The last of November, 2010, my youngest sister Norma and I took our first train ride down the east coast to Maryland to attend our oldest brother's funeral. We arrived in Baltimore on Sunday and upon booking into our hotel that we nicknamed "The Taj Mahal of Baltimore," we rented a car and drove out to our brother's home in Millersville to offer our condolences to our sister-in-law.
After spending a short time at Walt's house, we decided to drive back into the city and have an early dinner. It was during dinner that I noticed that I had the urge to cough that I'd never had before. As we were eating, I noticed that my sister had started coughing too. "Well, that's nice." I said to her. She looked at me and said; "What are you talking about?" "Haven't you noticed that both you and I are coughing?" I asked. "Now that you mention it, I guess you're right." She replied. "We can stop at a pharmacy on the way back to the hotel and get some cough drops if you want."
However, on the way back to the hotel, we got to comparing notes about Walt and what he was like as a little boy and we sailed right past all the pharmacies. We showered and slid into our beds and fell instantly asleep, dreading the coming morn when we'd have to face a very tough day. But, sleep was not to be had as one would slip into sleep and then be jerked awake by the urge to cough and cough and once the urge subsided, fall back into a fitful sleep and the other one would take over. This was repeated over and over until we were more exhausted than when we'd gone to bed.
Need-less-to-say, when our wake-up call came promptly at seven the next morning, Norma lifted herself up on one tired elbow, stared at me with bloodshot eyes and asked; "How are you feeling this morning Toot?" I rubbed my bleary eyes, coughed a few times and said, "Do you want the truth or should I jist lie?" "Never mind, "she replied. "You don't have to tell me, I can plainly see. It's dog shit, right?" "I always did say that you were a fast learner sister." And I lay back again my pillows as I watched her cough and cough and then the urge overcame me and I joined her in our terrible lung affliction.
Finally, we had survived our terrible ordeal of having to say goodbye to our brother and were again on the train for the return journey back to Maine. As we were boarding the train, I was once again overcome with the terrible lung wracking cough and after coughing into my tissue several times. I noticed that the press of bodies of strangers around me had let up a little and I surmised that everyone around me, upon hearing me cough, feared some terrible plague was upon me, and suddenly, their need to rush onto the train and down the aisle to find a seat, wasn't so pressing any more.
Norma and I, pulling our luggage, staggered down the packed aisle towards a seat and no sooner were we nearing it when another passenger, coming from the opposite direction, would drop into the seat, leaving us panting and coughing. Norma turned around looked past me and said, "Toots, let's go back up to the front and sit there." "But we can't sit there. Those two seats are reserved for people with physical handicaps." I told her. "I don't care!" She snarled. "All the other seats are taken and we've got these coughs! We're handicapped!" and she pushed me backwards towards the seats.
Just as we shoved our luggage into the corner and dropped into the seats, the conductor slid open the door that separated the train cars and as the door closed behind him, he eyed us, snapped his fingers and demanded; "Tickets!" We handed him our envelopes and he deftly extracted our tickets, punched a hole in them and said in a superior voice as though we were imbeciles; "You do know these seats are reserve for the handicapped?" Wiping her mouth with her tissue after another lung damaging episode of coughing, Norma, ever the lawyer, met his steely gaze eye to eye and said; "We are handicapped!" The "Train Nazi" took a visible step back, slid his brown eyes over both of us and capitulated. "Well, if someone in a wheelchair on any of the upcoming stops, boards this train, you two will have to move!" My sister smiled sweetly in his direction and replied; "We'd be happy to do that, wouldn't we," and she turned to look at me as another wracking cough roiled through my tortured lungs. I nodded my head and stifled the urge to cough again.
It seemed as though we were taking turns coughing as we sat through the never-ending journey up the long east coast to Maine. The train plodded along, rocking from side to side, stopping every now and then to allow passengers to board and leave the train and as we sat together talking and coughing and coughing and talking, I noticed that fellow passengers had stopped all conversation to watch us and our coughing. Periodically, one of us would get up to go to the restroom or to the lounge to get food or a drink, and as we made our way down the aisle, the other passengers would nudge each other, or point at us indiscreetly and whisper or gossip. It appeared that they all thought that we were escapees from a tuberculosis asylum. We, evidently, were the free entertainment on the long journey north.
After about eight hours of riding the lurching, rolling, jerking train, we finally pulled into our final destination of Portland, Maine and we grabbed our luggage and stumbled off that thing, glad to finally have our stumbling feet back on good old State of Maine soil. A blast of frigid air hit us in the face causing another round of coughing. Even though our sojourn in the south was a short lived affair, we'd quite forgotten about the cold and snow that was awaiting our arrival at home.
We threw our luggage into the trunk and Norma started the car, paid the parking fee and off we sailed, up Interstate 295 towards home. I'd called ahead and Leo was waiting in Lewiston to pick me up. I thanked my sister, kissed her goodbye and waved as she drove out of the parking lot for her home in Winthrop. The last I saw of her red head was her hanging onto the steering wheel for dear life as another spasm of coughing took hold of her.
Leo and I discussed the aspects of my brother's funeral all the way home and every time the cough took over, he'd cast a long glance in my direction. Once we were home and I'd had a nice long bath and eaten, he commented about my non-ending cough. "Honey, how long have you had that cough?" "Ever since I left home three days ago." I answered. "Well, I don't like the sound of it." He said. "You should call the doctor tomorrow and get that checked out." "Well, Norma has it too. We must have caught a virus on the train because the train wasn't all that clean. It will probably go away tomorrow." And off he went to sleep.
My first night at home was the same as in the hotel in Baltimore, sleep, cough, sleep, cough, sleep, cough. Finally, sometime in the night, I felt Leo's hand on my shoulder, "Honey, you really sound terrible. Do you have a fever?" I rubbed my hand across my brow, but nope, no fever. "I told you I just have a cough that all." I told him as I turned over and tried to fall asleep. Well, if you don't call the doctor by tomorrow, I'm going to call her myself!" he threatened as he went back to sleep.
The days passed and I still didn't call the doctor. My sister and I called each other each morning and we compared notes on our never-ending coughs. It seemed that each time we thought it was finally going away, the very next day, there it was again. I did go to the drugstore from week to week and purchase several different kinds of cough medicines but none of them really stopped my coughing. Some made me sleep really well though and I sucked so many different kinds of cough drops that my tongue felt pickled! Christmas came and went along with New Years and all that embodies and both my sister and I still had our coughs. About the middle of January, I was becoming worried that I'd contracted more than a common cough and I made a promise to myself that I'd make an appointment to see my doctor but I didn't. Leo came home and said that one of his workmates had a cough that wouldn't go away like mine and that his doctor had told him that it was the kind that lingers. Mine's been "lingering" for over two months, I thought to myself. It should go away pretty soon.
Then, about a week ago, we'd gone to bed and after a prolonged bout of coughing, Leo rose up on one elbow, peered at me through the darkness and said, "I've had about enough of this!" "Do you realize that you now have a loud whistle at the end of every cough?" Irritated by his bossy tone, exhausted from lack of sleep, ashamed that I hadn't had the brains to cal the doctor, I, through whistle-punctuated coughs replied in a snarky tone to my better half; "Well, my cough and whistle can't be any worse than your friggin loud, incessant snoring!"
The battle lines were drawn and Leo took himself off to the Wal-Mart Pharmacy bright and early the next morning and after a lengthy conferral with the pharmacist, he came home with the magic elixir; Robitussen DM. He withdrew the dark brown bottle out of the Wal-Mart bag, held it up for me to see and announced in a very snarky, superior tone. "You do know that you've been buying the wrong cough medicine all along, don't you! Do you have a cold?" He eyed me like I was a kid in kindergarten. "No." I answered. "Do you have a fever?" I shook my head no. "Do you have mucus?" Again the answer was no. "Well, I had a nice talk with the pharmacist and he told me that that this is what you really need." "This should take care of your dry cough." And with that announcement, the lecture was over. He thrust the bottle into my hands and waited till I'd read all the instructions. I did as the instructions said, (for relief of a nagging, persistent dry cough, take one teaspoon every three hours.) "Well," I thought to myself, "Maybe he's right. After all, all the old remedies that I'd tried hadn't worked, maybe this medicine would! I twisted off the cap, poured the red liquid into my spoon and slurped it down. I gagged, coughed a couple of times and then wiped my mouth on a tissue. Leo, with the look of a zealot who has discovered a cause, eyed me and said; "You'll see, by tomorrow morning, you won't be coughing anymore! " "God only knows but I hope you're right!" I told him as I drug my tired body off to bed, anticipating a much needed good night's sleep.
Well, I hate to tell you but that friggin expensive medicine didn't work any better than the ones I'd bought. In fact, it gave me a stomach ache so I now had terrible gerd to contend with, but I didn't want to tell him that. After another night of little sleep and body wracked by coughs, I drug myself out of bed and into the kitchen. I opened the fridge, grabbed my old Nyquil cough medicine, took a long swig and put the bottle back in the fridge. Then I set about making Leo's breakfast thinking that once he was out the door for work, I'd take myself back to bed to maybe sleep and maybe the friggin cough would finally go away.
I kissed my husband goodbye and closed the cellar door. Since it was only a little after four am, I had plenty of time to have some peace and quiet before he was due home from work at two thirty that afternoon. I crawled into my nice warm bed and just as I was about to drift off in a cough medicine induced coma, the terrible urge to cough once again crawled up my throat. I threw back my covers and stumbled into the dark kitchen. I pulled open the drawer where I kept the cough drops and scrabbled in the drawer for one. But, there was none to be had. "Oh, no!" I exclaimed to myself. "Don't tell me that there aren't any more cough drops!" I pulled the drawer all the way out of the cabinet and dumped all its contents out on the counter. And amidst the papers and other stuff was one lone Luden's cough drop! I grabbed that little paper wrapped gem and I stumbled back towards the bedroom to go to bed.
Just as I reached the bed, I stubbed my big toe on the foot of the bed and my precious cough drop slid out of my hand and under the bed! I couldn't believe it! I knelt down and lifted the edge of the bedspread and looked for it, to no avail. Then, I saw it, just out of reach, resting up against the edge of the wall right under the head board. Try as I might, I couldn't reach that cough drop and I couldn't move the king sized bed all alone either.
One would think that I, being a person of some intellect, would have gotten up, gone and gotten our yardstick or the broom and within a matter of seconds, have swiped that little sucker out, popped it into my mouth and so to bed. But, oh no, sometimes the simplest things can't be done! Not having slept for so many nights that I'd lost count, brain addled and bone weary, I wasn't thinking clearly. I lay down on the floor and pulled myself slowly under the bed until my body was a little more than half under the bed. I stretched out my hand and grabbed the cough drop and began to push myself out from under the bed.
It was then that I felt a sharp pull in my tucked up hair. "Oh God!" I thought to myself. "Now what?" My hair was entrapped in a spring from the box spring! I tried to bring my hand up to untangle my hair from the wire but there wasn't enough room for me to do that! I was stuck, all alone, at home trapped under my own king-sized bed! After another bout of coughing brought on by a panic attack, I finally talked myself back to normal thinking. "Okay," I counseled myself. "What would a smart woman do in a situation like this?" I wracked my addled brain to no avail. I just had to face it; I was trapped there until Leo returned from work around two thirty. I lay my face down on the floor as close as my hair entrapment spring would allow and went to sleep.
I slept the sleep of the dead what with all the cough medicine I'd taken shortly before I'd been stupid enough to crawl under the bed for that friggin cough drop. I never heard a thing. I never even heard Leo arrive home at two twenty-five either. I heard somebody yelling my name and the sound of his panic-filled voice shocked me so that when I tried to life my head up to answer him, my head hit the metal bed frame with a solid thwac and the pain made me drop my face back to the floor. I felt my nose; forehead and chin hit the floor at the same time and a searing pain rocket thru my scull. It hurt so bad that I couldn't even answer him! I wanted to tell him to leave me alone until we'd found a way to untangle my hair from the spring but he was too panicked. He grabbed me by the feet and I felt a sharp tug on my ankles. The next thing I felt was my hair being ripped out of my head and then I was being pulled out from under the bed!
I opened my eyes and looked into the shocked face of my husband. Leo was looking at me in such a strange way that it scared me and it was then that I became aware that I must have been scaring looking too! I pulled myself up enough so that I could lean against the bed and then I felt a warm trickle sliding down my face! I brought my pajama sleeve up to my forehead and wiped it across my face and was shocked to see the blood on my sleeve. Then, I realized that my nose was pulsating and didn't feel at all right and as I gingerly touched my chin, it too didn't feel quite all that good! Leo sat down on the floor and kept apologizing about having pulled me out from under the bed and then I remembered why I been trapped under the bed in the first place. My Hair! I brought my hair up to where I normally pinned my bun and found that my bun wasn't so full any longer. So, I bent my head and looked under the bed and there, still swinging back and forth was a large clump of blond hair! I lifted my hand and found the fifty-cent sized bald spot that was waiting there. When I showed Leo my bald spot, all the color drained from his face and he looked sick. "Oh well honey, never mind, it will all grow back!" I consoled him.
I picked myself up and stumbled to the bathroom to have a look at myself in the mirror. My forehead was bruised and bleeding. My nose was slightly askew and my lower lip and chin were slightly swollen! God didn't I look a mess! I turned sideways and inspected my bald spot and thought about how I'd have to twist my hair in another way to cover it. I drew myself a bath and after bathing, I walked over to my bed and crawled in.
As I lay back in my nice, clean bed, Leo came in to the bedroom with a cup of hot tea. "Honey, why in the world were you under the bed in the first place? " He asked. So, I told him about the last cough drop and how I'd tried to retrieve it. "Well, are you now going to call the doctor and get something for that cough?" He demanded. I thought about it and I promised him I would. But not until my forehead clears up, my nose stops creaking when touched and the swelling on my lower lip and chin goes down!
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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