It wasn’t immediately apparent to anyone that my mother’s eyesight was deteriorating. She was very good at covering such things as being nearly blind in one eye and close to it in the other. I don’t remember her saying she had cataracts, not until she’d been settled in her bungalow but she must have done so at some point because I do recall conversations with her about driving with such impaired vision. As you will recall from my previous two posts about Mum, trying to stop her driving had become something of an ambition that was constantly thwarted.
About her eyesight we had this sort of conversation:
‘Mum, if you can barely see, how can you drive?’
‘It’s my eyes that are changing not the roads.’
‘Well given the potholes we have out there I might beg to differ. But that’s not the point…’
‘Darling the doctor’s is in the same place, so is the supermarket and the WI hall. I know those roads backwards. And I think you are being rather discriminatory.’
‘I’m sorry? How do you reach that conclusion?’
‘Well you wouldn’t stop a blind man going to the shops? They often memorize the route, don’t they?’
‘But mum, I’d stop a blind person soon enough if they attempted to drive.’
‘Exactly. I’m not blind. Obviously if I was I’d stop.’
I tried, really but all I would be told was she was on the list to have the operation and when they were ‘ripe’ – how I loathed that way of describing them – she would have them done.
Finally, the optician agreed and she was booked in. By this point the glasses she was wearing – veri-focals – were enormous, like the windows in a bathysphere. I asked if she wanted me with her but I was told not. One of her WI friends would see her home. Fortunately with so many residents of a vintage hue – south Hampshire is not Costa Geriatrica for nothing – the operations were done at the local surgery.
In advance of the first operation – one eye would be done on the Monday; if all went well, the second eye would follow two weeks later – she arranged for friends and family to pop in. ‘Don’t come down specially, darling. You’re a busy man.’
I did feel a bit guilty but it was frantic in the legal world back then.
Mum was quietly excited: ‘It’s very clever. They’ll give me a long distance lens in the first and a mid distance one in the second. If I need help reading I can get some reading glasses.’ It all sounded grand. I just hoped mum had heard right. She was convinced that the operation would be a success, just like she was convinced most men were potentially useful if properly trained.
That said, I had found, before this, that when visiting a specialist my parents didn’t always hear what they were told; with Dad’s cancer, for instance, they were so stunned that I went to see the oncologists myself to understand what they had said and the treatment options. Mum and dad couldn’t process it for ages.
Anyway, she would have the first operation, have a cup of tea, be taken home and for two days keep the bandage on. They only time she took it off – it was there to stop her accidentally rubbing the operation area – was briefly, a couple of times a day to put in drops. Assuming the doctor was happy, the second operation would follow.
The operation went well. So far so good. On the Wednesday the bandage could come off. I rang for an update. ‘Well?’
She sounded low. ‘Disappointing if you want the truth. Everything’s still distorted.’
But Mum didn’t do low for long. ‘The doctor says sometimes it takes a while for the brain to adjust. I just need to be patient.’
We didn’t talk for long; I could tell she was upset. She had set her sights (sorry) on better vision. To be able to read again. I was due to visit at the weekend. Maybe things would have improved by then. I went back to the coal face and mined another contract.
Thursday about 2 pm. My PA appears at my door. ‘It’s your mum. She’s really anxious to speak to you.’
Honestly my heart fell. Neither parent ever rang at work unless (a) they were abroad and they’d been utterly discombobulated by the time difference or (b) it was an emergency.
‘Hi Mum. What’s up?’
‘My eye!! It’s working!!! I can see everything.’
I was a touch confused. Mum always got up about 7 am, as regular as a diet of fresh vegetables and exlax. So why not ring me first thing when she took the bandage off? Surely the improvement was so sudden it had just ‘happened?’
‘I’m such a silly.’ She almost giggled. Like a school girl. ‘I was just watching Grand Designs – that McCloud man is so irritating. I mean it’s not like he does all the hard work and…’
‘Mum your eye.’
‘Oh yes, sorry. Well, it was foggy. Not here, on the film. It’s a bit early for fog here though I expect if I looked at your father’s diaries I’ll find sometime when…’
She did gabble when excited. ‘Mum…’
‘Yes, so I thought I’d better clean my glasses, to help see in the fog,’ no I didn’t ask either, ‘and when I glanced at the picture the TV was clear. Well, of course I thought the fog in the film must have gone or it was just some bad editing but then I realised it was me. My eyes have suddenly started working.’
I smiled at the picture of mum and dad on my desk. Dad would have teased her rotten for not realising her mega-watt glasses were distorting her now perfectly good eye rather than helping. She knew that too but I was a young apprentice and had to be careful at exercising my teasing rights to the full. ‘That’s marvellous mum. Really. You can throw away the milk bottle bottoms you have for glasses then. I’ll see you Friday.’
As I walked to her front door, two evenings later I was smiling. This was good news. Mum always liked to open the door, even though I had a key, and give me an immediate hug. This one would be especially warm. I rang the bell and waited for her lovely fulsome smile.
The door opened to her already retreating back. Not a hint of a hug. ‘I need a word with you.’
Not happy. Not happy at all.
She stopped when we reached the kitchen where she stood under the first spotlight. She made me stand right in front of her and turned her face up to me. ‘You never told me I had wrinkles.’
‘I… er…. um…’
‘Why did you let me think my skin was still smooth? I’d have changed my make up, my powder.’
Her eyes were so bad for so long that she never saw the crêpy skin taking over from her once porcelain complexion. I was struggling, utterly out of my depth, so inevitably I kicked for the bottom… ‘You’re 82 mum.’
‘Isn’t the odd wrinkle to be expected?’
She turned for the kettle to make tea, expressing her disappointment in the lack of physical contact. ‘Why do you men always think you know how we want to look?’
Dad’s poem today is from 1945 when he was 18 and preparing for his first parachute jump before qualifying into the Parachute Regiment and being posted to the Far East to fight the Japanese (which never happened, partly explaining my ambivalent attitude to the dropping of the atomic bombs)
Waiting to Jump
We sat and smoked and waited
So early that summer morn
The sergeant chaffed, but no one laughed
We all felt pretty forlorn.
The cigarette smoke thickens
And we remember how to pray
For we’ve been told, should the weather hold
It’s our first drop today.
We’ve waited now for an hour and a half
“Oh God! Let it be soon
Or I’ll go nuts – will I have the guts
To jump from the balloon?”
“I wonder what they’re doing at home
Will they think of me today?
How I miss them all!” Then came the call,
“O.K. fellers, you’re on your way!”