Martha Escalona, a 67-year-old widow who uses a wheelchair, doesn’t give up: “My legs can’t move, but my mind flies.”
Escalona has been unable to walk since childhood because of polio. But the woman, who came to the United States from Cuba eight years ago, always has a smile on her face.
“This disease allows me to get to know people better. Maybe because I am at the level of their hearts, and that’s the first thing I see in them,” she said. “There are a lot of good people, and those are the ones we have to look for.”
Escalona suffers from a long string of ailments — diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, osteoporosis, allergies and arthritis, among others. But she prefers to talk about other things. “I’ve never wanted my ailments to define my life, only the wish to share and the search for my dreams,” she said as she made coffee.
Born in 1949 in the eastern Cuba town of Manzanillo, she had to move to Havana because of her polio. Her childhood was marked by hospitals. She is one of the two survivors of an outbreak of polio that killed 80 people in her hometown. When she learned that she would never walk again, she decided that her life would nevertheless always be “a source of happiness and inspiration” for those around her.
“I wondered what would happen when I fell in love with a boy, because I worried that I would not be able to dance with him,” she recalled.
With or without dancing, Escalona fell in love and lived happily with her husband until he died in a car crash after almost 25 years of marriage. Left alone, and facing the limitations of her paralysis and life on the island, she decided to restart her life somewhere that offered more opportunity.
“I left Cuba because I wound up alone. All my friends had left before me. The people who I studied and hung around with for many years were living in Miami,” she said.
At the age of 60, she left for the United States, carrying all the usual fears of anyone who leaves their home and security. Today, she said that it was one of the best decisions she ever made.
“I am very happy here. I have my life, visit friends, watch a lot of TV and I read, although I’ve had to slow down on the reading because the books are getting too expensive,” she said.
Her home in Fontainebleau is full of the kind of details that reflect the depth of her internal life, from her hearty welcome at the door to a flowering poinsettia and the yellow coffee cups — a color chosen expressly to attract the sun’s energy into her kitchen, she said.
“I can do almost everything by myself. I need help taking a bath, but I prepare my own breakfast and I love to keep the house as pretty as possible. That’s a reflection of the soul,” she said.
That’s also the opinion of Angelina P. Rodriguez, executive director of Spinal Cord Living-Assistance Development (SCLAD), a nonprofit that helps disabled people.
“Martha is a relatively young woman who cannot walk but is very determined to be independent. She’s even using a manual wheelchair so she can remain active,” Rodriguez said.
SCLAD can offer accessible homes and the possibility of studies and jobs to people with special needs. Founded in 1985, it has helped more than 1,700 clients in Miami-Dade County.
Her main need is a new reclining chair, because the one she has is in terrible condition and she can barely use it. “That chair is my resting place. There’s no other place where I can sit. I can go from my wheelchair to that chair or to bed. That’s why it’s so important for me,” she said.
Like “a good Cuban,” she wanted to fix it. But the cost of fixing it would be more than the cost of buying a new one. “This country is not like Cuba. Here, things work differently,” Escalona said.
But a new reclining chair costs about $500, more than she can afford on her government benefits.
“The reclining chair allows me to stretch my legs and work on the tightness produced by sitting on the wheelchair all day,” she said. “It’s part of the daily therapy I do to stay in shape and maintain my energy.
“When I lean back on that chair, I close my eyes and spend hours dreaming of the places I would like to visit, New York or the Miami downtown that I love so much, with those tall buildings full of glass,” Escalona said.
“That’s why I need the reclining chair, to fly.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.