Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A doctor said 'Snooky' wouldn't survive -- but her loved ones knew otherwise

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There was a time -- before social assistance, universal health care and food banks as we know them now -- when all we had was family.

And, if we were fortunate, real friends who were there in times of need.

So it was in 1922 for the family of Polish immigrants who lived in a house at 121 Talbot Ave. It was there on a late October day a lifetime ago that a mother gave birth to her fourth child -- and second daughter. But this birth was different.

As was the baby.

The very little girl was born two months premature, weighing only 2 1/2 pounds.

There was no incubator.

So the tiny child was lathered in oil, wrapped in cotton and lovingly placed in a shoebox that was laid in the warming oven over their wood-burning stove. They nicknamed her Snooky -- and prayed.

The doctor, who would later diagnose her with cerebral palsy, said she wouldn't survive. He was wrong.

Snooky never walked, never learned to read and write and never married or had a baby of her own. But she survived to cry and feel sorry for herself as a child; and to laugh and be grateful as an adult.

She would go on to attend university classes and dictate her achingly honest autobiography in two thin volumes. And even with her speech impediment, she would tell the rest of her story in Polish, Ukrainian or English to anyone who cared to ask.

Which is what happened again last Saturday afternoon for family and friends who gathered in the cafeteria of the Taché Centre nursing home to share their own stories about Gladys "Snooky" Sobieski.

The little miracle baby on Talbot Avenue turned 90 and politicians from the prime minister of Canada to the premier of Manitoba sent their birthday wishes.

When one of the guests asked Gladys how she did it, how she managed when she was a child, she answered directly:

"I just said to myself, 'I can't do anything about it and neither can the doctors, so I just have to live with it.' "

She said she was about 10 when, with the help of her parents, she came to understand she would not be like other kids, even if truly accepting it would take much longer.

"My dad used to do a lot of talking to me. He used to say, 'Don't get mad, don't get angry, that's the way life is.' "

Back then, of course, there was no support for her family, except family. No physiotherapy. No Variety Club. No Children's Rehabilitation Foundation.

Her father nailed a ladder to the kitchen wall to give Gladys something to pull herself up on and exercise. And when she was seven, he made her first wheelchair -- a wicker seat with casters on the legs. Her father was the man who lifted her body and spirits. He worked for the city, plowing the streets in the winter and gravelling them the rest of the year. On Sundays, he would take his Snooky for a drive to the racetrack for an ice cream.

And then in 1935, when she was 13, the Sunday drives suddenly stopped. Her father died. Gladys was devastated.

Compounding her loss were other losses in the years that followed; as a teenager she felt like a spectator while watching her girlfriends dance and date, knowing she would never do either.

To cope, she composed poetry to express her sorrow and bring joy to her life. Her brother would assume the duty of taking Gladys for drives every Sunday until he got married, and then her brother-in-law became her Sunday driver.

And when he died, she was left alone with her sister Nelly, who carried on caring for Snooky until it was obvious to her little sister that she couldn't do it anymore.

So Gladys insisted on moving to a nursing home when she was just 39. But Gladys had gallbladder surgery and spent four months recuperating at King Edward Hospital.

"There," she would write in the second volume of her autobiography, "I met several friends and an especially special friend."

His name was John, the same as her father's, and while she didn't call their times together dates -- and they didn't dance -- it's evident by how she describes their relationship that one of her teenage wishes had come true.

"We used to sit outside and sing songs and talk," she wrote.

"After I went home he would phone every Sunday. I would sit by the phone all afternoon waiting for his call. Every time, when saying goodbye, he would ask me if I remembered the song, Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone, by Jim Reeves. And he'd say, 'I'll phone you next Sunday. Don't forget to put your sweet lips to the phone.' I waited for a year before going to a nursing home and I've been in one or the other ever since."

That was 50 years ago.

Today, she lives in a room with a framed picture of the late Polish Pope John Paul II above her bed, and where, from her window, she can see the spire of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Family still comes to read to her, as some did decades earlier, when as mere children they brought Dick and Jane books to the house on Talbot in hopes of teaching her to read for herself.

She still remembers the aunt who, when Gladys was a child, pulled her across the Redwood Bridge to see the Santa Claus parade, and, of course, the family who looks after her affairs and bought the beautiful blue dress she wore last Saturday on her 90th birthday.

"I couldn't have done it without my family," she said that day to anyone who cared to listen closely.

"And I couldn't have made it without God."

As I was saying, there was a time when all we had was family, and if we were lucky, real friends who were there for us in times of need.

What I didn't mention was that time, of course, is timeless.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 B1

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