July 2010

Living above her limits

By Martha Mason
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Martha Mason grew up in the tiny village of Lattimore, North Carolina, with doting parents and a beloved brother who died at 13. Graduating first in her high school class, and later from Wake Forest University, Mason followed her dream to become a writer, then put those dreams on hold when her father became ill. She threw lavish dinner parties, hosted book club meetings and took care of her mother, whose Alzheimer’s disease turned her from sweet to abusive and frightening. If that’s all there was to know about Martha Mason, this would still be a memoir worth reading. But from age 10 until her death in 2009 at 71, “home” for Mason was not just Lattimore, but the intimate confines of an iron lung.

While she was sick with the polio that killed her brother Gaston, a doctor told her parents, and Mason herself, that she would not live for more than a year. Their determination to “live above” her paralysis and dependence on machinery is astounding. From attending classes via intercom while dictating homework to her mother, to reading hundreds of books with the help of page-turners both human and machine, Mason turned what could have been a tragedy into an opportunity to adapt and grow. Voice-activated computer software enabled her to expand her intellectual salon through email and also to write this memoir, first published by a small regional press in North Carolina. This new edition includes a foreword by Anne Rivers Siddons, who calls Mason “a born writer.”

Despite her handicap, Mason finds humor in her surroundings; being hand-fed by attendants sometimes leads to a nostril full of potato salad, and the attendants themselves are characters in every sense. The book’s strength is in tying those vignettes together with observations like this: “I’m committed to the concept of compensation. When lovely blossoms disappear from an orchard, we get apples. Life too sometimes loses its bloom, but usually we find luscious fruits waiting. All we have to do is accept them.” Fascinating, inspirational and brave, Breath is a testament to the luscious fruits of Martha Mason’s writing, and a life lived fully and well.

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