Archive for February, 2016

Princess Smartypants

February 26, 2016

I see Mum gazing at my books, my house is stuffed full of them – from mum, from my grandmother – a nine foot tall bookshelf teeters in a hallway, dredged in memories and dust (and happily too high to reach it’s summit to do any cleaning). Her fingers lightly trace spines, as if she might suddenly pluck a title to read. But she won’t. Because she can’t.

It is a peculiar thing, teaching an adult to read. More peculiar still when the adult you’re teaching is the one that taught you.

I watch her staring at her iPad, struggling to make sense of an email. I register the concentration in a creased brow and occasional clucks of irritation.  She could resort to the text to speech option but she won’t. She may have forgotten it’s there to use, but more likely she doesn’t like the robotic voice which has no comprehension of grammar so that sentences run confusingly on and long. And it hasn’t got a clue about African pronunciation; nothing sounds right. Every place sounds even more alien.

I have downloaded Apps to learn but they deliver dryasdust lessons, the images are repetitive. Peter and Jane all over again. So we mostly avoid those.

Instead we do crosswords, one every day. And I print off pages of letter combinations, sh, th, ch, pl, br, sq, in a bid to help mum shortcut her words.

I speak to Dr L at UCL, a preeminent doctor in Mum’s condition. He explains that we – readers –  don’t have to break down words, we see the word CAT as a visual object  so that our recognition of it is swift and whole and automatic, but mum’s condition has robbed her of the ability to see it as a visual which is why she has to break it down into its component parts – C-A-T.   He tells me he sees one patient a year with Mum’s Pure Alexia – being able to write but not read; it’s rare, he says.

Tired of the Apps, I dig down low and deep in that nine foot bookshelf, crouched on the floor, and I unearth Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants.  It is one of hundreds of books Mum sent to my children when they were small. And curled up on a sofa with tea, she reads it to me, faltering over long words and laughing.

Because Princess Smartypants in the end, beats off all the suitors her parents have lined up, gives the last a kiss and turns him into a toad and proudly retains her status as a Ms.

Reading, no matter what you read, ought always be a thing of joy. It’s important to remember that. It’s especially important now.



Lessons Learned

February 17, 2016

Today Hattie is 19.  I remember her arrival as if it were yesterday.

A 9 am admission to Kettering General – to be induced – on a brittle English winter’s morning.

‘Walk to get it going’, advised my consultant.

So I did. Up and down the hospital corridors, up and down, hearing the arrivals of other new babies, witnessing the race to get early twins to Special Care, a boy and a girl, their mother’s first.

At 4 there was movement, by 4.10 there was a rush. Midwives strapped the foetal heart monitor to my belly, my baby was coming so quickly they used a marker pen to draw crosses on my tummy to keep up with her descent. Though, I didn’t at that stage know it was a Her.

There was a shout for extra hands, no time for pain relief other than gas and air, I clutched the mask to my face and pressed hard, so that the next day my eyes were black, in the other hand I gripped a midwives fingers (I felt mildly ashamed when I considered my reflection the following morning).

Hattie arrived 50 minutes after the first twinges, the cord wrapped around her neck, twice, her small face black with contusion, like a tiny cross boxer.

The speed of it all left me astonished – ‘oh boy’, I kept gasping, ‘oh boy’, no, no urged the midwives, a girl, a girl – and my little daughter traumatised; she was bundled off to Special Care, with the tiny twins, to warm her up, pump her tiny system of meconium, help her breathe.

I stared at her in her incubator. She looked too big to be here: a full termer against prems dressed in dolls’ clothes. Recovering, hours later, I slipped down to SCBU again and sat amongst the clicks and winks of monitors and the whispers of Special Care nurses and fed my daughter, I watched the deftness with which those nurses handled newborns, born too new, and an incredible peace washed over me.

I was 31 when I had Hat, my third. 25 when I had my first, my son, I had imagined that motherhood would play out as I had read in textbooks, the piles and piles that teetered on my bedside table, I had imagined, really imagined, he would only need to be fed every four hours. I perceived there ought to be Routine. There was not. There was only tears and hunger and not enough sleep: for either of us. At his three month check up, my paediatrician, a glorious old man sized us both up and said, ‘you’re both too skinny, give him a bottle’. I did.  He ate, slept, smiled, so did I.

When my eldest daughter was born, two year later, I told myself, I’ll get it right this time, I’ll Relax into motherhood. I tried but at less than six weeks my daughter grew so gravely ill that we were evacuated from home in Africa to hospital in London, her diagnosis a broad, but dangerous ‘failure to thrive’, she was unable to tolerate either my milk or formula. We spent four months in and out of the best children’s hospitals in London, her on a specialised, prescription diet until she began to gain weight, tolerate soya and then we flew home.

So Hat’s arrival was met with trepidation,  would it be ‘Third time never like the rest’, I wondered, worried.

And despite a distressing start, it was. Within days her facial contusion had subsided, she was feeding with the relaxed contentedness that I had read about but never witnessed in either of my other children’s early days. She slept, she ate, she found her thumb. She gazed with wide eyes around her and considered the world with a careful wisdom that has sustained.  And she delivered this extraordinary calm. I’d done this before, I followed my instinct, did what felt right, fed her on demand so that it no longer felt demanding, ate bread and jam and drank a Guinness before I went to bed to keep us both going overnight, kept her in a crib beside me so that I could reach out a hand to sooth her or a foot to jiggle her back to sleep.

Being a mother has taught me many, many things. With Hat’s arrival I had the confidence to understand that Routine really meant whatever worked for you and your baby and wasn’t a timetable prescribed in the pages of an Expert’s tome.  I threw the books away.

And I learned a new lesson: in the end, there’s no right and wrong in this job, there’s only the right way for you.


hat and I 2001