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Madhurima Vidyarthi

  • Writer's pictureMadhurima Vidyarthi

The Yellow Doll


The Yellow Doll - A True Story by  Madhurima Vidyarthi

The Yellow Doll came into our lives about fourteen years ago.


My husband and I were doctors in London, nearly at the end of our long

training. Just a year separated us from the time when we would emerge as

fully qualified specialists and go home to India in triumph. But life, of late, had

been very grim. We had just embarked on an intense phase in our training

which was made up of long untenable hours and needed tremendous physical

and mental commitment. In anticipation of the disruption that this would cause

to home life and in apprehension of the extreme weather that had been

predicted for the incipient winter, my husband and I had thought it prudent to

remove our infant daughter to the shelter of our family in India. Accordingly,

she was with her grandparents at home and I was breaking my heart over her

absence.


Night after night, I dreamt of her. Dreams where I thought I could actually feel

her climbing into my lap and reach out with a smile to pat my cheeks with her

tiny baby-soft hands. Then I would wake up with a start and a desperate ache

in my heart that would keep me staring into the darkness. Night in, night out, I

argued with myself – brain against heart – trying to find new reasons to justify

the decision we had taken. Half-asleep, half-awake as I battled the limits of

endurance in my already precarious state of mind.


The weeks dragged by as they were wont to; dreary, cold, full of ache, while

we tried to work steadily towards the final stages. That winter was the hardest

we had known since our arrival in England – reports said it was the coldest in

a decade. Try as we might, we could not rid ourselves of the perpetual feeling

of icy numbness despite layers and layers of woollies and supposedly efficient

heating arrangements. Patient after patient came in to hospital with

hypothermia – little old men and women trying their best to stay alive under

near inhuman conditions. Particularly trying were the on-call shifts – thirteen

hours of back-breaking work, day or night – that turned us from doctors into

machines, programmed to complete a set number of tasks within a fixed

amount of time. Patients metamorphosed from people into ‘jobs’ as we worked

our way down the ubiquitous, ever-present handover list.


It was an exceptionally cold Sunday and I was at work – again! – at the end of

a long and strenuous fortnight. The on call was dragging on in a peculiarly

malevolent fashion way; each task taking longer than usual and yet, not as

much time as I would have liked it to take. It was about 4.30 in the afternoon

and I had just started on a long overdue lunch when I was bleeped by a nurse

from ward 8. “This patient’s mother wants to speak to a doctor.”


Typical. “What does she want to know?”


“I don’t know the patient. This is the first time I’m looking after him. He’s bed-

bound and tube-fed.” Typical, typical, typical.


My frustration mounted. “I understand, but why does she want to speak to

me? Is he unwell?”


“No, she just wants to speak to a doctor. When are you coming?”


I was fed up by this time, “What am I going to say to her when I know nothing

about the patient? Why can’t she speak to her regular doctor tomorrow? ”


“When are you coming, doctor?”


Obviously, there was nothing else to do. Cursing internally, I slammed the

phone down and walked out of the office, thinking uncharitable thoughts about

patients and their families. My soggy cheese sandwich I had already

consigned to a bin.


Frank, the patient in question, was a sorry sight. As I flipped through his notes,

mentally registering the salient points of his case, I wondered what new

information I could give his mother. A bleed into his brain three years ago – a

‘haemorrhagic stroke’ in medical parlance – had left him well and truly

incapacitated. In one fell blow, it had robbed him of all speech and movement.

From where I stood at the nurses’ desk, I could see him curled up in his bed

like a baby, hugging his arms to himself. A feeding tube snaked out through

the sheets, connected to a machine which pumped food into his stomach. In

reality, he was worse off than a baby. He needed someone to clean him, to

move him, to anticipate his slightest need. The smallest things that we take for

granted depended, in his case, on the kindness of strangers. Unable to move of his own volition, his sole movements consisted of a regular ‘log-rolling’ routine from side to side to prevent bedsores. Motion – and the concept of mobility – took on a whole new meaning as I looked across at Frank. The complete lack of it in the expression of his flexed, contracted, akinetic body was so absolute as to be disturbing. Yet, three years ago, he had been just as

‘normal’ as you or I, doing everything for himself with mind and body fullyunder his own control. I was conscious of an overpowering sense of pity – stronger than the detached clinical interest that should be the only emotion in a complex ‘case’ like this.


I looked through his charts, the rational half of my mind still absorbing details,

then turned to the senior sister on the ward, “Who looks after him at home?” It

was a purely routine question.


Sister Nancy grimaced, “His mother!”


“His mother!” I looked up, amazed, “how old is she?” Frank was 65,

remember.


“She’s ninety-two,” Sister shrugged, “apparently she looks after him

completely by herself. Every time he’s in hospital – and this is the fourth time

this year – she’s been offered carers and every time she’s refused.” Carers

were an obligatory part of modern English society who went from house to

house helping people look after themselves. They were an integral and

indispensable part of the National Health Service – all part and parcel of

growing old and infirm on your own, an inevitable cog in the wheel of life as it

rolled inexorably towards the end.


In this context, it was difficult to understand why Frank’s mother had refused

help. Surely, she was of an age where she could have done with some help

herself. It stood to reason that she was neither young nor strong enough to

look after a bed-bound man singlehandedly. No doubt she had her own good

reasons. I walked towards Frank’s bed musing on the inexplicable vagaries of

the human spirit.


She was standing by his bed, a diminutive figure in grey, one hand resting

possessively on the bed rail – much as she would have stood by his cot as a

new mother. Her expression, in that unguarded moment, was certainly as

vulnerable. I hesitated, reluctant to interrupt this intensely intimate moment.

But she had heard my approach, and turned to meet me smartly, now fully in

possession of herself. Before I could open my mouth, she had stepped

forward, “Are you the doctor?”


“Yes,” I gave her my regulation smile, “Sister said you wanted to speak to me.

Would you like to come with me to the office?” Visiting hours had begun and

my scant knowledge of Frank and his progress in hospital made me wary of

conducting a potentially awkward interview in front of a ward full of visitors.


“Of course, my dear,” she smiled back, “Which way?”


I watched her covertly as I led her to the ward office at the rear. She moved

briskly enough, but there was no denying her age. I looked at her gnarled

hands as they pulled a shopping bag, their fragile veins shining under her thin

aged skin. She was stooped, but not as much as she might have been. Time

had been kinder to her than most.


I ushered her into the office and pulled forward a chair. She seated herself

with care, then settled back and looked at me expectantly. Her face was as

old as her hands, shrivelled and lined like a prune, with two bright blue eyes

looking out at the world. Snow-white hair, amazingly still touched with grey,

peeped out under her woolly hat. But there were remains of beauty in the fine

bones of face and head and a dignified composure in the carriage of her

withered frame.


I sat down hurriedly opposite her, conscious that I was staring and rushed into

the routine spiel of introduction that preceded all communication with patient’s

relatives. She heard me out calmly, then asked, “How is he today?”


I had my answer prepared, “I am not his regular doctor and I am meeting him

for the very first time today. But from what I can see from his notes and from

speaking to the staff, I think he is much the same as before.”


“Yes,” she nodded as if this was the answer she had been expecting all along,

“Yes, I see.”


“His own doctor should be able to give you more information tomorrow,” I

continued, “Will you be here?”

“Oh, yes,” she nodded, “I visit him every day. He lives with me, you see, and I

look after him.”


“It must be difficult on your own,” I was unable to contain my curiosity any

longer, “Do you have some help?”


“Oh, I’ve always looked after him on my own,” she said stoutly, “and I have all

the help I need. My neighbours are very good to me.” Her eyes softened,

“Frank was always such a good boy – never any trouble at all. He married a

lovely girl, but then she died about ten years ago, so he was on his own again.

That’s when I got him to come and live with me – so that I could look after

him.”


We were both quiet for a moment. Then, in an attempt to break the silence, I

offered, “Did you find it difficult to get here? It’s not very nice outside.” It was

horrible, in fact. A cold wind had been howling through the trees all day and

the snow lay thick on the ground. It was a wonder more people weren’t

coming in with broken legs.


“Oh no, dear,” she shook her head, “A friend brought me in her car. But I had

to make sure Frank was alright. That he was being looked after properly. You

never stop worrying about your children, do you?”


A lump formed sharply in my throat. As if in one of my dreams, I saw my

daughter’s face through a haze – dark wide-open eyes and the sweetest of

smiles in that beautiful face framed by the most perfect ringlets. And then –

incredibly – the darkness of many weeks lifted slowly from my heart. I would

never stop wanting to make sure that my child was being looked after

properly. That she was alright. If that meant removing her to the heart of the

family at the first sign of trouble, to spare her this cold harsh winter and a

disruptive home life, however temporary, than that would always be the right

decision to take. With that one simple truth, Frank’s mother had worked

magic.


As it was, I was totally unprepared for her next question, “Do you have a child,

dear?” Her eyes were fixed upon my face in a most disconcerting gaze.


“A little girl,” I nodded, “she’s two.” My eyes had begun to hurt.


The next question was even more unexpected, “Does she like dolls?”


“Yes,” I replied without preamble; I was too surprised to ask why.


Without a word, she reached into her capacious handbag and pulled out

something yellow and woolly, “Here, this is for your little one.”


That was the first time I saw the Yellow Doll. She had a smooth creamy

complexion with soft brown eyes, a button of a nose and an adorable rosebud

mouth. A profusion of curly brown hair was tied in two ponytails with some

white crochet lace that also edged her smart yellow frock and matching hat.

Cuddly and loveable, she had a delightful smile that would have warmed the

hardest of hearts. A lot of love had gone into her making.


“It’s very kind of you,” I stammered, completely taken aback, “but I really can’t

take this.”


“Nonsense,” said the old lady robustly, “Your little girl will love it. I make them

for the children in hospital and they all love them. It’s lucky I was carrying this

one for my friend’s niece. But I can always knit her another one.” She thrust

the doll firmly into my arms and gave it a loving pat on the head – an oddly

moving gesture that somehow included us both.


There was nothing else to say. With a whispered “thank you”, I walked away

holding the Yellow Doll close. With a light step, I left the ward, my doubts

finally dispelled –a prayer of thanks in my heart. I smiled down at the Yellow

Doll and the Yellow Doll smiled back and in those few moments, the world

miraculously righted itself.


This, then, is the story of The Yellow Doll. It is not an allegory or a parable. In

retrospect, it is not even a very exciting tale, but then true stories seldom are.

It is the story of a mother’s love for her child which is deep and unyielding and

eternally selfless. And, undeniably, it is a story of courage and of that eternal

hope that sees – above and beyond everything – the light shining at the end of

the tunnel.

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