I love surprises. Some people hate them and I often wonder why. I’m still coming down from a week of astounding surprises that have left me, uncharacteristically, speechless.
My precious mum’s funeral was last Thursday (12th November) and the first thing to share with you was the tsunami of love in the room for a woman who, up until eight years ago was shedding friends like winter feathers and alienating everyone around her. She was adored and supported by the carers and fellow residents at her care home who genuinely adored her difference, personality and sheer energy for life. When we were welcomed back there for a party in Mum’s honour, the staff surprised us by a huge buffet, hand-made bunting with “Stories of Margaret” and a beautiful collage of pictures and anecdotal notes from everyone who worked and lived with her. Apart from the beautiful, moving gesture, we were totally gobsmacked by some of the things she’d done. Yes, she’d rather cutely called people by whichever name she fancied, stolen ice creams and raided the biscuit cupboard, but putting her walking stick through the windows in the front door when she didn’t get her way? I never got a bill for that one and I probably should have done. The other surprise of the day was to see a) how my beautiful friend Nicky rocks the black jeans, black jacket look and b) seeing the faces of some wonderful friends who’d come down to Chichester from London without telling me in advance. Prior to arriving for the service itself, there were hundreds of messages from friends on social media who’d been touched by the shared stories of her antics. “I felt like I knew your mum”, “Thanks for sharing your stories of your wonderful mum”, “I’ve learned so much about my own life through reading about yours” being some of the messages. Astounding and so wonderful to see. I could also share the story of how this blog inspired a close family friend to share the story of how my mum danced around the room when a marble popped out of my 4-year old bottom, but I’ve decided to keep that for another time.
It’s the end of a living era and the start of a new one as something even more surprising has started to happen. People are sharing a completely new concept and it’s making me realise that there’s yet another conversation that we should all be having about mental health. Three very close friends have confided within the last week that they took huge comfort from reading my stories, because they never felt comfortable in admitting that their own parents had suffered debilitating mental health issues. They’ve said that they could identify with some of the issues, because their own parents had issues that they could relate to. I’m lucky, because my mum was so physically obvious with her issues and there was no question that I was the little girl with a crazy, mad mum. However, what about the kids who I grew up with who never felt that they could admit to a mum, dad, sibling or close friend who was going through similar issues? They didn’t have my voice and although much of the taunting and bullying from other kids with cries of “Ding dong, Bell dong, your mum’s head’s wrong” was hurtful at the time, I’m starting to realise that I was one of the fortunate ones. Imagine being caught in the silence of a taboo where admitting that you had a crazy parent was driving you into your own destructive behavioural patterns? At least I knew where my odd patterns were coming from and my teachers, friends and occasional foster parents understood to a certain extent. I’m overwhelmed by the honesty of some of my closest friend who, up until my own mum died, have never felt that they too could admit to having mental illness in their own families.
Are we all scared that we’ll turn out like our crazy parents, so keep a lid on it just in case?
Or are we worried that in some way we will be tarred with the same bonkers brush?
My mum would be totally thrilled that her life has generated the confidence in people to open up about the issues that affected their parents, but more importantly about how that impacted on their own lives. Mum was extraordinarily generous (trying to give her house away at times, or putting all her fivers from her pension into a surprise photo album for me when I went to visit), so the fact that sharing her stories is now helping others would be making her laugh and give her the most enormous sense of achievement. And there are so many stories out there, I’m tempted to start a podcast and give a voice to people who, like me, loved their parents, but were afraid to admit quite how unwell they were. Would you listen?
It feels like this is our time. It’s time to speak out, share and compare. Because all the strange rules we made for ourselves at the hand of parents with issues can be un-picked and put to rest if we talk it out. Maybe. And you know me … I love a good talk and speechlessness doesn’t really suit me.
A huge thank you to my wonderful friend Nick who sent me a beautiful condolence card with a message slip inside which is now carried wherever I go – “Be the voice, not the echo”.
Let’s get this out into the open and my goodness, we’ll be laughing by the bucket load and helping so many people who might not be brave enough yet to surprise us all by their own stories.
I’ll tell you another time about how Mum implied that all my friends were planning a surprise party for me, so I shouldn’t make any arrangements. I deliberately stayed in, chuckling at the thought of having to feign surprise and waiting for the masses to turn up only to realise that at around midnight it wasn’t going to happen as it was one of Mum’s flights of fancy. We shared a glass of wine together, however and that was enough – especially as it was a bottle of something rather brilliant, rather than her usual bottle of cheap plonk.
Rest in peace and out of pain, you wonderful woman, I love you and so do hundreds of people who’ve never met you.
Buzzing traffic noise and a softly snoring dog woke me this morning and Mum’s voice was saying “it’s so beautifully sunny, get out there and enjoy it. Do you know that Bognor is the sunniest place in England?”. She also told me that she was peaceful and that tears are a waste of water. She was humming Danny Boy and that twinkle in her eye told me that she was about to start a new adventure somewhere very different, with new friends and out of pain. I know her voice will always be with me and a precious friend told me that it will continue to be with me whenever I think of her and whenever I need to take a new perspective on life. My question will always be from now on “What would Mum do? What would Mum say?” And I know that the answers will always be left-field, incredibly insightful and will make me laugh. I’ll also be giggling through shielded eyes, imagining her fearless pursuit of things she simply wanted to do – no rules, no protocol and no motive apart from love and a fascination with the world around her. It’s what she’s always done and I have no doubt that her wonder-filled wisdom and wacky sense of what’s important will see us through. And I’ll always feel her hand in mine, squeezing me so tight it made her laugh at my comedy pain face.
My precious Mum’s life is going to mean something and my dream of creating a platform for people to discuss growing up with a parent with mental health issues feels closer than ever now. I’ve asked Mum what she thinks about that and her answer is that she finds the whole thing hilarious, because who would take any notice of what she did in life? I’ve told her that over five thousand people are interested and they read about our love story every couple of weeks. She would have found that preposterous and of course she’d admonish me for going on the web – “spiders live in those, Sonia darling” (her actual words about ten years ago). As I was taking my brother back to the station for his return journey to London this morning I asked him what he thought she would be saying to us now. “Have a safe journey and get some proper sleep – I’m alright, my precious children, I’m alright”.
Mum – I’m looking forward to our future conversations and your life will continue to mean a lot to very many people who loved and knew you – and to many who continue to laugh at your antics and share their own stories.
I love you so much – it’s never going to be “loved” it’s always going to be love – the present – existing in the here and now. I know you’ll be keeping an eye on us and I look forward to your answers whenever I ask “What would Mum say?” Right now I reckon it would be “I’ve told you once already – get some sunshine on your skin, Sonia darling”.
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.
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 …
I met up with my best, best friend from junior school last week, thirty five years after we last saw each other. We’d lost touch and after decades of trying to find him via social media, his old home address and Friends Reunited, up popped his photo on Facebook a couple of years ago. Bronzed and cool, now living in LA. The years flew past and he recalled a story that he’s often told people about my crazy mum. She’d turned up unexpectedly at my new school where things were pretty fantastic compared to the other schools I’d had to join mid-term along with the taunts, jibes and non-acceptance from other kids. Nobody, it seemed, liked a newcomer, apart from my last junior school where my lovely friend waved frantically at me shouting out “Sit here. Sit next to me!” Whereupon the other kids tried to get me next to them, smiled at me and offered me sweets in the break. I don’t think I really believed it, as it was likely I’d be yanked out of school again when one, both or all parents disappeared and moved – again! There was my mum at the end of the school path, in the street yelling out “ooh, ooh, Sonia darling, ooh ooh”. I whispered to my friend “Put your head down as we go past and maybe she won’t spot us amongst all the other kids”. It worked and off we scampered, seeking out ice cream and making sure we were home at least an hour after our annoying parents had told us to be back. My poor Mum. She would have been desperate to see me, having only limited access rights after the divorce. She shouldn’t have turned up un-announced, but “shouldn’t” wasn’t really in her vocabulary. Typical Mum. She would have decided she wanted to see me, got herself to the school and done what she always did – draw attention to herself and in turn to me. Although Andrew and I were laughing about it, I was holding back invisible tears to think how upset and confused she must have been to see her precious daughter for a snatched moment and then lose sight of her again.
She’s had a habit of turning up unexpectedly and one that sticks in my mind was when she took me and my brother to a holiday camp when we were 13 and 11 years old. I was just beginning to understand the power that a smile, a busty frame and long blonde hair had over teenage boys. I hung out with Philip, the first boy who called himself my boyfriend, smelled of mouthwash, bought me flowers (carnations) and chocolates (Black Magic). His mate tried it on with Dairy Milk, but that wasn’t cutting it when I had Mr. Listerine. We decided to go to the fancy dress party one evening and I made him a bow tie out of a black bin liner so that he could be James Bond and I was his Bond girl with a borrowed long frock and my hair piled up high on my head. While we were all parading around the stage there came on stage a little figure with what looked like an oversized grey bishop’s mitre resting on their shoulders with rows of points drawn on one side and a big pair of eyes on the other. Walking very slowly and with hands outstretched in front it was obvious that the thing they’d forgotten to include in this bizarre head costume was a pair of eyeholes. The Redcoat saw this as an opportunity to test out his comedy skills as he slid over and smiled at the audience before making a joke of some sort. For those not familiar with the pantomime of British holiday camps, imagine Summer Camp with people in red blazers organising “Miss Lovely Legs”, “Mr. Knobby Knees” competitions and embarrassing themselves once a week with their own talent show. Well this guy was classic. “So WHO do we have here then?” he said, winking at the audience and knocking on the cardboard headpiece. Sounding like it was coming from inside a sock, a shrill voice shouted out “JJJJJWWWAAAAARRFFFZZZZ”. “Pardon?” said the Redcoat, dancing around the character and mugging to the audience. Again, “I’m sorry – WHO or WHAT are you?”. Now he was doing that annoying pretend laugh where people who really aren’t very funny at all double over and hold their bellies in mock hysterics. “MMMMM JJJJJWWWAAAAARRFFFZZZZ !!!”, louder this time and starting to sound cross. “I’m sorry, love you’re gonna have to do better than that, isn’t she, or he, ladies and gentlemen?” Now the crowd was laughing, as was I, in the way you see a braying audience shouting OFF OFF OFF when a hopeless hopeful tries to belt out a Whitney Houston number on Britain’s Got Talent. Exasperated by not being understood the character tore off the grey cardboard hood thing and shouted “I’m Jaws, you stupid man!” “JAWS? Did you say JAWS?” “Yes, JAWS you stupid idiot, fatty fat boy!”. Silence fell and a few feet shuffled awkwardly as people started sniggering or walking off in embarrassment. The figure had flowing red hair, pink cheeks from being inside the home-made Jaws head and I hid behind Philip in case she saw me. Mum had tried very hard to be original and funny in her inimitable way, but I was crucified with embarrassment and wanted to deny I knew her in that moment. Aren’t we cruel when we’re kids? Of course, we laughed about it a few years later and I’ve never been able to see the film without thinking of my little mum marching around with a cardboard Jaws head on. It was rubbish, truth be told and didn’t look anything like a shark, but it was the creative thought I admire when I look back. Other mums were pirates, fairies, cats or ghosts. Mum was a shark. Of course she was.
Andrew and I compared notes about our mums, early careers, loves, losses and what makes us tick. He lives in LA now and it’s my turn to go and visit him next time. I knew I’d be friends with him forever when we first met. He was warm, welcoming, smiley and kind. He apparently thought I was sweet, quiet and shy. Well, that was the coping strategy in a new school. Keep a low profile and perhaps they’ll ignore you and stick horrible notes on someone else’s back. It’s so life affirming to hear a friend saying “Wow – what a lot you’ve packed in to your life” and “How did you EVER get over that?”. Channelling my mum, that’s how. She was brave, creative and confident in her Jaws moment – all qualities she’s passed on to me whenever I try something new and plunge feet first into a new adventure. She still nags me when I see her. “You’re not getting enough sleep” is her current favourite one as she tries to convince the care home staff to make up a bedroom for me so that I can stay the night.
So when I rock up to Los Angeles International Airport should I wear a Jaws costume and shout “Ooh,ooh Andrew, ooh ooh?” He’d laugh, but I’m not sure about the LAPD … safe journey back across the Atlantic my precious friend and I’ll tell Mum all about our wonderful afternoon when I see her at the weekend on the South Coast where, thankfully, great whites are few and far between.
I called Mum earlier to wish her a happy 88th birthday for tomorrow.
“I’m NOT going to bingo – I hate it!” she yelled at me.
“OK, OK what’s the problem with bingo, Mum?”
“I HATE bingo and I WON’T go. And I’m NOT fat”.
A little bit of mental back-tracking and I realised that she was getting bingo and birthdays mixed up. Tomorrow she’ll be 88 and, of course, 88 is “two fat ladies” in bingo talk. She’s never been a bingo fan, but this number has obviously stayed with her, buried deep somewhere in her memory bank. She took me to bingo a lot when I was a little girl and I was hooked from the moment I won a beach ball at my very first bingo game on a seaside pier somewhere in the South Coast. It was magical; they shouted out numbers and strange phrases, people ticked off their numbers and you won a prize. It happened at the next game too. Double beach ball joy. I made up a poem that I’m sure must have driven her to distraction, but she never protested. It went something like this:
Bingo, bingo, bingo, a game with silly lingo, two fat ladies, legs eleven, win a beach ball and go to Heaven. Wordsworth would have been proud of me as I sang it all holiday.
The concept of age is obviously confusing Mum today. She told me that she thinks I’m 35 and Tony’s 38, so we’ll keep it there if it makes her feel better. I asked her how old she’d like to be and she said 33. It was the age she was when I was born. Aah, that’s nice, Mum. That’s such a sweet thing to say. “You were much easier to deal with before you learned to talk!”, then she collapses into peels of laughter as her carers jokingly admonish her in the background. “Don’t be mean, Margaret”, “Oh Margaret, that’ not a nice thing to say to your daughter”.
“Oh she doesn’t mind. She’s been around a long time. Fancy having an 88 year-old daughter! Who’d have believed it?”
Who indeed? All the fives, that’s who.
Happy Birthday, darling Mum xx