New Life, No Instructions

Trust me, this book is not what you think from looking at the title. When I saw New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir in the list of possible choices of advance reading memoirs, I assumed it would be a new mother saga. While I have had that experience and thought I could relate, there are many ways of finding new life. This one has nothing to do with children, but it addresses the often overlooked truth that improvement in one’s life carries adjustments that may not be easy.

Gail Caldwell hardly had been introduced to life when polio struck her at six months old and left its mark even as she recovered from the disease. Her mother’s determination egged her on to do “just a few more” exercises until she learned to walk after her second birthday. That determination could not make her an athlete. Gail accommodated and made a life with the residual limp an accepted part of her existence. She substituted things she could do – hunting and fishing with her father, swimming, reading.

Gail’s life contained many of the things common to other people – loss by death of a close friend, her parents, and a beloved dog; struggles with alcohol; relationships that soured. Her lifetime of living with the aftereffects of polio that left one leg shorter than the other seemed almost normal to her. She was so young when she had polio that she did not remember a difference. When she developed intense pain well into adulthood, both she and the doctors mistakenly assumed it to be adult outcome of the same disease. There would be several doctors and much time before a more accurate diagnosis came.

Finding the doctor who finally diagnosed correctly that she needed hip replacement coincided with her acquisition of a new Samoyed puppy. The dog and surgery, which also lengthens her leg, bring new adjustments even though both are positive changes in her life. The added 5/8 inch in her right leg didn’t sound like much difference to me. She said the number didn’t sound that different to her either. However, her perceptions of height in her friends and even her animals changed, and it took a while for her to walk comfortably with what would seem like a “normal” leg to the reader.

With a couple of friends who deal with adult leftovers from polio as a child, I related to her well-told story. She weaves together the story of the dog who brings emotional therapy with the physical healing as her hip is replaced and her leg lengthened. I recommend the book to those who are close to someone whose life was touched long ago or who struggles today with the enduring or recurring effects of polio or to those who love a story of someone who can cut the good parts out of a life filled with wormy apples to make applesauce.