Coming up, on the first Saturday in August, is the Stonington Village Fair, the annual fete on leafy Wadawanuck Square in Stonington Borough, to the delight of children, book-lovers, village folk, local residents, summer tourists and more than a few four-legged enthusiasts on leashes.
One such village fair that has embedded itself in my soul was the 1992 edition, when I volunteered, under the dubious battle cry “if I can dish it out, I can take it,” to be among those serving as targets in the dunking booth.
But that is not the reason it remains endeared to me. Yes, it was the day I got soused, as it were, for being a columnist, but it was also the day I willingly blurred the lines of journalistic objectivity in favor of being a friend. This was the day Linda Solsbury came to visit.
I did my duty that Saturday morning, perched above the tub and withstanding the uncanny accuracy of the right arm of the late Edith Paffard, mother-in-law of future congressman and current Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons, who though she had Simmons’ two young children by her side, was earnestly bombing me — actually the target that released the perch — with her fastballs.
Such are the perils of a columnist, a serious drenching, praise be, being the worst of it that day. Soaking wet and with no time to towel off, I arrived at my home near the borough just as the van transporting Linda Solsbury and medical personnel from the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, as well as the cars of her friends, most of them nurses, drove up.
In October 1985, when she was 36, Linda Solsbury, a licensed practical nurse on the pediatric floor at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London and a dancer, underwent routine treatment by a Waterford chiropractor. However, as a consequence of the manipulation of her neck, as a civil jury eventually and unanimously determined, she suffered a stroke that left her a mute quadriplegic — in essence, trapped alive inside an inert body.
Six years later, that New London Superior Court civil jury awarded her $10 million in damages. It was the largest such award bestowed by a jury in county history. The chiropractor declared bankruptcy.
When I first met her, in 1991, in her hospital room, she was indigent, the divorced mother of a then 22-year-old daughter and in the care of the state at the New Britain hospital, where, moving the index finger on her right hand, she was able to communicate by ever so methodically typing on a keyboard.
She was beautiful. Her light brown hair was cut to chin-length, her makeup spare, her hazel eyes and her face full of light and determination. She was able to move her head, and she was able to smile. She had wit.
Though her body was of no use to her, her will had not diminished. She had beckoned me to the hospital by letter — she wrote voluminous letters — after I’d written a column wondering why her attorney did not seek a settlement rather than the jury award, which, with the chiropractor’s bankruptcy, proved only a moral victory.
The $10 million, she wrote to me, was based on projected costs for her physical and medical needs and an adapted private dwelling. “It is not my intent to sound like ‘poor pitiful me,’” she wrote. “I think there is a certain general consensus that ‘The state provides for her needs.’ The state basically provides (if closely scrutinized) on the level of animal needs. There is an overriding ‘herd’ mentality. It erodes your sense of self and there is constant struggle to resist that.”
I was smitten. We corresponded often and I wrote stories about her efforts to publicize chiropractic risks and to make the state require that chiropractors carry malpractice insurance. She wrote to me about her life, her loves, her family, her faith, her care and her frustrations.
“This floor is like a nut house tonight — more than usual,” she wrote in March 1992. “Patients who are usually quiet are off the wall. One female was wailing in her room, while another had someone in a headlock … These are generally docile people. Is there a full moon?”
She did not allow her horrific injury to swallow her. She was determined to be an advocate. She had a voice.
With the help of her devoted friends, we arranged for her to visit our home, to spend a day in the summer air amid the redolent gardens and under an apple tree. Friends and family, hospital staff and neighbors and a dog or two milled around her. It was an arduous undertaking to bring her, in her motorized wheelchair, to Stonington. But I see her still, under that apple tree and beneath blameless blue skies on that August afternoon.
Linda died at age 57 in August 2006, of complications following gall bladder surgery.
In her hospital room, on a bookshelf, was a photograph, in black and white, of her in dancer’s tights, bending in motion. “I think if we live parallel lives,” she once wrote to me. “I am a dancer somewhere.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.