Effie and I share a birthday. She was born on February 17th, 1920, the year that women were given the right to vote. I was born twenty-seven years later, one of the early baby boomers. Aside from the shared birthday, I wondered what we could possibly have in common. On my first hospice call to The Palms Rehabilitation facility, from which few escape except via hearse, I saw a tiny, shriveled woman lying in her single bed with eyes tightly shut. “She’s playing dead,” the charge nurse informed me. I stayed only fifteen minutes, spoke to her tentatively, and determined that she was playing her role convincingly. Effie has many diagnoses, including cerebral vascular disease, skin cancer, and mental illness. She is my first dying crazy person. I’ve met dementia in many forms, but Effie is not demented as in Alzheimer’s or memory loss.. She is psychotic. Our first attempt at a conversation finds me trying to follow the twists and turns and loop-backs and fast forwards of Effie’s thoughts, as she cries, pounds the bedclothes in anger, and rages at life, or at her lost grasp of it. “The short-legged orange ones steal”, she warns me. She knows, somehow, that I’m not a part of The Palms, and she speaks to me as her guest, never hurling hateful curses in my direction. In time, we bond . How? We are both grand-ma- niacs. My five grandchildren live a thousand miles away, and my grandma-crazy love for them overwhelms me. I cry always when I leave them. Effie comforts herself, when she is calm enough to be comforted, with a newborn size rubber baby doll, who easily shape-shifts from boy to girl to “both,” she tells me. She kisses it often, proudly shows me its bright blue eyes and “sweet” little toes. “Give me some sugar,” she says. The mute baby never refuses. In turn, I show her pictures of my beautiful blue-eyed granddaughter, Lindsay, and newborn grandson, Andrew. The following week I bring glossy photos of Devin, Emily, and Lauren to be admired. She praises their beauty but assures me her baby is “just some” cuter. Her eyes flash and her cheek muscles twitch as she rants against the medical people there, the ones who mock her for playing with dolls. “I don’t care!” she cries. “It’s the only thing I have, and he’ll never leave me. I wrote my name on his back. See? I cry at night, and then I put him on my shoulder and he calms me right down and then we both sleep. He’s such a good baby.” One week I can’t find Effie in her room. Amazed, I spot her strolling down the hallway, baby clutched tightly to her chest. “I thought she was bedridden,” I say to one of the orange ones. “Oh, no. She can walk. In fact, she can do whatever she damn well pleases. And she does.” I know from my first visit that Effie is not the ward favorite. She sits down next to me in the community room. Her full, curly gray hair is held back from her face with a purple satin ribbon. She wears an expensive-looking red jacket over purple slacks and purple satin slippers. This time she talks nonstop. She is more coherent than before, and I try to pick out the bits of truth from the confusing sidetracks. She has borne seven children. Two sons died; one in the Navy, the other at Sebastian Inlet, during what might have been a fishing trip. She cries as she talks. She and her husband John, now “very sick with glaucoma,” worked side-by-side in a furniture store for twenty-seven years. He wrote her a beautiful anniversary (or maybe Valentine’s card) which she treasures. He wrote: “You made me everything I am today.” They loved each other always, though she will never forgive him for moving her from the “paid up” house on Avocado Ave. to the “way-too-big house “ on the river. He wouldn’t listen to her. Worse, he didn’t put her name on the deed, and she never had a penny of her own, even though she had worked beside him for all those years. I believe her. I ‘m getting better at sorting phrases and little stories into two mental file cabinets. The story about having two-week-old beef stew for breakfast goes into the false drawer. The comment that John made the best, fluffiest pancakes in the world gets sorted into the true drawer. During my next visit I bring several newborn baby outfits to try on “it,” thanks to my niece, who has recently given birth to a baby girl. The outfits are very pink. I tell Effie the baby won’t care, but Effie seems more worried that these clothes will be stolen. She reminds me that “he” can be a “she” if she decides it. I’m all in favor of gender-neutral infant clothing, so this is welcome news. I have to cajole Effie into letting me hold the baby to try on a couple of outfits. She finally agrees, cautioning me to “watch his little head, and don’t cover up his feet. He doesn’t like that.” I choose a onesie, decorated with pink and red hearts. It will be Valentine’s day soon. I tell her that each heart means “I love you.” Before I pass the infant back, I kiss it three times, mimicking Effie’s ritual. She smiles, she thanks me, she shows the new outfit to the security guard passing by. Next week Effie and I will celebrate our birthdays together. I plan to bring vanilla cupcakes and “fudge with the crisscross lines on it.” And, of course, a new outfit for the baby.
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