Cabbage Water, anyone?

Cabbage Water, anyone?

Mum, Me and hospitals – not often a good mix.

As she’s never had to stay in one for any major medical reason, apart from giving birth twice and terrorising the maternity wards with her undiagnosed, off-the-scale crazy PND, she doesn’t get why anyone needs to go to one, have anything done, or be kept in. It’s just not within her understanding. Her health rules have always been: keep your bottom covered with at least two layers at all times, sleep until you know you’re not tired anymore and drink cabbage water. I used to wish she’d stayed at home whenever she trotted those rules out to my teachers, one of whom asked me if I’d really like cabbage water at lunchtime. Would I like cabbage water at lunchtime? Seriously? Have you ever tasted cabbage water? It’s like, well, it’s like … cabbage water. No thank you, Miss.

Cut to a couple of weeks ago when I told her I was going to the Royal Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital to have an operation to improve my hearing.

“Why are you going there? Can’t you have it done at home in the warm?” Intricate middle-ear stapedectomy in my living room? That would be an interesting thing to organise. She was similarly abrupt when I had to have my gall bladder removed at aged 21. Mum had done her research and challenged the doctors on the classic Fs diagnosis for gall bladder disease: female, fair, forty and fat. “My daughter is not forty, she’s twenty 21, so you can strike that off your records. And she’s definitely not fat, well not at the moment, but she has been. She’s fair enough, but I wouldn’t say she’s a film star”. Thanks Mum. The reason for not being fat at that particular time was that I’d probably not eaten properly for nearly two years as I’d got gall stones which had slowly built up and eventually disintegrated, turning me a lovely shade of orangey yellow. Mum and I were living together in our big Hendon house when I was really ill, but I’d hidden everything from her to save her the worry and also to save myself the earache with all the nonsense she would have been spouting. When she did realise how ill I was, she was on her DIY nurse mission and it took me right back to being a little girl having weird foods thrown down my throat because I’d stopped eating in protest at her crazy antics. This was different and despite the Trumpesque hue, nobody could work out what was wrong with me. The radioactive digestive tract x-rays hadn’t revealed anything and I was questioning my own sanity whilst all around me (including Mum) were implying that I was somehow self-harming and attention seeking. God, I hated her intervention in those days. I can remember clutching my stomach in agony at the hospital when they sent me to another department for some other sort of scan. All I wanted to do was curl up into a little ball and shut the curtains, but all these chirpy bloody women were insisting on chatting and it was a fantastic feat of self-control not to shout SHUT THE HELL UP at the top of my voice. One persistent woman sat next to me and said, sweetly “When is yours?” What? I thought, when is my X-ray? How the hell do I know? “I don’t know – fifteen, twenty minutes?” All the other women stood up and fussed around me. What were they doing? One of them brought me water and another one told me to breathe deeply. There was mounting panic in the pack and I just wanted them to sod off, the pain to go away and to be magically back in my cosy bedroom. “Nurse – this lady says she’s due in fifteen to twenty minutes. Should she be lying down? Could we get her a bed?”. A bed. Oh yes please. A bed would lovely I thought to myself. And then it dawned on me. All the women were pregnant and I was in the ultrasound department. No wonder they were fussing around when I said mine was due in fifteen to twenty minutes. They thought I too was pregnant and having a scan. Nope. My swollen tummy was because I was filling up with bile, not because a new life was emerging. Even in the pain and confusion I could see the funny side of it and started laughing hysterically, tears pouring down my face, belly laughs filling the space. Funny how an unaccompanied woman laughing likes a lunatic can make crowds disperse and an eerie silence develop around the maniacal cackles. Luckily the ultrasound showed the disintegrated gallstones and tattered gall bladder, so Mum had to listen for once that I needed hospitalisation and an operation, not cod liver oil, extra layers and a visit from some random priest.

Mum is terrified that if she’s ever taken to see the men and women in white coats, they are either going to take her away, lock her up or apply EST to her wonderful, weird and wild brain. Now, that goes back to the aforementioned undiagnosed PND when she felt she had to keep quiet about the turmoil inside her head for fear that she’d be strapped down, electrocuted and have her precious babies taken away.

Mum’s got no time, absolutely zilch, for people she thinks are faking. And that’s pretty much everyone in hospital in Mum’s eyes. Even me with my gallstones to a certain extent as she was trying to get me to come home the day after life-saving surgery, because she believed she could do a better job of looking after me. When the hospital refused to give her all the dressings and materials she’d need – and I’d insisted that I wanted to stay – she gave in and let the medical professionals take over. It felt at the time as if she was meddling and not caring, but it was quite the opposite of course. She was trying to care and do it all herself and simply didn’t trust anyone else to look after me properly.

These days, Mum’s immobility prevents her from getting out or visiting anyone. Men’s wards were like a playground to my mum – any man, any state of illness, with or without visitors were there to be kissed to make them better. She once dragged me into a ward and told me to kiss all the men on one side of the ward while she did the same on the opposite side. I didn’t of course and I think I was given sweets in the matron’s room instead. Mum did her rounds, talking briefly to everyone, bending down to kiss them and skipping off to the next bed. Some loved it, others hated it and I’m pretty sure the families were very confused by it all. She grabbed my hand and took me home, telling me that it was God’s wish that she made them all feel loved. It was like a Carry On Film with cross-patch doctors, waggy-finger matrons, chuckling old men and pinched-face wives huffing their shoulders and whacking their husbands when Mum disappeared. The phrase “kiss it better” has always made me cringe. I’d love to know what those chaps actually thought at the time.

So now, I’m waiting for my ear to balance out a bit before going to see Mum again. The day before my operation the care home called me to say that she hadn’t been eating or drinking. Everyone was worried and she was in a very frail state, but we had our usual love-you chats when I rushed down to see her and she told me that “adore” was the best word in the English language. She’s eating and drinking again and giving them all hell. Her new tricks? To hurl cups of coffee across the room if they’re not hot enough, wipe chocolate on her trousers and demand music. She’s a huge fan of scrambled eggs, so she’s getting through lots of them. She’ll always take my hand when I serve eggs up for her and tell me that she will always feel guilty that forcing me to eat so any eggs when I was little was somehow responsible for my gallstones. I told her recently that it was an inherited condition as Dad and paternal Nan had the same operation. I don’t think she believes me though as she has that I-know-you’re-making-it-up-to-make-me-feel-better look when I remind her. Hey ho. I’m doing her a selection of favourite tracks to listen to when I next go down. Any favourites you think I should include? Now, where’s my copy of Peter Sellers doing “Goodness Gracious Me?” Nurse? the screens please. Over and out.

Half past four, dear

Half past four, dear

I was four when Mum clapped her hands together, shouted “Oh good” and hugged the doctor who’d just diagnosed my itching, spotty body with chickenpox. Well, that’s not very nice is it? Your mum glad that you’re ill. I spent the next couple of weeks convinced that my mum’s attempts to soothe the itching with horrid pink calamine lotion was a front. She hated me and wanted me to be unwell. How wrong I was and it took me decades to realise what those two words actually meant. I’m coming up for a minor operation on my right ear where I’m hoping that my decreasing hearing will be put right and I can hear properly again. I told mum that I was going to be stuck in London for a while as I will not be able to travel on high speed trains, planes, undergrounds or subject my new ear parts to loud noise. What do you think her answer to that was? Yes, you’ve guessed it. “Oh good”

“Mum? Is that oh good you’re having the operation or oh good I can’t come and see you?”

“The latter, Sonia darling.”

“So you don’t want me to come and see you?”

“Ooh, here comes the tea trolley. Two slices of cake for my daughter thank you.”

I’m so much better at interpreting what my beloved mother means when she says puzzling things. So many years have been wasted by questioning everything she said with an after thought … what did she mean by that? How come she can’t see how annoying or embarrassing that is? Or simply, why did she say that to that nice person who didn’t deserve it? No, she wasn’t glad that I was ill, she was just pleased that I had contracted chickenpox and could get it out of the way and build up my immune system. And she’s not pleased I’m not coming to see her, she’s pleased that I’m having the operation – I think. Everything she’s always done and said has got love at the heart and for many years I didn’t see it – all I saw was the behaviour and its impact on the people around me.

Rewind a few decades to four year old me. I had all sorts of wonderful stories in my head to play with when the funny noises came. If I squeezed my jaw together really tight I could get my ears to ring and the tighter I squeezed, the higher the ring tone. So I learned to play tunes. I didn’t tell my dad about this, because I was pretty sure he’d think it was a daft thing to do and I should have been practicing the piano instead. I did tell Mum though and she told me that it was angels singing to me. Then sometimes I heard a rushing sound like huge whooshy waves crashing along the beach. Mum told me that it was all the good fairies in my blood rushing around doing magic. And when I didn’t always answer her (because I couldn’t always hear her) she would get cross and give me a waggy finger telling off. It was all very puzzling, but it was just mum being mum. Fairies and angels were nice things to have in my head, so I made up stories about them whenever I tuned in to what I realise now was tinnitus and early signs of middle ear problems. I certainly wasn’t going to tell mum that the noises were getting louder in case she took me to the doctor again and got all happy when he told me that I was going deaf. I think I finally confessed when I was 10 to my dad and step mum and was whisked off the the Gray’s Inn Road Throat, Nose & Ear Hospital to have my tonsils removed, adenoids out and a grommet in my right ear drum. Mum’s reaction? “Oh good” Confused fume. Why did I tell her? I suppose all this is the reason that I find deaf jokes so funny. I’m allowed – because I’m partly deaf (for now). The memory of a very caring nurse patiently repeating the time of the tea round will always make me laugh and whenever there is a comedy sniff of deafness I’m always tempted to say very loudly, clearly and with exaggerated mouth movements – “HALF PAST FOUR, DEAR.”

Mum pretends she can’t hear now. She does it purely to be mischievous, because she can hear alright when she’s given the choice of fish & chips, shepherd’s pie or macaroni cheese. Fish and chips every time. She can also hear the rustle of a toffee wrapper from a mile off, but when we’re together she just stares at me, smiles, takes my hand and winks as if saying “I’ve heard you, but you don’t need an answer do you?”.

I tried explaining that my upcoming operation will involve cutting away the middle bone of my inner ear (the stapes) and she said that I probably didn’t need it anyway as I’m prone to gathering things that I don’t really need. When pushed to explain she confessed that she thought I had far too many spoons, too may pairs of jeans and that a bit of peace would be nice.

Eh? Pardon? Half past …

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