Today, I went for a routine yearly checkup, my first with my new Lexington doctor. I also asked him about a slight cough I have.
The doctor seemed like an able physician, a good and patient communicator, and a likeable guy. But my yardstick for the medical profession is Mom. Nobody is ever as thorough as she was.
Mom had studied medicine attentively. During the ’30s and the ’40s, she’d never missed a Dr. Kildare movie. In the mid-‘50s, when I was well into my single-digits, she kept up-to-date with the latest breakthroughs in pathology by watching Medic every week. She also had subscriptions to five or six different women’s magazines. Even though she religiously skipped the recipes and the household tips and the fashion spreads, she memorized every health article they published. Mom could rattle off ten things everyone needed to know about psoriasis, and five danger signals that your child was reading too many comic books. She also regularly thumbed through her much dog-eared paperback copy of Dr. Spock, in the hopes of being on guard against diseases she’d never heard of.
I was her star patient, a weeny who was always “coming down” with something, or “just getting over” something, or actually being sick with something. In our house, we were never just sick; we were always sick with something. Something specific, something that had a name. These titles were very important to Mom because in order to know the proper treatment, it was crucial that she correctly identify the illness.
“Mom, what do I have?”
Mom could distinguish between a bug and a virus, the grippe and the flu, “mostly allergies” and “a touch of the croup.” Her distinctions weren’t scientific; they were based on how often, how hard, and how far I sneezed. When she was really ensconced in Doctor Mode, we might even discuss the color and consistency of my phlegm.
A stuffed nose was usually the first signal that my body was under siege. I’d sit sniffling and snuffling at the dinner table, trying to reclaim my dripping mucus. Mom would scream at me, “Stop shnoobling it in.” I always thought “shnooble” was a Yiddish word. It wasn’t until I was eleven that I finally learned the truth: it was just an onomatopoeic nonsense term that Mom made up. It finally dawned on me that whenever I used “shnooble” in a sentence, nobody but my immediate family understood what I was talking about.
Dad would finally bang his coffee cup down and glare at me. With disgust in his voice, he’d yell, “F’Chrissake, where’s your handkerchief? Blow that damn thing, already, willya? ”
“I’m sick!” I’d answer. “Don’t holler.”
That was Mom’s cue to spring into action. She’d scrunch up her eyebrows, purse her lips, and rub her chin the way bad actors do to show they’re thinking. Then she’d ask me a battery of diagnostic questions.
“Do you have a sore throat?”
“Are you sure? Does it hurt when you swallow? Even a teensy little bit?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt at all. You wanna see me swallow? I can swallow all day if you want and it won’t hurt.”
“Lemme see if it’s red. Come over here in the light.”
I hated coming over here in the light. That meant tilting my head back at a torturous angle and opening my mouth wide enough for Mom to wheel a gurney down my throat.
“Do I have to? Can’t you just look from there?”
Dad usually jumped to my defense. I was fooled into thinking he did it because he was my pal. In reality, he just couldn’t deal with Mom’s professionalism.
“What are you, Honey?” he’d ask. “Dr. Jekyll? Just give him an aspirin and a handkerchief, f’cryinoutloud.”
But Mom had taken the Hippocratic oath, or, to be more precise, the “Good Housekeeping” pledge. As she grabbed me by the arms and pulled me under the light, she’d answer Dad. “Can’t you see I’m working here? Butt out.”
Then to me: “Your throat’s a little red. How do your ears feel?”
“Do you have an earache?”
Mom would jerk her jaw back and forth. “Are you sure? It doesn’t hurt when you go like this?”
“I told you it doesn’t hurt.”
“You’re not going like this. Go like this and then tell me.”
I’d give a couple of half-hearted yawns.
“So? Do your ears hurt?”
“Now my jaw hurts.”
“Well, that’s natural when you go like that. How about your ears? We’re talking about them.”
“They don’t hurt. They feel perfect.”
“Is your hearing stopped up?”
“IS YOUR HEARING STOPPED UP?”
“I was only kidding. I heard you the first time.”
“Lemme look in your ears. Come back here in the light.”
Mom would have eagerly eyeballed every orifice I had if Dad didn’t say, “Oh, leave him alone, f’Chrissake. He’s just a snotnosed kid with a cold. ” Dad was jealous of Medic.
“Honey, you’re not the doctor here. Go watch Million Dollar Movie, ’cause you’re not helping anything.”
One of the reasons that my parents had an effective relationship was that Dad always recognized a Mom order when he heard it. The next thing he was supposed to do was rise obediently, shake his head at both mother and son, mumble “it’s like a skit on Milton Berle,” and lumber toward the living-room couch. Which is exactly what he always did, even years after Milton Berle had gone off the air.
When he was safely out of the room, Mom resumed. “Your ears look waxy to me. When’s the last time you washed them?”
“Did you wrap your finger in a washcloth and go inside?”
“Which finger did you use? Not your thumb, right? And not your pinky?”
“No, just one of my regular fingers.”
“OK. Do you have a headache? Even a small pain above your eyes could be sinus.”
“Are you sure? You don’t have any pressure around your temples?”
“I have no pains anywhere, Mom. I feel great. ”
“Don’t tell me how you feel. Just answer my questions, because there’s a whole procedure. Lemme see your eyeballs. Look up at the light.”
“Do I have to? That really hurts my eyes.”
Mom was no ordinary medical wannabe; she was a specialist, a frustrated epidemiologist. Her next task was to make me tell her the names of every kid I had played with at any time during the entire preceding month. She’d order me to stay at the table, while she hit the telephone, calling around to all their mothers. It was critically important to her that she track down the culprit who had infected me.
“Hi, Rachel. How’s Shelley?” If Mom looked disappointed, I knew the other kid was fine. If Mom frowned somberly, but with a gloat underneath, I knew the other kid had something wrong with him, probably a fatal disease that I had caught. “Oh, that’s too bad. I think Larry’s got it, too. But we don’t seem to have any bowel problems here so far. Hold on.”
She’d cup the receiver in her hand, and ask me detailed questions about my trips to the bathroom. Mom made me describe my droppings as if I were an art critic; she was a master of fecal nuance. She never trusted my reports, though. Was I absolutely, a hundred percent certain that I didn’t have diarrhea? Was I positively sure that I wasn’t constipated, even a little bit? She always seemed to doubt my answers, as if I were trying to hide some fantastic secret up my rectum.
“Are you nauseous? Shelley’s nauseous.”
“I’m not nauseous.”
“Don’t tell me you’re not nauseous and then the next thing we know you’ll be throwing up. If you’re nauseous, admit it.”
“I’m not nauseous.”
“Does your stomach hurt?”
“Show me where it doesn’t hurt.”
“It doesn’t hurt anywhere.”
“And you’re sure you’re not nauseous?”
“I thought we already did ‘nauseous.'”
“I’m just making sure.”
Then she’d start rubbing her hand back and forth across my forehead as if she were trying to build up enough static electricity to balance a balloon there.
“You feel warm to me. I think you might have fever. Go pull your pants down and lay on your bed.”
Being medically evacuated from the kitchen was serious business, a sign that you were too sick to be cured by just an office visit.
In the time it took me to follow her instructions, Mom was able to find the thermometer, douse it with about half a bottle of alcohol, and glob it with enough Vaseline to grease all my internal organs. Then she’d take careful aim and shove it up my ass with such force that I’d imagine I could feel it coming out the other side.
“That’s not so bad, is it?”
“What hurts? Your head? Your ears? Your stomach?”
“Sorry,” Mom would answer, not lifting her eyes from her watch. The instrument had to be in for exactly three minutes, no more, no less. A few seconds either way could lead to a mis-diagnosis.
Whenever we played this scene, Mom wound up making the same amazing discovery: I had a whopping fever of half a degree above normal. She’d check Doctor Spock for corroboration on her evaluation.
“Am I sick?” I’d ask.
“Just a little cold,” she’d say. “We’ll rub you in with Vicks, and give you a spoon of Rem.”
My doctor today did his routine exam, then listened briefly to my chest. Unlike Mom’s inquisition, it took less than three hours. Although he didn’t suggest Vick’s, he did send me to the pharmacy to buy some recommended cough medicine.
“Is that it? We’re done?” I asked.
“Well, what else did you have in mind?” he countered.
I guess he didn’t need to know who I’d played with.