Everyone who sees my doll shrinks in mock terror. I can understand why. With her pug nose, fixed grin, and spiky orange hair, she does bear a likeness to the maniacal Chucky of horror movie fame. If you picked her up, you might notice a missing arm, a permanent smudge that mars her face, and hair that shows evidence of a child's clumsy scissoring. But when I catch sight of her, I see comfort and companionship, a reminder of two dreamlike days I spent in the hospital when I was six and had my first confusing brush with death.
I can't imagine the anxiety that made my parents decide to leave my two sisters home with dad while my mother, who didn’t drive, took me by bus to the hospital in Denver. Was the medical care inadequate in our small Colorado town? How expensive were those tests, with all the electrodes and brain scans, and how did my parents pay for them? Did they even have health insurance back then? It’s too late now to ask. My mother and father are gone, unable to answer questions I never before thought to ask. All I know is that as a child I suffered from seizures, fainting spells, and temper tantrums that frightened even me, and I had to go to Denver for an EEG, the result of which was ten-plus years on the epilepsy drug Dilantin, which made my gums grow over my teeth and which I’m now not sure I even needed.
The drive to Denver is a hazy blur punctuated with moments of Kodak clarity: sitting in a Greyhound bus on a mountain pass, stalled for hours while road crews cleared tons of snow from an avalanche that had struck the cars in front of us. The mesmerizing glow of Denver’s countless stoplights, new to my small-town eyes. A store with a glass case full of tiny, exquisite ships made of spun sugar. And the distinct memory of standing in the bright aisle of a toy store, my mother waiting as I tried to choose the new doll she had promised I could take to the hospital, where I would be spending two days alone. I wavered between a pretty doll with a beautiful dress and a funny-looking one with an enormous plastic head and orange hair. Of course I chose the latter. I named her Orangeeta, and everything about her made me smile, from her gigantic feet and ears shaped like tea-cup handles to her round little belly with an innie that at some point I colored in with blue ink.
The hospital is another mélange of memory: fluorescent white halls, nurses in crisp white dresses and airplane-shaped caps, an antiseptic room with a pastel quilt that seemed insultingly infantile. For some reason, I had to stay up all night for the EEG that would be performed the next morning. At first it seemed like an adventure. The nurses marched smartly up and down the halls, and they brought endless paper cups of red Kool-aid. But as the night wore on, I became bored. There was nothing to play with except a jigsaw puzzle, and I was outraged by the betrayal of finally finishing it only to discover that it was missing a piece. I wanted desperately to sleep, but every time I dozed off, an impatient nurse shook me awake and gave me more Kool-aid, which quickly changed from a treat to a torment. If I followed the nurses around and asked questions, they became even more impatient. So I talked to Orangeeta and wandered up and down the florescent halls in my robe, scuffing in unfamiliar slippers.
That’s when I saw the girl in the tent.
Down the hall was another room with an open door. Inside, a little girl was lying face-up on a bed, completely enclosed in a clear plastic tent. A gray, tired-looking woman sat in a chair in the corner. The woman told me that the girl in the tent was her granddaughter and that she was having trouble breathing. I padded down to the nurse’s station.
"What’s wrong with that girl,"I asked. "Why is she in a tent? "
"She’s very sick,"was the brisk reply.
I remember the odd feeling of being a little jealous. After all, I wasn’t the least bit sick. I was just there for tests. No one sat up at my bedside all night, as the sad grandmother did. I went back down the hall and sat with her. I don't remember what we talked about – I seem to recall that she was also from out of town and had come on a bus, but I might be imagining that, conflating her story with my own. I do remember liking and trusting the old woman, who was kind and soft and wore a cotton dress with pale flowers, like the ones my own grandma wore.
The next day, I was taken for my tests. I was fascinated by the electrodes placed on my head and by the squiggly lines that printed out on a big roll of paper. But I was also achingly tired. Finally it was over I was allowed to crawl into bed and sleep.
When I woke up, the hospital was very quiet. I walked down the hall to visit the grandma. As I approached room, a nurse grabbed me by the arm and spun me away, whispering that the little girl had died. I was stunned with the thrilling enormity of this information, with the exquisite sadness. Suddenly I was no longer jealous of the little girl in the tent.
I sat in my bed and hugged Orangeeta, waiting for my mother to come and take me home.
(Check back later for a story about how Orangeeta is connected to my parents' divorce.)