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 …