It has taken me most of my life to realise there’s more to listening than the mere act of listening itself. If that sounds gibberish, let me try and explain.
I think, though we are going a ways back, that I didn’t really get listening at all. I was reminded of this recently. You see, my mother kept nearly everything from my early years. At least it seems that way. Dad often articulated his frustrations about this when he said, ‘You know, Barbara if and when we ever move and empty that $%^&*( loft the house will spring off its bloody foundations.’ When she died I found boxes of stuff, one containing all my school reports. Even back as far as my nursery school in 1960 and 61…
Timid… inclined to watch the other children.. at other moments is too full of self confidence. I was four. I have a sharp memory of that school – the entrance hall where we hung our bags – I had a satchel – and the play room with an indoor slide. And I do remember being told off for sucking my thumb – I was watching a girl on the slide do something I couldn’t – I don’t remember what exactly. But I was watching, learning.
That was me – learning through watching. Rather than listening.
When I was seven, we used to listen to story time on the radio. Probably a 30 minute story. Our form teacher – a truly formidable woman with the outward compassion of Grendel’s mother and a blue rinsed hairdo that wasn’t so much permed as weaponised, Mrs Pritchard – would ask us questions. Early in the first term, maybe it was the first lesson, I drifted off. She ate me whole. ‘Listen to the story, Geoffrey…’ Even that far back the use of my full name spelt trouble. I learnt I had to listen to avoid being singled out. By Christmas no one was better able to recall those story than me. She stopped me putting up my hand I was so good. It was a lesson I absorbed well. I knew all about listening.
People learn in different ways: some by reading, some by writing notes and some by listening. My principle medium is listening. It seemed easy.
I married in 1984 and my spouse is a truly wonderful and remarkable woman. But she has one trait that I and the children have come to dread: variously it is called the ‘hairy eyeball’, ‘that look’ and ‘mama’s death stare’. It is a look to which you just have to listen. Words aren’t necessary. It is noiseless listening. Like listening to yourself or to the world around you or to the body language of others. I had been taught another part of the listening jigsaw.
In 2004 my father began to lose weight. He became anaemic. Shortly he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and secondaries in his bones and on one lung. He was initially given four months which with cunning medical interventions extended to just over a year. In the first days, post diagnosis, neither he nor mum heard what the oncologists were saying They had one question only: ‘how long?’ and nothing else; not the diagnosis and prognosis, the treatment options and interventions, none of it stuck.
That’s hardly surprising. They couldn’t hear. When I realised that, I asked to be allowed to come to the consultations; I hung around until I met all three oncologists and asked them to explain, in no doubt boring detail, what was going on. One thing emerged, for me the second most painful part of that whole grim experience after knowing dad would be dying soon. He had had many warning signs, many events, big and small which, had he related them to an alert professional might have revealed the cancer years earlier.
Had he done so, and given his overall excellent health, he would have lived for many more years. It is not far fetched to think he might be reading this now (and correcting my woeful grammar).
He listened to his body but he didn’t hear. More accurately he couldn’t bring himself to hear what it was saying because acknowledging the message – he was weak in areas he found too embarrassing to speak about – was a step too far. He was of a generation and of a personality type who couldn’t expose themselves in such a way.
I’m grateful to Mrs Pritchard – Mum always said she was a wonderful teacher – for instilling in me the capacity to listen. I am grateful to my spouse for showing me you need to listen beyond words. And I will always regret I learnt from my father the need to hear what I was listening to, even while he didn’t learn it for himself.