Zoffy wrote of her fear for Wojciech every time he went out to attack the Nazi soldiers. The couple also had a child named Dymek, who was the inspiration for her husband’s fight for Polish independence, wanting the boy to live free and not under the brutal Nazi regime.
“One night,” she wrote, “he went out and I never saw him again. Being a part of the resistance, it put a target on me and Dymek.” His body was never found and she was forced into hiding to avoid any German retaliation. When the war ended, she went to the United States with her young son where she would be joined sometime later by her sister Hanna.
Zoffy left Europe with nothing but her child and a few clothes that she managed to gather from the rubble of their home, which had been destroyed by German bombs. There were no pictures, no child toys…nothing. But she was excited to start a new life in America.
During their trip across the ocean, Dymek became ill. It first appeared to be a cold, but the coughing became deep and frequent. At times he struggled to breathe. He became lethargic and refused to eat, by the time they arrived in New York, he was coughing up blood. Upon examination, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized. Just a scant three days later, he died. Zoffy had no one to turn to and was forced to deal with the loss of her son alone. She did turn to the church for solace and this became a cornerstone of her life.
Fellow parishioners helped Zoffy find a place to live on Staten Island and she began to attend college while working as a seamstress in her spare time. She wrote of her love for children and wanted to teach school as a gift to “my Dymek”. It was 1954 and as she entered her senior year, she wrote of the fatigue that she started to feel, chalking it up to her non-stop schedule.
Now, how do I remember all this? Quite simply, I was so captivated by her story that I wrote a paper on her experiences for high school and again in college. It is the paper that I keep to this very day. At this point, I will use Zoffy’s own words.
“I woke up one morning and was unable to get out of my bed. When I did not show up at work that night, my friends came looking for me. When they found me, I was unable to move, paralyzed on my left side. They called for help and I was taken to the local hospital, first in New Jersey and then transferred to New York City where I was diagnosed with polio.
The thing I remembered the most was being moved outside into the cold winter night because for some reason, they thought that cold helped with the symptoms, but it didn’t. It was bone-chilling cold and I couldn’t get up to walk inside so I laid there and listened to the street noises and tried to imagine it was summer. I went through this again and again.
After a month in the ward, I started getting letters from church members which made me feel better but I was by myself in New York. It was a big place, a lonely place. My sister, who had come over about a year after me, was living in Pittsburgh with a family we knew from Warsaw. Any contact with her was sparse at best.
I initially began to feel better but without warning, things got worse and my breathing began to suffer. Not only was I paralyzed on one side but now I felt like I had just run one hundred miles and continued to run. After a few days, my doctor came in and told me I would need oxygen and suddenly I was moved from the ward that was busy into critical care with a respirator strapped on my face that was really bothersome. Then they came in with the news that I would be put into an "iron lung." I had no idea what that was at the time but I learned really quick.
As scared as I was about the “iron lung”, it actually was quite comfortable at first. The respirator that was strapped tightly on my face was removed and I was lying flat on my back with the machine helping me breathe. It was quite relaxing except for the fact that you couldn’t see what was going on around you. There was a mirror on the front so you could see behind you and a frame that a book or newspaper would go into, but it wouldn’t do you any good if there was no one to turn the pages and believe me, there was plenty to do for the nurses as it seemed there were new patients coming in every few minutes for treatment.
The lung reminded me of an oven and me being on a cookie tray. They would slide me in and out like a roast chicken. Underneath me was the pump for the machine and you could feel the vibrations of the motor running. It would take a breath for you and then you will feel a bump as the air escaped. But I got used to it.
Having food was another challenge, however. Because your body was inside the machine and your head was outside, swallowing became a chore. Because the machine was pulling your diaphragm in and out, you learned to swallow in rhythm with the lung. It was a strange dance I did with the machine but it was a partner that saved my life. On the sides of the lung were portholes so the therapists could reach in and do the therapy needed on the muscles and joints.
I remember people feeling sorry for me, asking me how I could take being locked up in a machine all day, not being able to have my freedom. But I told them that I was thankful to have had this chance. If I would have stayed in Europe, I may not have been alive much less having a chance for life thanks to a machine like that. Overall, I considered myself very lucky...”
Zoffy ended up recovering enough to be discharged but her arm would never improve. She did return to college after nearly two years of being hospitalized and graduated, getting her first teaching job in South Jersey. A few years later she took another teaching position in eastern Pennsylvania where she stayed for the remainder of her career.
On her salary, she was able to buy a house and she grew fond of jewelry, most of which was religious-oriented. When she retired, she sold her house and moved into “Greystone”, where she was residing when I met her. She had many friends, wonderful neighbors and a sister who was living in California with her own family. Zoffy used to call her but since dementia had robbed her of her speech, there was no point in making that call anymore.
Zoffy also never married again. Those who knew her said her heart had been broken so badly that she couldn’t love again. So instead, she became a grandmother to kids at school and in the neighborhood and most of all, to me.
When I would go to her house for dinner, I was amazed at how she was able to prepare food with only one arm. She would take her paralyzed limb, place it on the table, hold an apple or potato or whatever she was cutting in that hand while using the kitchen utensil in her right. She didn't have to speak for me to know Zoffy enjoyed the time we spent together.
As the months went by, the meals began to diminish as her dementia became worse. Her smile still radiated but her eyes began to grow tired. For whatever reason, dementia targeted her speech, and she reached a point where she was only able to utter a word every now and then. Because of this, she rarely ventured outside, instead choosing to stay in her house listening to her records. Mostly gospel, some Polish and two songs that she played over and over – “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny and “If I” by Jimmy Clanton. If you walked by her cottage on a warm day and her door was open, those songs would repeat and repeat. (It was later in life when I actually listened to Jimmy Clanton's song and understood why this was a favorite for her.)
But she continued to attend church every Sunday which helped her stay connected to friends who helped her stay in the cottage she loved. They would go in, help her clean, make food for her and wash her clothes. It then reached a point where she no longer remembered me, at least not all the time. There were moments but they became further and further apart. She no longer read the paper but I kept delivering it just so I had a reason to have some connection with her.
One Christmas season, Zoffy went with her church group for an evening trip to see the holiday lights in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, known as “The Christmas City”. When she returned home, several members of the church ushered her into the house and got her settled. The following morning, disaster struck.
A fire had ravaged her little cottage and if it weren’t for the bravery of her neighbors, Zoffy may not have survived. As it was, she did suffer burns and smoke inhalation and ended up in the local hospital. The neighbors stated that the fire started because of a hotplate, that she was cooking and had forgotten that a pan was on the device. The house was a total loss.
The following day I went to the hospital to see her. She looked my way but did not seem to recognize me. “Zoffy,” I said quietly. She looked up somewhat confused and said, “Demy’s cookie, Demy's cookie," over and over, crying hysterically. I was sad and left. I told the nurse what she was saying but they chalked it up to her dementia, or “senility” as they said.
A few days later, I stopped by the hospital again and saw an older woman in her room that turned out to be her sister Hannah. We spoke about my relationship with her and Hannah seemed to enjoy hearing about her sister. Every so often, Zoffy would cry out, “Demy’s Cookie”, and close her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks. "Demy," Hannah said, "was her son. She must be thinking about him."
While I was there her church friends stopped by with several gifts, but Zoffy waved them off. She grabbed one of the women by the arm and cried, “Demy’s cookie” over and over again until she became tired and laid back on her bed. What I did notice was that her once bright and expressive eyes seemed dark, as if life had left them.
Before leaving, Hannah told me she had gotten permission from the police department to enter Zoffy’s house the following day and try to salvage some keepsakes. That morning, I remember going into the burnt-out building that I used to have pie and dinner in. The smell of burnt paper, wood and carpet hung heavy in the cold air.
It was a December morning, just a week before Christmas and I was looking at a woman's life reduced to ashes. The water used to extinguish the fire had turned to icicles that were hanging on wires and broken windows. The task for which we went proved to be impossible as the photos and other important papers that were not destroyed by the fire were damaged beyond repair by the water. Hannah did manage to find a damaged and burnt jewelry box that had her crosses and other objects in it. “Well, it's not much but maybe it will help,” she said.
The following day when I stopped by to visit Zoffy, there was an amazing transformation. She was awake, smiling and her eyes looked alive again. Hannah motioned excitedly for me to come into the room. When I entered, Zoffy yelled out, “Demy’s cookie, Demy's cookie!” In her hand was what looked like a small cracker.
I looked at Hannah somewhat confused. What was Zoffy talking about? Why was she so happy? What was in her hand?
"It's been so long that I forgot all about this," Hannah said. "What she is holding is all she has left from her baby boy, Dymek. It is a teething biscuit that she kept from the old country. When they left, she had no clothes, no pictures, no toys, just this biscuit -- with his tiny teeth marks on it. That's Demy's cookie. Zofia treasured this more than anything. How in the world it survived the fire and the water, I'll never know, but it's the most wonderful Christmas gift she could have ever gotten."
Zoffy left the hospital and went into a nursing home where she died a little over a year later. As I walked to her casket to say my final goodbye, I saw in her hands those things in life that were most important to her, a rosary and “Demy’s cookie”.