My mother has always lived on her nerves. A modern-day version of Pride and Prejudice's egocentric hypochondriac, Mrs Bennett, reality startles her and vague maladies are forever threatening to carry her off. In anticipation of this, and in the absence of a wedding (mine), she loves to discuss plans for her wake: “No tea, whiskey. The good stuff.” Rather than bleakly morbid, this funereal conversation is a great pleasure to those of Irish descent, but your own family's quirks always do appear a little weird to outsiders.
Mother would be delighted to hear she's in illustrious company. Charles Darwin was a bit of an adorable neurotic himself, keeping meticulous records of his flatulence. Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Anderson had a fear of being buried alive and traveled with a note that read, “I only seem dead.” Florence Nightingale, whose name is synonymous with nursing the sick and tending the wounds of soldiers in the Crimean War was actually a complete flake who spent the majority of her life convinced the Grim Reaper was coming for her. Bedridden for 57 years, she finally got his attention at the ripe old age of 90.
Hypochondriacs have been around since at least 1673, when Moliere staged a play called The Hypochondriac, during which he passed out, dying a few days later.
Harmless, if a little wet and wafty (like Linton in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, forever ailing and peevish), the truth is we're all hypochondriacs to a certain extent these days, thanks to the internet and the pandemic paranoia movie Contagion. Googling symptoms, enjoying the thrill of diagnosing ourselves with disorders with dramatic Latin names such as Toxoplasma Gondil (a parasite found in cat poo), its not G&T number five giving you that headache, its a pineapple-sized neoplasm pressing on your optic nerve. But no matter how special your ailments might be; in the face of galloping thrombosis and hot buttered ovaries – I guarantee you my mother is sicker, and funnier with it.
“I think I've had a stroke,” she said the other day. “I can't say the word, you know, for being in the army and marching.”
“Can't say it no matter how hard I try. Infant-ory. See? I'm a goner.”
It wasn't a stroke, thank goodness, but mother is lucky to be alive, what with the number of near-death experiences she's had (I'm sorry. If I have a fault, its a regrettable tendency toward flippancy). Heart attacks that turned out to be curry-related indigestion, hysterical blindness caused by sunglasses worn indoors. Reading a book by the heater one night, rising to make a cup of Chardonnay, she discovered her right leg wasn't working. “Brain, tell Leg to move!” she mentally pleaded, fearing a separation of her cogitative faculties, lights out upstairs. Not so. Her slippers had melted to the carpet.
Combine this with my capacity for breaking bones by falling over (I did my elbow in slipping in cat sick – bloody cats – and I broke my leg rollerskating home from a party wearing a too-tight cheongsam), we're on a first-name basis with the receptionist at A&E and a lady policeman who's convinced someone is hurting us in the home.
While a sense of your own mortality definitely develops with age, amplified by having to grab something to get up and the fact that bits that didn't used to have started creaking, most of us don't see a pale rider approaching with every twinge. For my mother, even housework has fatal consequences. Cleaning windows in the bathroom last week, standing on the sides of the toilet to reach the high spots, she slipped and both feet became wedged in the bowl. “I thought, 'this is the end for Lois.'” she said, picturing herself starving upright, undiscovered for days. Laugh? I nearly called a psychiatrist.
My Mother-in-Law is the polar opposite of a hypochondriac, a Presbyterian stoic. They'd have to be nailing down the lid, wolves eating her shins, before she'd admit things had come to a necessary conclusion. However, despite her utter rejection of life's temporary nature, she is, ironically, the kiss of death for sick friends. Visiting them in hospital, averring, “You'll be fine,” promising a full recovery – its usually the last thing they hear.
There has to be a happy medium. A middle ground between doom and denial. What they both need is a good talking to. And I will, I just need a wee lie down first, I'm not feeling very well.