DIANE by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
They say that beauty attracts the attention but personality attracts the heart. I know this is true because I knew Diane.
Diane had nothing. Diane had a kingdom.
I worked for many years at a big institution. You know, massive Victorian buildings where people are warehoused and lack individuality, locked doors, rigid hierarchy, Nurse Ratchet. Somehow, Diane had never learnt that she was a tiny cog in a large bureaucracy, merely one patient among 1500 others.
I met her first in her favourite hangout, the staff parking lot. On my first day, reporting for work, she stood up close to my car door, knitting away at something that looked like a very long multi-coloured scarf. She escorted me to the nearest building, swore at me and stamped off.
When I asked, tentatively, if she might be safer on a ward I saw grins all around. “That’s Diane.” My new boss said. “We all know her. She’s part of the place.”
Diane had virtually no education. She had at least two diagnosable mental illnesses. She had scoliosis of the back which caused her to hunch forward as she walked; this made her stamp down on her front foot and lurch awkwardly at every step. She had one glass eye and one eye that actually moved. Because of her vision problems, she had a ferocious, almost malevolent scowl. Her family had left her at the institution when she was a small child. They never returned. Not once, not ever. But in an odd way we took pride in Diane. She was ours, she was unique, and we loved her.
Every morning as we arrived for work she would pick someone, anyone from a doctor to the newest assistant cook, and ask questions, always the same ones. “What shift you on?” “What are your days off?” The answers were ordinary but at some point she would take offence, rear back and swear. The F word, the B word, the C word. She was an equal opportunity swearer, she swore the same for men and women. Her rough voice reverberated off those high stone walls for 50 yards in all directions. My day didn't seem to start properly if Diane hadn’t sworn at me. When she was finished with one person she moved on to the next arrival.
Diane loved coffee. She would steal it from our coffee room urns, drink it down immediately, almost boiling hot, before anyone could shoo her away. Or, given time, she would open those little packets of sugar, three, four, five, six. So there might be coffee left for us at break time or not, but we would crunch, crunch, crunch over the spilt sugar on the floor. Still we loved her.
Psychologists came and went The new ones tried to help Diane. One of them, an immaculately dressed man we called “Doctor Hugh” started by asking gently, “Diane, how do you think people feel when you drink their coffee?”
To which she smiled her sweetly malevolent smile and replied with the F word, the B word, the C word. We lost a lot of psychologists this way, but Doctor Hugh persevered, moving to sterner tactics, prevention and consequences.
We were told to lock our coffee rooms. We did that. The consequence was our keys went missing. Institutional staff without their bunch of keys are akin to lost souls. Luckily the keys were found only a few hours later, in small piles under bushes, behind garbage cans. Sorting them and delivering them to the correct owner took much longer.
Diane loved to knit. Her knitting was always the same, a scarf about nine inches wide and anywhere up to twelve feet long, trailing in the mud behind her, through the parking lot and up the stairs. The wool she used was brought in by staff who might be clearing out wool left over from knitting a husband a sweater or bootees for a baby. It varied considerably in colour and in thickness so the scarves were similarly varied and unique. They also varied in the ladders left by dropped stitches and the side bulges where extra stitches had been picked up.
When someone cast off the stitches for her, so the scarf was complete, she would be irate, as if the scarf had been stolen from her, even though it was put into her hands and a new one started. She would thrust her face close to the offender and swear, which was hardly a surprise, then stamp around and disappear with a rolled up bundle of knitting.
Some days later a scarf, easily identifiable as Diane’s most recent creation, would appear around the neck of a staff member and this rather embarrassed woman (it was always a woman) would say “She gave me it. I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”
Wearers of Diane’s scarves were somehow special. It is hard to believe but it was said that even in this century-old hierarchical society the Director of Nursing, that august personage seldom seen outside the Administration Block, knew the names of those few lowly ward aides who wore one of Diane’s scarves.
Not long after the episode of the locked coffee rooms Doctor Hugh lost a red cashmere sweater he liked to wear most days, even in the heat. One thundery day, as he visited the wards it simply vanished from the chair back he said he had hung it over. He questioned everyone he met, sent out memos, posted requests but time passed and no sweater turned up.
About a month later I saw Diane knitting away in the parking lot. She was using pretty red wool and this scarf was all one colour. On a hunch I asked Diane politely and reached into her bulging jacket pocket. And my hand came out holding all that was left of Doctor Hugh’s red cashmere sweater, unraveled from top almost to bottom and now existing as a scarf stretching ten grubby feet behind her.
Even so, Doctor Hugh did his best for Diane. When people had to move out of institutions he saw that she went to a top-rated group home. He helped her adjust to living in a suburban house without a big parking lot. The staff took her to a yarn store to select her favourite colour of wool (red) and made sure her knitting was always clean, having never reached ground level, or the length of a scarf. Her coffee intake was not monitored, indeed she could help herself in the kitchen at any time, or they would serve her well-sugared coffee. They related to her and interacted with her. It was by the book.
But her kingdom had shrunk to almost nothing. Her swearing no longer ricocheted off tall brick walls, indeed the words were almost lost in the upholstery. A wheelchair was bought for her, so she did not have to attract attention in the neighbourhood with that awkward, stamping stagger.
Diane did try to leave one day but she was soon spotted and gently returned. She died after a few months. All we're left with is the memory of the most vivid personality we will ever know. We loved her.