I remember looking around the emergency room at the other helpless, incredulous faces there – Pauline, Patsy, Kenny, Joe, Anne, Catherine, Marie and May – while medical personnel fussed around this lifeless,vaguely familiar form stretched out in our midst. Even then I didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation. I saw the two paramedics who had spent a considerable time with Hugh at home. I remember thanking them tearfully for saving his life. I know now why their reaction was more sheepish than proud……..
It was taking such a long time for Hugh to regain consciousness but surely it was just a matter of time………
‘Are you his wife? Are you Mrs McAlinden ?’………
This looked like the man who was going to make it all better.I was way ahead of him. I could see myself smiling as Hugh came round ; weak and giddy with relief as the doctor said ‘That’s him – he’ll be fine now.’……….I could see the tension slide off the faces of those who had rallied to our support; their looks of stage fright at being catapulted like unwilling actors onto the stage of an unscripted drama, melt into merciful normality….. ……I could see it all in my head ..any minute now and then we can all go home…..Hugh?….
I seem to be an onlooker at this impromptu performance and yet everyone is looking at me………what……?………what was that the doctor said……?……he used the word flaccid……now there’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time………he’s lifting Hugh’s lifeless limbs as if to help me understand……..but I don’t understand……or I don’t want to understand………I only want to hear the doctor say that he’ll be fine…… those words I will understand……..because those are the words I want to understand………..Hugh……help me out here……Hugh !……..Oh that’s it !.!…….he cant hear us……he’s not wearing his hearing aids…………….Doctor, you’ll have to speak up ………you’ll have to speak a bit louder……..
‘Mrs McAlinden, did you hear what I said……… we’re removing your husband to Intensive Care.’ ‘It’s not too late then ?.’……..but my question had fallen on deaf ears………
We, none of us appreciate the gifts we have . Deafness is a curse. Of course we can express sympathy for the afflicted and try to appreciate their handicap but try is all we can do.We cannot ‘live’ the problem , we cannot feel the frustration and loneliness that is their lot. To be in the midst of a gathering and yet not feel included because the conversation is indistinct and the amplified laughter painfully confusing, is not ‘a good night out.’ To be hesitant in company because of one’s uncertainty as to the subject matter and have that silence misinterpreted as truculence or rudeness is pathetic and insensitive. To find it necessary to have to ask again and again for an item, a name, a question to be repeated is stressful and draining. That feeling of always being not quite up to speed for those whose forte is the quick response,the punchy one-liner or the whispered innuendo is downright demoralising. I know all this not because I have lived it but because I have lived with it.
On a one to one, in a family group or in carefully selected company, Hugh managed his deafness perfectly. At larger gatherings he would choose his company carefully relying on his experience and good judgement to find his own comfort zone. He had keen observational skills, including lip-reading, which allowed him to make extremely accurate assessments about people and situations. I was the one who could hear. Hugh was the one who listened with his eyes.
Now I strain to hear every waking moment. I listen for the sounds that were him : a cough, a sigh, a sneeze, the crunch of an apple, a cracker, the rustle of paper, tyres on gravel, Maria Callas, a ring-pull can, his touch on the piano, his voice saying my name . I listen but I cannot hear………………….
And what did you hear, Hugh, as you lay on your sick bed throughout all those long days of endless night? Was it only the voices of strangers speaking with clinical detachment about a body that was somehow no longer yours? Or did the light, soothing tones of the ministering angels who bathed you and brushed your hair into sleek and unflattering styles manage to penetrate the fog that engulfed you. Perhaps the sombre tones of those ‘men of the cloth’ who came to pray , to anoint and to forgive struck a chord deep in your very soul like a great unsung Amen. Who could tell what you were hearing. But I learned quickly how to listen to you with my eyes. I read your features avidly and could tell when you were sleeping and when you were not, when you were comfortable and when you were not, when you were listening and when you were not.
Hugh, Dad ,Papa. We called your name so many times, anxiously, lovingly, softly, desperately, and often in whispered despair. But you always gave us some little sign which, although dismissed out of hand by medical science, was enough to help us face the next hour and the next with a renewed hope. And we needed that. That and the love and support of family and good friends. Friends who are so much a part of our lives now even as they were decades ago. Friends near and special friends far away.Friendships chosen and woven deftly and vividly into the tapestry of our family history .
I was sitting in the canteen of the hospital one day when Anne came rushing over to the table, her face flushed with excitement.
‘Mum, you have to come up and see this. Mac’s here.’
We have known Mac for thirty seven years.Mac and Joyce. Names that have been a part of our children’s vocabulary since they were born. Such times we had in Dumbarton with Margaret and Jimmy, Anna and Tommy, Ann and Pat. Friendships forged in the early years of our respective marriages and cherished forever more. Teaching was the common denominator, St. Patrick’s High school for Boys, the common ground.
Four couples comprised the ‘Lanarkshire Contingent’ of the community, while Mac and Joyce had crossed the Clyde from Greenock. The Lanarkshire boys were already established as teachers, indeed Hugh was taking up a Principal Teacher post as were Jimmy and Pat. Mac on the other hand, being a good ten years younger than Hugh, was just beginning his new career. Hugh warmed to him immediately and I easily understood why. By 1972 each couple had gone back to their roots and to the business of forming new working and social relationships. But we never forgot Dumbarton. Indeed ‘The Bellsmyre Chronicles’ have been recounted many a time and oft between ourselves, among wider family and to newer friends.We continued over the years to make the journey down to Gourock for parties and weddings and christenings. The saddest journey of all was for dear Joyce’s funeral. She was full of life and she was only fifty.
‘Oh Mum, you should have seen Dad when he heard Mac’s voice.’……..
My heart began to pound as I half walked, half ran to Hugh’s room.
‘Maureen,’…….Mac’s deep brown velvet voice was questioning and tender and I could feel the tears welling up.
‘Mum, Dad opened his eyes when Mac spoke to him.’ Joe’s tired eyes were suddenly bright. ‘Speak to him again , Mac.’
So Mac took his old friend’s hand and spoke to him in the way he had always done and sure enough that voice, that distinct voice which Hugh never had any problem hearing, seemed to reach into a place, a space that stirred a precious memory or two. The eyelids flickered and other tiny movements in his body seemed to suggest a fierce inner struggle to respond .
I looked at Mac and he met my gaze. Mac without Joyce, Maureen without Hugh. No this can’t be happening. Speak to him again, Mac, speak to him again…….tell him that Margaret and Jimmy are here too…..we just need Tommy, Anna, Pat, Ann ……………………..and Joyce…………..and it’ll be just like old times………….