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BEVERLY BECKHAM

Trapped in her body, she touches his heart

They met in Virginia in 1946. They were in their 20s. She was a Navy nurse, and he was a Navy doctor. He noticed her in the cafeteria, then on the dance floor. ''All the fly boys liked to dance with her."

He liked how she walked -- ''Lily had her own kind of gait." And how ''she could recite poetry like mad." And how, at the age of 16, ''all on her own she decided to become a Catholic."

There wasn't anything that Dr. Jack Manning didn't like about Lily Sharpe Fields.

They married at the US Naval Chapel in Portsmouth, Va., and a year later Jack Manning brought his new bride and infant son home to Taunton.

''They looked like a Hollywood couple," says Manning's niece, Mary Driscoll. ''I have strong memories of them going out one evening, Aunt Lily looking gorgeous, then splashing perfume on herself including her tongue. I asked her why, and she said she wanted to smell nice even when she was talking."

Life was good for the Mannings. They bought a small house in Fall River, where Jack worked as a pediatrician. Then they had another son. Then they bought a bigger house where Jack opened his own practice. Then Lily got polio.

It's just a word now, but in the mid-1950s polio was an epidemic. Some cases were mild -- chills, fever, muscle aches and then recovery. But Lily contracted paralytic polio. She was 33 years old the last time she walked, fed herself, brushed her teeth, hugged her boys.

''That was the toughest time, the beginning," says her husband. All the iron lungs, rows and rows of them, ''people dying left and right." He's 85 now. Lily's 83. They have been married for 59 years, and for 51 of them Lily has been unable to move.

Iron lungs were big steel drums in which polio victims lay. The ''lung" mimicked breathing for those whose muscles and nerves were paralyzed. Only a person's head and neck jutted out.

Lily was in an iron lung for six months.

Then she was moved to a rocking bed for short periods of time.

Rocking beds were like seesaws. The continuous up and down motion forced air in and out of a paralyzed diaphragm. The rocking bed made Lily seasick.

Two years of this, and Lily still couldn't move. But she could talk if she saved up her air.

''I was a physician. I had seen a lot of things. Life is all not sweetness and light," he said. ''But in the beginning, I was always hoping that she'd improve."

He brought Lily home and accommodated the house for her. He set up mirrors around her rocking bed so that she could see around her. He hired housekeepers and nurses and therapists because she could never be left alone. And every night he slept on a cot that folded into a wall so that he could be with her.

His niece shares these things, because he talks about Lily, not himself.

''Lily did a lot with the house," he said. ''She took care of the insurance. She took care of the boys. She was really active on the telephone. And then there were her prayers. She prayed for everyone. She was home 48 years, and everything went pretty well."

Nearly three years ago Lily went to a hospital to have her medical equipment updated. She hasn't been home since. What polio didn't take from her, pneumonia did. She has a tracheotomy now and can no longer speak. ''She's slipping, little by little."

You say to Jack Manning: How did you do all this? Take care of a wife and raise two boys? Make a living and a difference? How do you continue to do this for more than half a century?

And he says, ''I love her. When you take your vows, you take your vows. I enjoy being with Lily even though it's not an ideal situation. And I know Lily would do the same thing for me."

He doesn't complain. He doesn't believe he has anything to complain about. He will tell you that life has been challenging -- getting help, getting things done.

He will tell you that he drives 100 miles every day to be with her. ''I have 91,000 miles on my car and it's just two years old and I only drive here. But it's highway driving, so it's not bad."

And he will tell you that Lily is more difficult now. She hates when he leaves.

And she hates when he pays attention to someone else when he's with her.

''Right now we're reduced to where we don't have much conversation anymore. I put my head on her shoulder and hold her hand. That's all I can do."

He is a man still in love. ''What is it, honey? I'm right here. I can hear you. Are you cool enough? Are you feeling the fan?"

And he talks about her with love, too. ''This isn't what I would recommend but I have no bitterness at all. I really find her to be still a good companion."

No self-pity. No why her, why me, why us?

''I have someone stay with her every night until 11 so she won't be alone."

A woman trapped in her body for half a century, she can't reach across the bed and touch his hand. But she doesn't have to. She touches his heart.

What is the ideal Valentine's gift, people are asking?

A love like Lily and Jack's.

Canton resident Beverly Beckham can be reached at bbeckham@globe.com.

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