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
Mum wrote me poem about a rainbow when I was little. “Coloured bands of light are bending in the sky, beneath the world’s revolving as time and space go by, Shine my little angel in everything you do. When I dream …” and then the poem stops. No doubt Mum’s mind was distracted by whatever was happening around her or another thought hijacked the poetry space in her head. She rarely wrote verse and I treasure this little snippet.
There are rainbows everywhere at the moment; metaphorical, physical, edible.
We had rainbows over Bognor last week when the smattering of rain teased the tinder grass of the South Downs. Mum told me that everyone was wearing rainbows on the sea front. I probed a little further .
“Everyone’s WEARING rainbows, Mum? Maybe you mean SEEING”.
“No, Sonia darling, wearing. It’s like the sky has come down to Earth.”
Of course, it was Brighton Pride and the coast was full of colourful people in colourful clothes, sporting coloured bands and glitter faces. Mum recalled that she’d once written a poem about a rainbow, but had no idea where it was. I told her that I had found it amongst her things when I collected up all the precious jottings, ramblings and scraps of paper she’d stored up over the years. She’d moved on to a cheese-on-toast conversation pretty immediately, so the news of the archive preservation didn’t hit home. Then a week or so ago my wonderful youngest nephew brought the audience to silence before rapturous applause when he played “Over the Rainbow” at his end of school concert. I missed it, but could hear the notes when my family described how beautifully he’d played his trombone. He, of course, was nonchalant and dismissive – as children often are who have immense talent and no real understanding of their artistic power.
Tonight I’m celebrating this wonderful summer by creating a rainbow on the plate; my way of ensuring that we get the full range of nutrients and foods in one sitting. Mum tried to teach me this when she used every trick in the book to get me to eat. She made colourful bands of tomato ketchup, cheesy sauce, beetroot (yuck), peas (ok, peas were just about edible) and baked beans, telling me that as rainbows were the most beautiful thing on Earth, this was the most beautiful and tasty dinner ever, ever, ever. I wasn’t convinced and saw right through it. It was my way of protesting at her crazy antics – refusing to eat a mouthful, hiding food, stuffing it in boxes and squishing it into her old wellington boots. I appreciated the imagery of the rainbow, but after a few distracted prods and mixing it all up, the rainbow always looked like a pile of old mush. Poor Mum. She worked so hard to pay for food and I rejected it. It was a pretty effective protest though, as Mum always seemed at her most calm when giving in to my food refusals to cook bubbly cheesy toasts or crumpets with butter and strawberry jam. Writing this, I’ve just realised something. One of my signature “wow” dishes is rainbow mash; flavoured potato layers that burst with colour and flavour; bottom layer beetroot & horseradish, then a blue cheese layer, topped by pesto, then lemon, Cheddar cheese and a final sun-dried tomato layer on top. Thanks Mum – I’ve never made the connection until now. It’s too fiddly to make tonight and also a bit too hot as we’re still sweltering here in the UK. Maybe next week, after our weekend trip down to see her on the coast. The weather prediction? Sunny, cloudy, with light showers, so no prizes for what we’ll be looking out for.
Maybe Mum was dreaming about rainbows all those years ago. She would have been 9 years old when “The Wizard of Oz” came out and I know that she snuck out of her foster home to see it. “If happy little blue birds fly …” Hang on, wait … didn’t the Muppets say “somewhere you’ll find it, the rainbow connection”. I’ve just found it. Night night my precious Mum. See you at the weekend.