Some people say Whooping Cough with a W sound and some people say it with an H sound, like there’s no W there at all. Some people say pertussis to avoid making a choice, but—let’s face it—that’s a gross word and merely hearing it seems to thicken the coating of mucous in my throat. I discover, even sick as I am, that I hold firmly to my place in the W camp of Whooping Cough. An immigrant’s habit is to listen carefully in order to better parrot back correct pronunciation, but in this case I don’t. I won’t. A campaign over something petty—rather than say, the bid for vaccinations or antibiotics—seems appealing in its manageability. Something one could chant on the road without being met with violent protest at every turn: See the W, Say the W! When people say hooping cough I don’t look askance at them and counter by saying the word prefaced with a long-stutter of Ws, Bugs Bunny style. I could also add, just to be snarky: But you probably say Hut’s up, Doc? I don’t, but I want to, and the wanting makes me happy. How relievingly light and unimportant, this fuss over sounds. A simple W is a much-needed point of certainty surrounding all the unknowns that come with the whooping cough. I decide if—when—I get better I’m going to balance all the hooping coughs I’ve heard by adding W sounds to all kinds of random H words. And when my ball lands in the basketball whoop I shall cheer: Whip whip whooray!
Somewhere along the way I’m told that antibiotics I’ve been dreaming of, once we get them, won’t alleviate our symptoms at all. They will merely shorten our contagion period. As soon as I hear this I decide not to believe it. Uh Huh, I say, but when those two syllables are out I no longer remember what I’m pretending to have understood. Denial takes a lot of energy, but in this case relinquishing hope of feeling better takes a lot more. Give me snake oil or opium, lentil flour or willow bark–just don’t give me the word nothing. And don’t give me it’s kinder-wrapped variation: nothing but time. If you are reading this and you have whooping cough, I can tell you that the antibiotics, when we finally get them, do make us feel better. Maybe it’s coincidental timing and maybe it’s just a placebo effect. Possibly it’s my aforementioned refusal to surrender hope. But after the first dose we both feel a marked lifting in our throats, a discernible ease in our breaths. I refrain from gobbling the pills all at once. Hopeful doesn’t have to mean dumb. However, though the directions clearly say to take the pill at the same time daily, I dumbly and hopefully untwist the vial lid earlier and earlier every day.
Before we can get the medicine, though, I spend an very sick week lamenting the lack of drug dealers in the park who are peddling antibiotics. Have I ever witnessed someone casing a pharmacy without knowing, thinking he was just alert and twitching because of the long wait for his medicine? It suddenly seems incredible that I’ve never seen anyone leap the pharmacy counter, snatch some pills, and bolt for the street. It becomes easy to imagine a future in which really sick people rob pharmacies for the medicine they can’t get or afford. Pharmacies enclosed in bulletproof glass, sentries perched on the rooftops above them. They’ll make bulletproof versions of white pharmacist jackets, and sew into them hidden pockets for tasers and guns and daggers and arrows. Sick people will have to weigh heavily whether to risk their lives getting their prescriptions filled. And sometimes a pharmacist—deeply frazzled by yet another dispersal-at-gunpoint—will accidentally pinch a bullet from the countertop into a vial of pills.