Jealous Goes to the Doll Hospital

The doctor stared over her glasses and leaned closer. She caressed the stumps where Blueberry’s arm and leg had once been. This grandmotherly surgeon, Clare Erickson, was (and still is, as far as I know) our region’s most prominent “dollologist.” She was clearly weighing Blueberry’s prospects. “Do you know what a morgue is?” she said to Lillie, who was seven. 

Jealous with her new wig, circa 2004

Jealous with her new wig, circa 2004

Lillie stared back at Dr. Clare, entranced. And afraid. “No,” she said. 

“A morgue is where they keep bodies,” said the doctor. “When my husband died in the hospital, I went to see his body, and then they took him to the morgue, down in the basement of the hospital. They kept him there until they moved him for the funeral.”

“Umm, hmm,” said Lillie politely. Sophie and Max, Lillie’s older twelve-year-sister and ten-year-old brother, looked stunned.

“We have a morgue here, where we keep parts of dolls,” Dr. Clare continued. “But this baby, she’s a bit on the pale side.” She turned to me. “We’ll take a look, though, and if we have any matching parts, she can have them for the cost of attachment.”

Antie Clare’s Doll Hospital has been operating in North St. Paul for thirty years. Here, in this strange suburb in the shadow of a huge snowman statue, nine doll doctors and nurses work on up to three hundred doll patients at any given time. Dr. Clare herself has been doctoring dolls since 1968, the year I was born. This feels meaningful, since the primary patient we’ve brought in is not Blueberry, though her puppy-related injuries are admittedly ghastly, but Jealous, my childhood doll, who is also now mothered by Lillie. Since almost all of the hospital’s customers are adults, Lillie’s presence as an actual child with a sick doll was enough to warrant having her baby rushed ahead of the others, a gesture that surprised and impressed me.

The problems with Jealous date back to the years she spent in the care of Lillie’s older sister, Sophie. The “Sophie years” involved frequent bathing with lots of soap. Jealous developed a range of water-related maladies: missing eyelashes, a split down her plastic abdomen, and–worst of all–irreversibly matted hair that emits a mildly disturbing odor. It was also during the Sophie years that the doll acquired her unfortunate name. (Hyper, Jealous’s sister, has since gone missing.) Blueberry (also named by Sophie, who was stubbornly resistant to conventional naming practices) tagged along with Jealous today only as an afterthought, since her ancestry cannot be traced back further than the toy bin at the Goodwill. Sad to say, this means she doesn’t quite merit the cost of any reconstruction beyond bandaging. But free limbs from the morgue are certainly an unanticipated bonus.

According to the doctor, it’s going to cost less to replace Jealous’s eyes than to repair the lashes. “Anyway,” Dr. Clare said as she pointed to the light blue cornea, “you see how there’s rust in there, and that cloudiness is actually mold.” She explained each procedure directly to Lillie, with the patience of an experienced practitioner. “We can’t fix this hair, so we’re going to shave her head bald and attach a whole new wig. You’re going to like it,” she said. Next, she removed the bandages from Jealous’s torso. “Who did this surgery?”

We all froze, as if somebody was going to be in big trouble. Sophie bravely owned up to her handiwork.

“With work like this, you should be helping at the doll hospital,” said the doctor. She told Lillie that instead of fixing the abdominal crack, she’d fit Jealous with a whole new torso (a steal at five dollars, not counting the limb-reattachment labor).

The paperwork was complete, and it was time to officially check in Jealous and Blueberry. But first they had to be brought up to date on their measles shots, which Lillie and Max administered with relish. The naked, vaccinated dolls had to be placed under a quilt in the crib in the corner of the shop, right beneath the high shelves with rows and rows of headless doll bodies. Nearby sat a wise and watchful Mrs. Beasley, worth a whopping one hundred and fifty dollars–but still humble on account of her drastic homeliness.

I was aware as we left that it’s probably tragic to spend money–let’s just say it was barely more than a hundred dollars–on a worthless doll. But maybe it’s more tragic the way everything in our lives has become disposable. I can’t say where the truth lies and I don’t even want to. But either way, I cannot deny what an odd comfort it is, knowing the doll hospital still exists, after all these years.


Theo decides it's safe to venture out from under the bed

Theo decides it's safe to venture out from under the bed

Tonight, I experienced living proof that we should never too tightly rein in our idea of what's possible. 

Six months ago, back in the hot hazy days of August, while my daughters Lillie and Sophie and I were in Peru on a volunteer medical mission with Smile Network International, our beloved cat Theo decided to go on a walk ... and not come back. This was shocking and heartbreaking, because not only was Theo a birthday kitten for Lillie on her sweet thirteenth (she's seventeen now), but he was also the nicest, most affectionate, pleasantly lazy homebody of a cat you'd ever hope to meet. How could he just scoot out the front door and disappear without a trace?

The girls and I got the dreaded email about Theo being missing from my husband Jon late one evening after a long day at the Cusco hospital. On the one hand he didn't want to tell us, but on the other hand he needed a picture of Theo and he knew I had many on my computer. I quickly searched my iPhoto for the best, clearest shots of Mr. Handsy-Pants, as I liked to call him, and emailed them to Jon, who made posters and plastered them all over our neighborhood. He trekked up and down our block and into the small patch of woods in our neighborhood park each morning, despite the fact that he works at Mayo Clinic--ninety miles from our home in Minneapolis--and must therefore leave home by 5:45 a.m. in order to catch his commuter bus. Still, Jon made these daily predawn rounds looking for Theo. But no dice. 

Weeks passed, and we got lots of calls and emails about various Theo lookalikes. None panned out to be our actual runaway. We checked shelters. We signed up for the neighborhood listserv (that we never knew existed until a concerned neighbor recommended it as a way to watch for Theo). We continued to walk the neighborhood. We put out bowls of delicious canned food. We turned up nothing but flies.

School started, and on the first cold morning of the year, Lillie's two goldfish who were living outside in our small pond dropped dead (can fish "drop dead"?) over night from the sudden plummet in temperature. It shouldn't have happened; we should have brought them in but in the past they'd always been fine through September. Lillie texted me from school that day, despondent: Mom, everything is dying....

More weeks passed, and the calls and emails about Theo stopped coming. We began to accept, in a surreal and painful kind of way, that we might not find our sweet cat. We talked about whether to have a "ceremony." Meanwhile, we sent Theo our wishes for a happy life wherever he was. We told ourselves that he'd found a nice new family, that he'd charmed his way into a comfy spot on somebody else's couch. We couldn't imagine any other possibility.

Halloween came and went, then Thanksgiving. One chilly afternoon before Christmas, Lillie and I were in the kitchen making tea, and our conversation turned to Theo. "I just can't believe we'll never see him again or know where he is, or what happened," she said. Tears spilled down her cheeks and her breath caught in her chest until it became ragged sobs. I held her. There was nothing else I could do.

Christmas came and went, then New Year's. Sophie moved to Florida, and Lillie's brother Max moved back home to stay for a few months before college classes resume next fall (he'd been serving a term in the Conservation Corps of Minnesota). Things changed. Things stayed the same.

And then, this afternoon, buried in a flurry of work correspondence and business email, came a message from Jon. It stood out for its subject line: THEO?!!?!?.  Jon had forwarded the latest digest from the neighborhood listserv, which featured a gigantic picture of our cat. Both of us knew instantly it was Theo, not an impostor.  I compared the photo to several in my files, even though I didn't need to. It was definitely him. Someone had seen Theo several blocks from our house, and had been feeding him for a while before taking him inside last week. But this kindly neighbor was going out of town for the weekend, so asked his cousin to take the cat in, which the cousin did.

The cousin, however, already had a cat. He didn't feel he could give Theo a permanent home. So he took him to the vet looking for a microchip (there was none). Then he took Theo to the feline shelter, but was turned away. It was full. So as a last ditch effort, the cousin of the good neighbor posted the pic of Theo and the message about him to our neighborhood listserv, along with the caveat that if he couldn't find Theo's owner before Monday, he'd be dropping him at the Humane Society.

Back in Lillie's lap

Back in Lillie's lap

As you know, that didn't happen, because Jon and I picked Theo up and brought him home forthwith. We still can't believe it. Lillie is beside herself. We all are. And Theo is clearly very pleased to be home, despite being quarantined in Lillie's bedroom until his vet check (feline leukemia? parasites?) tomorrow morning. We hope he'll get a clean bill of health; he certainly looks plump, glossy, and happy.

Which makes us think the story we told ourselves wasn't too far off, that most likely Theo has had a comfy couch to sleep on for most of his time away. Which begs the question of how or why he ended up outside again last week. Maybe, we think, he was trying one more time to find his way back home ... which miraculously, he did.

Expect the unexpected!