Words and Numbers

Mum says, when I call, that the print in her book is too small; it makes it hard to read.  Her eyes are getting tired, she says.

‘I’m sure it’s not because I need new glasses’ and she sounds worried – needing new glasses, now, in the midst of a pandemic, when you’re almost eighty, would layer the obstacles in all this up.

I don’t want anything to challenge mum’s reading – anything else – it’s such a precious occupation and has been so hard fought, a laboured, frustrating clawing back of a skill she learned as a child.  Now, when she reads, it’s as if you’d put all words in the world into a colander and were trying to push them through the holes. They mostly squeeze through in the end, the little ones with greater ease, faster, but it can be arduous and is always slow. Sometimes the effort leaves her head spinning, quite literally: ‘when I look at the words, they all dance about dizzyingly, as if they have a life of their own’, she told me one day.

It means that often the stories are lost on her. By the time she gets to the end of a passage or a page or a chapter, she often doesn’t recall what happened at the beginning, who’s who. It strikes me as odd that she persists with her reading, that she apparently enjoys it, despite this – despite this not always following the thread of things – until I remember that mum’s reading before was often for the love of the words as much as the narrative itself.

‘Listen to this’, she’d say, and she’d read a bit out, ‘hasn’t she said that well?’  She always read with a dictionary at her side; she wasn’t just hungry for language, she was hungry for new language which lent different flavour to her usual tastes.

‘Find another book, ma’ I say, ‘one with bigger, clearer print, one that’s easier to read, and then read the blurb and if you like the sound of it, read the book.’

She is pleased with this suggestion. – ‘oh, that’s a good idea’-  Though I hate that I am having to prioritise the mechanics of reading – the seeing the letters clearly – over language. 

I have learned to try to minimise mum’s handicaps. Partly for her. Partly for me.

‘Oh, I’m always forgetting people’s names’, I’ll say to make her feel better because she often can’t remember mine.

Now I say, ‘I battle with small print too – even with my glasses!’ And I laugh.

‘Do you really?’

She tells me that until recently her vision has been very good. Perfect, she says. Her sight, she tells me, as if it might be news, only deteriorated a couple of years ago, ‘that’s when I started wearing glasses first’.

She has worn glasses for years and years, long before her stroke five years ago which wiped out her right sided vision altogether.   She kept bumping into things then, blindsided, and often this prompted furious, frustrated tears.

‘Her brain will learn to compensate for her loss of sight on that side,’ her doctors in rehab assured me.

They were right, it has, there are less accidents now. And the tide of her memory loss means, mercifully, she does not remember what she cannot see. For the bumping and the banging and the dropping and the side swiping of a dozen mugs left to her right to the floor where they smashed into smithereens made her feel clumsy, stupid, ‘oh bloody hell! Not again. I’m so sorry’ she’d say on the verge of tears as I patted and consoled and went to fetch a dustpan and brush. 

When did you start wearing glasses, she wants to know.

Gosh, I say, years ago – ‘when I was about forty.’

Mum falls silent then and I can her computing our connection. I imagine a counter in her head ticking backwards, too fast, then slurring to exaggerated slowness. Fingers on an abacus, sliding beads left to right and back again. It’s as if the timelines in her head have scrambled the meaningful numbers of her life just as her brain injury has scrambled words on a page. Scrambled them and knotted them and stretched and concertina’d  them into crazy shapes so that all perspective is lost. 

It’s why she thinks she’s only worn glasses for two years. 

It’s why she thinks she is at least ten years younger than she is.

It’s why she often can’t believe I’m her daughter: I’m too old: the maths just doesn’t add up.

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