Mummy,” I said as I walked into her room in the hospital. “How are you feeling today?”
She stared back with a querulous look on her face as if I’d asked a stupid question. “I’ve got a tube up my nose and my hands are tied to the bed. That apart, I’m on top of the world!”
I wonder if she realised how happy her children were to hear her satirical response? We assumed it was a sign she was returning to her old self. However, later that day, when perhaps sleep made her dopy, I panicked in case she was relapsing. So I unleashed a fusillade of questions to test her alertness.
“How many fingers?” I asked, waving my right hand. Mummy kept silent. “What’s your name?” I said, attempting a different tactic. Still no response. “Who am I?” I continued, a little desperate. This time she slowly opened her eyes and shot back: “If you don’t know at your age, you’ve got a problem Sunny Jim!”
After Mummy had established a reasonable foot-hold in the world of consciousness, the next test was eating. The doctors were keen to remove the Ryle’s tube but wanted to see a capacity to eat on her own before they took this step.
“I hope you’re going to eat properly?” I asked, unaware of the ambiguity of my question. “What do you mean?” she replied, almost offended. “I always eat properly.”
“No, I meant I hope you’ll eat with your mouth.” But my clarification only made matters worse. “Are you suggesting I’ve been eating with my feet?” We dissolved into laughter but Mummy wasn’t finished. Five minutes later, she reached for my hand and petting it to take the edge off her comment said: “You ask the most foolish questions. It’s not right at your age.” I’m not sure if that wasn’t a put-down.
“She’s making jokes all the time”, I said to Col. Bhattacharya, Mummy’s doctor. I was looking for confirmation this was a positive development. His answer explained what I had intuitively sensed.
“It’s a sign of many things. First, of mental alertness. Second, of wanting to participate. And third, of feeling happy.”
But I think I’m in a position to add a small footnote to the chapter on patient behaviour during recovery. The stage after wit and humour is what I call refusal to perform. It’s another, perhaps stronger, sign of self-assertion.
In Mummy’s case it occurred when we were playing a little game. I would voice the first line of a nursery rhyme and she would say the rest. After ‘Baba Black Sheep’, ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ and ‘Little Miss Muffet’, I tried ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’. That’s when it happened.
“I’m not a performing monkey, you know.” And with that she sealed her lips. No matter what I said, she wouldn’t speak. At least not until I started a more adult line of conversation.
Now, as Mummy gets better, I have to watch what I say.
A collection of Sunday Sentiments, More Salt Than Pepper (HarperCollins), is out in bookstores
The views expressed by the author are personal