The mother, a confirmed hypochondriac as we all thought, had been complaining, for the last six months or so, of severe, stabbing pains in her chest. This had sounded so banal in comparison to her other litany of complaints that no-one took her seriously. Finally, she decided to go to the doctor as much out of a desire to spite us all by proving us wrong as out of a desire to actually get better. My father made an appointment for her to see a heart specialist and the following day, they went off together, my mother all the time grimly claiming that she would ‘show us’.
By the time they came back home, we had already started our evening meal. My father wore a worried look while my mother had a resigned look of painful triumph. Sinking onto a chair, she told us that she had a very serious heart complaint with a medical diagnosis of angina. Brutally, my brother and I remained sceptical until my father wearily confirmed the news. Our mother was in a weak state and must take things easy and above all, not get excited or fussed. To us, this sounded an impossibility as my mother, as well as being a hypochondriac, was also a highly excitable and fussy woman.
Later my father told us that we must do everything possible to help and we must not contradict her, even if she was in the wrong for fear of bringing her blood pressure up. My brother summed up the feelings of us all by announcing that it was a ‘quare one’ and then going out for a drink.
The novelty of having an invalid mother in the house, however, soon began to wear thin. We had to listen, repeatedly, to her account of the fateful appointment with the doctor when her worst fears were confirmed. The conversation between her and the doctor, when he told her the bad news, was related to us, word for word and with suitable facial expressions thrown in, so many times that I knew the whole story off by heart.
Along with the bad news she brought home a mixed array of colourful, assorted tablets, to help her sleep, to tranquillise her, to get her blood pressure down and to combat a possible heart attack. We were told, repeatedly, what would happen if she took too many tablets, or too few or if she swallowed one rather than sucking it and vice versa until we all began to feel that we were practically experts on the subject of her disease.
The once rich food that had formerly adorned our table now began to disappear. Instead of rich, cream-laden fresh milk, insipid skim milk powder appeared, yellow, creamy butter gave way to greyish margarine made out of vegetable oils while things like biscuits and cakes soon became a thing of the past. Mixed grill weekend breakfast disappeared too as did our Sunday roast dinners of shoulders of pork or succulent legs of lamb.
However, without doubt, the major disadvantage to having mother in this condition was the extra burden of work foisted onto our shoulders. From the moment the doctor had mentioned taking things easy, my mother had taken him at his word. The slightest thing was now too much of a strain – she dared not even pour herself a cup of tea because the pot was too heavy! – ‘you boys know my heart isn’t too strong.’ Any ‘little job’ she had been nagging us to do for the last few months finally got done – cupboards were painted, shelves put up in the shed, the hedges cut, and, in fact, everything that we had avoided doing now got done. Her most successful way of getting us to do things was for her to say ‘I’d do it myself but you know the doctor said … ‘ and her voice would trail away and we’d be forced by our guilty conscience to do whatever she wanted.
Another annoying little habit brought on by her angina was the breakfast anecdotes. These were an account of the trials and horrors she had suffered the previous night, how she would wake up ‘nearly smothering’ and then find she hadn’t got the strength to suck or swallow, as the case may be, one of her tablets after she had spent agonising minutes looking for them. Alternating with this account was ‘I’d be there in the darkness, panting, unable to get my breath, trying to fall asleep and I’d be so worried that I’d bring on my symptoms.’ Each account always ended with ‘you’ve no idea how terrifying …’ and she would leave the sentence hanging in mid-air so that we could judge for ourselves how terrifying it was.
One morning, however, we got a bit of a shock when, instead of the usual anecdotes, there was a new one – She had woken up and felt as if a great weight was crushing down on her, her breath coming in short gasps, she had tried to call out but no sound came, finally she had managed to take one of her tablets and eventually began to feel better. This break from the ordinary alarmed us a little bit but it was never repeated so my brother concluded that mother had brought in this story to see if it suitably impressed us and, seeing as it hadn’t – we always kept poker-faces when she was telling us of her trial of the previous night – she quietly dropped it.
Looking back on it all, I think the worst part of it all was the ‘martyr attitude’. This came about whenever mother felt the we weren’t being sympathetic enough. She would then start off her conversation, particularly if a visitor was present with ‘Of course, I can’t expect to live forever …’ or ‘I’ve had a happy life and …’ or, best of all, ‘everyone has a cross to bear and I can only thank the Lord that mine is not a heavier one.’
Far from gaining sympathy, except from foolish visitors who did not know any better, we ignored her as much as possible when she started down that track for she knew, as we all did, that she led a normal and reasonably healthy life and certainly never missed out on anything she felt was important or that demanded her presence.
As my brother pointed out, the best thing was that we all learnt the if we ever had to live as hypochondriacs, we would at least know all the tricks of the trade.
True to form to the very end, mother outlived my father by almost 25 years – he died of a massive heart attack in the garden one summer evening – eventually succumbing at the grand old age of 97.