I'm on the phone with my mother - do I ever see her in person? - and she starts coughing. It's a disrupt-the-phone-call cough. Finally she gets back to me. I say, suspiciously, "Are you okay?"
"Sure I'm okay. Why?"
"You were coughing."
"That wasn't coughing."
"It was coughing. I heard it. You nearly made me deaf."
"It was nothing. A little mess up on my inhaler. I'm supposed to take two puffs twice a day but I decided to take one puff three times a day and then I forgot the second puff so I went back on it and decided to do two puffs in the middle of the day and none at the start or end of the day. Once I straighten it out, I'll be better."
While I'm trying to do this inhaler math in my head, she starts coughing again, right into the phone, enough to bring over a nebulizer, or a ventilator. It ends with the sound of running water. I'm thinking, where is she talking on the phone? In the bathroom?
She comes back on. I say, "You're sick."
"Sick? I'm not sick."
"Ma, you're sick." I know this because, despite the fact that I'm nearly thirty years younger than her, we both have eighty-year-old bodies. We're health twins, asthma twins. We not only have asthma in common but now that I'm getting older we also have arthritis, osteoporosis and cataracts in common. Actually, with some of these things, I'm worse off than her.
And anyway, I'm an amateur doctor. I could have been a great doctor and could have gone to med school if not for that cadaver thing, and my grades in college, and the fact that it took me five and a half years to get my BA, and that even when I got my BA it was in History. But other than all that, I'm a pretty good amateur doctor. Just by the sound of that cough through the phone, I've mentally prescribed an antibiotic for my mother: Ceftin, 500 milligrams, twice a day.
This is a little bit of a switch for us since when I was a kid, my mother was the amateur doctor, but she wasn't a very good one. She only had one thing to cure us with: a whiskey compress. No matter the injury - from psychosomatic ones to broken bones, she puttered around in the kitchen, pulled out a schmatta (a rag), found some whiskey and Saran Wrap, and wrapped up the offending part in a stinking liquor tourniquet. Then she left us to steep in this cocktail on the couch alone, protecting us from further injury by isolating us from our six sisters.
This time, my mom's fighting off my diagnosis. She outlines her own plan, involving an elaborate dance with her inhaler - one puff here and one puff there, like perfume.
Or maybe she'll just make a really gigantic compress and wrap it around her lungs.