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You wouldn’t necessarily expect a lot of laughter in a dialysis unit. But where my husband goes for his treatments (a small, four-chair room in the hospital), staff and patients alike become close, with a fair amount of shared banter between them – and Angus and Ellie were a real comedy team, there. They weren’t hired in for entertainment; Ellie was a patient, and Angus is a volunteer driver who regularly brought her to dialysis.
Fair warning: Ellie will not make it to the end of this article. But I want you to know her, even though she is gone.
When Sem first started dialysis here Up North he was on the same “shift” as Ellie, though she came in more often, attending every weekday for two hours rather than the standard thrice-weekly four-hour sessions. Ellie’s dialysis chair was in the corner of the room facing the door where she could watch all that was going on – and comment on it in her inimitable way. In her 50s, she was small in stature and large in personality and while she often had her eyes closed, she missed nothing.
In those early days when we still lived too far from the hospital for me to go home during Sem’s dialysis, I would stay to see him settled in before heading to the hospital cafeteria to wait out the hours. I’d nod and smile at the other patients when I came in to the room, but didn’t want to intrude. After a few weeks, though, Ellie would have none of that. “Come here and say hello,” she’d demand, so I would obediently go over for a wee chat. When her session was over the nurse would pull the curtain around, and a few minutes later Ellie would emerge, limping slightly on her way to the outer room where Angus waited for her. What I didn’t notice at first was that she had prosthetic legs. In my defense, she was always under a blanket during dialysis, and any time I saw her walking or in a wheelchair it looked like she had legs, so… Oh, hush. I’ll never make it as a detective, okay? Anyway one day, after she’d gotten to know us a bit, she gestured to her prosthetics leaning against the wall (yeah, I hadn’t noticed them either!) and said, “You don’t mind, do you?” We said of course not and from then on the nurse just handed her the prosthetics without the curtain-pulling, first. Blanket off, legs on, and out she went. Angus would be waiting nearby with a wheelchair (the walk to Angus was short; the distance to the van, rather longer), usually barking, “Come on, woman, I haven’t got all day!” while Ellie said goodbye to the patients, nurses, and me, ignoring Angus completely. She’d make him wait for her while she had a sneaky cigarette once she got outside, looking equal parts naughty and gleefully rebellious. “Can’t be much worse than I already am,” she once said with a laugh, waving her cigarette defiantly.
Angus is a beefy, cheerful mountain of a guy. He’s so tall he generally looks straight out over my head as if looking down to my short height would give him a crick in his neck; despite this, he is a warm sort of person, kind and humorous. He used to be on the Lifeboat crew, so I’m not surprised that in his retirement he volunteers to help people in a different way, by driving the “rural transport” van. It’s not just for patients; they will take elderly and/or disabled people shopping or to visit friends, or to medical appointments and so on. It’s a great service, which we are lucky to have.
Angus and Ellie always gave each other a hard time, squabbling like siblings. “You know the first time I took Ellie home,” he said to me once while she was captive in her dialysis chair, “it was before I had the van. She was in the front seat of the car with me and by the time I’d brought her home she was leaning against my shoulder, snoring and drooling.” Ellie spluttered in mock outrage while Angus glanced down woefully at his shoulder as if expecting to still find a drool-patch there, all that time later.
Ellie had a wicked, playful sense of humor. One afternoon I was in the waiting room with Sem’s daughter when Ellie came in and struck up a conversation with her. Asking where she worked, Ellie said, “Oh! Do you know Susan, she works at the desk there.” Sem’s daughter replied that she did, her expression making it clear that Susan was not anyone’s favorite person. Ellie, nodding, said, “She is a bit of a cow, isn’t she?” Sem’s daughter laughed and agreed, and Ellie immediately said with perfect timing and a straight face, “Susan is my sister.” Sem’s daughter was mortified. Ellie let her squirm for a moment before her laughter got the better of her. “That was terrible of me, oh I am sorry but I couldn’t resist. Not to worry – I can’t stand her either. We’re like chalk and cheese, me and Susan!” (Note: it’s exactly the kind of prank Sem’s daughter would play, so she found it very funny, once she recovered!)
Then there was the day when I came in to see Sem and noticed Angus, hot on my heels, brimming with mischief. Ellie caught sight of him and hollered, “Och on you go, Angus, I know you cannae WAIT to tell Bev what happened!” Everyone else in the room started laughing, having heard the tale already (while I wondered who Bev was). Angus, grinning, said to me, “I caught Ellie in her nightie this morning! She overslept! You should’ve seen her, what a state she was in!” Ellie started protesting vociferously: Angus had been early, her alarm clock hadn’t gone off, there must have been a power outage, it wasn’t her fault! But it was easy to see she’d been caught out and she knew it. Angus went on to describe Ellie in her nightie, hair standing on end, scrambling to get herself together while he waited – with saintly patience, of course. She grumbled good-naturedly, muttering, “You just couldn’t WAIT to tell everyone about it, could you!” Angus beamed.
A week or so later I met them on their way out. Ellie thumped the arm of the wheelchair and hollered, “Stop!” Not knowing if she meant me or Angus, I stopped. She fixed her bright eyes on me and said, “I’m going to ask you something and you have to tell me the truth: is your name Bev?” Angus was grinning hard, behind her. Stifling my own grin I shook my head no and told her my name. Angus burst out laughing while Ellie looked at me askance. “Deb? DEB?! Why didn’t you tell me?! HE just told me today that your name wasn’t Bev, but I didn’t believe him. Good lord I’ve been calling you Bev for months!” Until the caught-in-her-nightie story, I’d had no idea she’d thought my name was Bev. Angus gleefully crowed, “I TOLD you, you should have believed me,” as Ellie shook her head in amused disbelief.
The last time I saw Ellie, Angus was wheeling her through the hospital on their way out. I hadn’t seen her in a while and to my surprise she was almost completely bald, with just a tiny amount of stubbly hair growing in. Ellie said archly, “Aren’t you going to say anything about my new hairdo?” Oh jeez… You never really know what to say in those situations, do you? I feared the worst – was she undergoing chemotherapy on top of everything else? I lamely said that it suited her, and – too late! – saw her face light up with that mischievous sparkle. “I decided to do that ‘brave the shave’ thing for charity,” she said. “I didn’t want to make a big public ‘thing’ out of it, so I just asked people to sponsor me, and my husband shaved it all off at home.” That was just like Ellie, doing something kind but without fuss. She turned her head to the side a little bit. “Have a look at the back and tell me what you think.”
I stepped around behind her and was confronted with huge blue cartoon eyes complete with long Bambi eyelashes, staring at me from the back of Ellie’s shorn head. She shook with laughter at my reaction. “I had a friend draw them on. Just because I have no hair on my head at the moment,” she said cheerfully, “doesn’t mean I have to look boring!” Oh, Ellie. No one could ever, ever accuse you of being boring!
It wasn’t long after that when Sem told me in shock one Monday after dialysis that Ellie had died. It was utterly unexpected. On the Friday before, she’d been her usual cheerful self. “She died on Saturday night,” Sem said, his voice thick with grief. “Everyone is devastated. I can’t believe she’s gone.” We never knew why she died, but one of the nurses later told Sem that there was more wrong with Ellie than she let on. Even so, no one really saw it coming. Ellie’s husband was crushed and lost, and for those who shared the dialysis ward with Ellie, things were never the same.
She’s been gone for about two years now, and we still talk about her. Angus is his usual friendly self, but some of his spark has dimmed. He undoubtedly misses his sidekick, his partner in laughs and his friend. We miss her, too.
So why am I telling you about Ellie, when she has been gone for so long already? I guess because the Ellies of the world deserve to be known. To most people she would’ve been just another patient among the multitude. But Ellie was special. She was all of those things that you’d want as part of your day; a breath of fresh air, a ray of sunshine, an ally, a friend, and just a little bit of a naughty troublemaker. She was feisty and she was brave and she always left us smiling.
When I think of Ellie I first feel a gut-punch of sadness because she is gone, but it’s always followed immediately by a lightening of the heart, a smile forming on my lips before I’m even aware of it. She left a big empty space in our hearts, but it’s a space which echoes with laughter and good-natured banter. We are so very lucky to have known her!