A Life Not With Standing

A Memoir by Chava Willig Levy

A Life Not With Standing


Chava Willig LevyShe stood on the coffee table, tossed her strawberry-blond curls and sang The Merry Widow Waltz in perfect pitch. She was eighteen months old.

At six, she could spell twelve-letter words. At fifteen, she could converse in three languages and sing in five. Her marathon phone conversations, Saturday-night songfests and word-for-word reenactments of Casablanca’s best scenes delighted her friends. She graduated from college summa cum laude. She completed her master’s degree and pursued doctoral work in psychology at Columbia and New York University. She held challenging jobs in the public sector and the corporate arena. In her spare time, she gave sold-out concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall. She embraced life.

Still, most people did not consider her embraceable. People said it just wasn’t realistic for her to dream of marriage. People said, “She may be congenial, charismatic, talented and kind but, let’s face it, who would want to marry a woman with a paralyzed and deformed body who gets around in a motorized wheelchair?”

Long ago, I was that fun-loving toddler with the strawberry-blond curls. Almost as long ago, I was a fun-loving hospital denizen, unaware that most people considered me a tragedy. Not so long ago, I watched as, one by one, my many acquaintances, even the unkempt and the unkind, found their soul mates, leaving me to wonder why God, who had granted me perfect pitch, had handed me a score so cruelly off-key. Today, I am a deeply grateful woman who, through a series of seemingly inauspicious events, met and married a truly magnificent man.

A Life Not with Standing resuscitates a saga that riveted 20th-century America, haunting the lives of countless baby boomers and their parents. Consigned to an historical footnote in 21st-century America, that saga—the polio saga—seems destined for oblivion. That’s why I’ve written this memoir.

As an eyewitness to—and survivor of—the polio saga and its ensuing hospitalizations, surgeries and segregation, I want my words to shatter stereotypes, affirming that people with disabilities:

  • Are neither patients to be cured, children to be taken care of, nor brave souls to be admired.
  • Should be in charge of the assistance they may require, that is, free to be independently dependent.
  • Are victimized by a prejudiced society, not the disabilities they happen to have.

More importantly, I want to tell a story beyond my own polio chronicle: how calamities can befall innocent people and how those calamities can evolve into and, in fact, become ingredients of and prerequisites for imminent joy.