We all know people who seem always to be looking over their shoulder to see what lurks behind. These are the folks who regularly wait for the other shoe to drop. They live with a certainty that the next crisis is within reach.
I thought about these fearful people when I met Dottie Sternburg because she maintains an outlook that is in direct contrast. Unlike the weary, she approaches life with energy and remains open to what may come her way.
It’s not that Dottie hasn’t experienced adversity. Years ago, the proverbial shoe did drop in life-altering ways. When it happened, Dottie discovered an unbending strength she didn’t know that she had.
At the tender age of 25, Dottie and her husband Lou were the proud parents of a two-year-old son and a five-week-old baby daughter. While they were exploring the newness of becoming a family of four, Boston was steeped in a raging polio epidemic.
Lou went to sleep feeling fine one evening. When he awoke the following morning, he was paralyzed from the neck down. For the next 32 years, Lou was bed-bound, unable to breathe on his own, and reliant on others to get through each day. How he contracted polio has never been determined, nor was there any explanation of how he, one of the sickest victims of the outbreak, managed to live another three decades.
One could imagine a household strife with chaos, a defeated father, and a mother continually out of breath and unrelentingly pulled in multiple directions.
Dottie concedes that those years were exhausting. It would be nine years before she had some time off to travel. But, rather than frenetic, she described her home life as upbeat. Her family was well adjusted and accomplished. They had an ever-expanding support network that pitched in again and again and again.
Dottie refused to let the household wallow in self-pity or become immobilized by the tragedy.
“I just did what I had to do. There wasn’t time to stop and think about it. I had a husband who spent 14 months in an iron lung in the hospital, and two young children to raise.”
There was no rehearsal for her new role.
“Before all this happened, I had had such an easy life!”
Dottie shares astounding stories about Lou, beginning with the effort that it took for him to breathe. His paralysis impacted his lungs, so he relied on his bed for the mechanical functioning. His bed rocked back and forth 16 times per minute, Each time it lunged forward, it triggered an apparatus that enabled him to breathe.
“He was never bitter. He loved life. He always had a sense of humor. Friends regularly stopped by because he made them feel good. Lou was a wonderful listener and problem solver.”
With an MBA from the Wharton School, Lou was valued as a resource to those contemplating new business ventures.
One friend recalled that she and her husband chose to drop in regularly at Dottie and Lou’s. Sure, It was the right thing to do, but they were motivated by more selfish reasons: these visits were guaranteed to be fun!
“Friends would pull up a stool near Lou’s bed, and stay for hours.”
A salesman by trade, Lou managed to continue his sales career through phone calls from his bedside. A friend’s 16-year-old son devised an ingenious system that enabled Lou to call his buyers. He still had use of his left thumb, and he used it to switch on a gadget that placed a call directly to an operator. Wearing a headset, Lou was then able to convey the phone number to the operator who completed the connection.
Dottie still finds it remarkable that he could maintain “business as usual.”
“Lou was able to support our family throughout the years. I never had to go to work.”
I held off from pointing out the obvious. In fact, Dottie was always at work.
Lou used his sales acumen to benefit the community. His son’s private school was struggling to reach its goal for a major capital campaign. When a trustee asked whether he could assist, Lou was happy to pitch in. From his bed, Lou called every student’s family and, in the course of lengthy, friendly conversations, he asked them to make a pledge. The campaign had record-setting results.
That trustee was one of the chief administrators at Brandeis University. He asked Lou how he could return the favor. Lou knew exactly what he wanted: more education. The University responded enthusiastically. Over the next nine years, Lou earned a Master’s degree and his doctorate in psycholinguistics.
It required a creative approach to achieve these accomplishments. His professors regularly came to work with him at his bedside. Dotty, matching Lou’s extraordinary determination, sat nearby as he delved into his studies. He had a reading rack attached to the bed, and Dottie turned the pages as he studied. With the use of a rudimentary computer, she typed as he orally constructed answers for every assignment, including his lengthy thesis. When I wondered aloud whether Brandeis considered awarding degrees to Dottie along with Lou, she shrugged. She had been asked this question before.
Despite Dottie’s insistence that her children have a normal childhood, their household was far from typical. Theirs was a “go to” house, a place that was frequently abuzz with activity.
“We never locked our doors. People were in and out all the time. Every year, I had a birthday party for Lou and 100 people came. I put out a spread every New Year’s Eve. I didn’t send out invitations. Everyone just knew they were welcome and they stopped in to celebrate.”
Lou enjoyed the fullest life possible. His death in 1987 was thankfully peaceful. He was 62 and Dottie was 57.
Today, at 86, Dottie is the epitome of relaxation. She enjoys life from an airy and sunlit apartment with great views of downtown Boston. She delightedly engages in her favorite activities: bridge, golf and special time with her attentive granddaughter. She has made few concessions to the aging process and still has enormous energy and spunk. Her hair turned white long ago – when she was in her early 30s – so she resolved any discomfort with that transition decades ago. (She spent a few years routinely dying her hair, but by age 38, Dottie tired of the hassle and came to peace with nature’s plans).
Unlike others who try to hide under the covers when another birthday is approaching, Dottie is thrilled to celebrate each year.
“I never think about aging. All I think about is how happy I am that I can still do the things that I love. When I was a kid, people my age today were so old. It’s different today. I just keep going!”
After spending the bulk of her life guiding a household through unsteady and uncertain waters, Dorothy admits to one frustration.
“Sometimes, life is a little boring.”